Composer John Eaton
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In July of 1990, composer John Eaton was back in Chicago, and we
arranged to have a conversation. As usual on these pages, names
which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.
While setting up to record our discussion, we chatted about several
things including his recordings, which is where we pick up the thread .
. . . . . . . .
John Eaton: I
don’t have any copies of any of my
records, I’m ashamed to say. I really don’t, except for some of
my early jazz records, which they gave me a good number of.
Bruce Duffie: On
those, are you playing other jazz, or your own jazz
JE: Some are my
jazz compositions, but I
was never a third stream composer. My work in jazz was always
why I believed in it for what it was. I think of it as a
vernacular language, and that the aims of it, the goals of it, are
very, very different from those of written music or composed
music. It’s what Virgil
Thomson used to talk about as
being the difference between a formal and a vernacular music. In
a vernacular music, the goal is to capture a
moment of experience, whereas in writing you’re somehow always involved
with defining values, defining some basic questions about the nature of
BD: Are you always
redefining the nature, or are
you expanding on the definition that you have arrived at?
both! With me, every time I start a
piece it’s a new adventure. It takes me a long while to get
started on a piece, and then I always write very, very quickly once the
image, the ideal of
what I am trying to do gets in my mind.
BD: So it has to
settle in your mind first?
JE: It has
to. I have to really decide what I
want the piece to be. In writing an
opera, this means you have the dramatic form and overall
musical form in your mind, then getting the libretto...
[Surprised] You have the music first, and then put the
libretto to it???
Certainly. Every opera I’ve written I’ve
begun with a number of musical ideas that somehow coexist with
drama. Then I’ll certainly find the subject that I want to
set. When chills come up and down my spine, I know I’ve found
it. Then it’s a question of getting a librettist to work on
it, and getting the libretto to be done to your satisfaction.
BD: Do you ever work on
the libretto yourself?
JE: I did once a
long time ago. When I was a student at Princeton, I wrote the
first libretto for an opera of mine called Herakles. The person who
eventually did the libretto for that opera is a poet, but probably
better known as an art critic, Michael Fried. [Michael Martin Fried (born April 12, 1939
in New York City) is a modernist art critic and art historian. He
studied at Princeton University and Harvard University, and was a
Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford. He is the J.R. Herbert
Boone Professor of Humanities and Art History at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore.] He
always keeps threatening to publish
my first attempt at a libretto. No, I just cannot
create with words at all. Writing a libretto is a very
special gift. It’s almost harder to find a good
librettist than it is to find a good composer. It requires really
knowing the effect of words from the stage, and very few
people have it. The only thing I’ve been able to find is
that people who are good translators are very often very good
librettists. Auden is a case in
point, as is Andrew
Porter. He did the libretto for my
opera, The Tempest. For
years, most of my librettos were written by an Irish poet who lives in
Italy by the name of
Patrick Creagh (1930-2012), who makes his living as a translator.
A librettist must somehow
have that ability to work freely with language and have a real poetic
craft, and also, to a certain extent,
be subservient to someone else’s vision.
BD: You say you
have a few ideas musical that come to you
even before any words are put down. Does that in any way
hinder the freedom of the words in their creation?
JE: Probably not
any more than it would with
any librettist at any time. The Ring
notwithstanding — when can argue back and forth
because some people are
convinced that Wagner is a composer first and foremost, and the
libretto is only a shorthand for his musical
vision — librettists have always had to
conform their ideas to the musical forms, or musical forming of a
dramatic idea, and it’s always the composer who’s the dramatist.
If Aïda had failed,
people wouldn’t have blamed Ghislanzoni (the librettist), they would
have blamed Verdi, of course!
BD: But as I
understand it, at least the draft form of the libretto is usually
handed to the
composer before the music begins to flow. I’m not a historian, so
I can’t really say what’s happened
throughout history. Those who were
practicing librettists in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries had a series of musical forms that they worked
with. They were well known to the composers, and the
composers would very often say they wanted this or that. Or if
they didn’t get this or that, they wouldn’t touch the libretto.
But more often than not it was the composer who made
the initiative in terms of drama. The libretto, to be sure,
is usually done first, but what I found in my case is that I’ll hammer
it out with the librettist, and if
there’s an important dramatic decision to be made, I always reserve the
right to say that it is
BD: Do you make
the decisions in tandem, or completely
JE: If you like
somebody that you’re doing the libretto with, it’s much more exciting
to work in tandem, and to talk about
ideas and generate excitement about dramatic ideas, and so on.
But in terms of the particular form those ideas will take musically,
that’s really the composer’s job, and the librettist really must
somehow perceive the dramatic vision of the composer... and
BD: Now you’ve
been obviously producing successful
operas, so is it safe to say that you believe still in the opera as a
really do consider the core of whatever I do as a composer to be
opera. I write a lot of chamber
music and music for orchestra, but I feel like my creative activity all
eventually flows if not into opera, at least big dramatic pieces of one
kind or another.
BD: So you will
write an orchestral score in a
dramatic fashion so the drama comes through?
Hopefully! [Both laugh] It’s all a question of what the
music is, and what you believe the nature of music to be. What to
me seems so special about music as an art and is unique about it
is that by its nature it’s the only art that begins with energy
itself. It begins with a very core of the way we perceive
the universe, and the way we function in the universe. It does
have to do with the energy or with
motion in the universe, and that motion within man immediately touches
emotion, and immediately touches drama. Opera has always been a
way of clarifying musical ideas. It’s a very funny thing.
Always the most adventurous
composition has taken place in opera — with
possibly the exception of
America for the last fifty years or so. In America, there is this
idea if you turn to opera, you’ve got to suddenly become more
conservative. That’s absolutely silly because dramatic ideas are
what clarify musical impulses, musical form, and
humanize it in a certain sense. Opera and other dramatic forms
have always been the way
composers have tried out their new ideas, and then later have turned to
abstract music, working with the
same ideas once they’ve been given a certain meaning. This is a
broad generalization and I’m sure there are lots of
exceptions, but nevertheless, it generally has
been the case, as I say, except for this very sad situation that we’ve
BD: Are trying
rectify this situation, or are you just coming to where we should have
been anyway as far as moving with opera?
JE: I write operas
because I love the subject. I love to write operas. I
don’t really have any particular program, though I certainly use the
most adventurous ideas that I’m capable of using in opera, more
so than, for instance, if I were to write a chamber piece. This
may sound curious, but the fact is that if a company makes its
commitment to do an opera, you can pretty well be sure they’re going to
it right. Of course, in many cases the negative side of
the picture is that you may not get that commitment in the first
place. But the fact is that it’s almost safer to work
with adventurous ideas in opera than it is in chamber music, which may
BD: [Pursuing it
just a bit] But the chamber music groups usually have
the time to rehearse, and then they’ll play it a number of times, and
get good at it.
JE: But they
normally pick things that they can work up in a few
rehearsals and take on tour. Some
of the least adventurous music in America now is that which has been
written for established chamber groups, for whatever reason.
Really??? I was thinking of the Kronos, or the Arditti, or the
Emerson Quartets that will work
on a piece for a long time, and then take it out.
JE: Some of them
will and some of them won’t. There are certain chamber ensembles
that have a real commitment to new music. There’s no
question about it, but there are also lots of chamber groups that
will not do pieces that require them to master new techniques, or
require them to hear in a different way.
BD: Are you a
creator of new sounds, or are you
a finder of new sounds?
JE: That’s a
really interesting question.
[Thinks a moment] I guess it depends upon the way in which one
would look at
my work. I would tend to say that we’re all finders
in one sense, the way Michelangelo would talk about finding the
form of a sculpture in a block of marble. Musical materials
generate what we do with them. Being
interested in musical materials which are there, or are in
the ear, many people have said that the word ‘form’
is not a noun, it’s a verb, and you find the form in the particular
materials that you work with. To take an example, you have the
recording of my opera Danton and
Robespierre (1978). I was working there with what
certainly was a new idea for opera, and perhaps a new idea,
period. This was the blending of two different generating
of microtonality — the one which adjusts the
intonational system, which forms the
music of Robespierre, and the other music which is based upon
division of the chromatic scale into quarter tones, which essentially
creates the music for Danton. As far as I know, this is the first
work — certainly of any dimension — that
does use, and pits against each other, two
principles of micro-tonality, or two generating principles of
microtonality. So in that sense you could say that I was
creating new musical ideas, but I tend to think I was just finding
something in music that was very much in the air.
Certainly the whole idea of microtonality is a very natural
and very native one. There’s hardly a
vernacular music or a folk music in the world that doesn’t use
microtonality materials in one way or another.
BD: And yet almost in
the twenty-first century, we here
in America and Western Europe have gotten completely away from that.
JE: Yes, except
for jazz, which uses
‘blue notes’ — bending of
pitch — all the time. The most significant
are all somehow expanding what Varese used to call the ‘prison house of
twelve bars’. They are all
involved in one way or another, in either driving to the very limit of
the total chromatic, or on the other hand, breaking that up for
essentially a more consonant music — music which
is based on using
overtones that were excluded by simply
using a chromatic scale.
BD: You’re working
in the area of concert
music for concert audiences that tend to go to concerts of
music. How can you bridge that gap to get these people to not
only listen to the smaller intervals and the different kinds of
patterns, and yet appreciate it and
understand it, and perhaps even enjoy it?
JE: I’ve never had
any trouble with that. Once audiences are exposed to microtonal
they very often find them very intriguing and very natural, because,
after all, they are. The voice doesn’t fit into a
chromatic scale, and, as I say, no folk or vernacular music in the
world does. Most composers I know who become microtonal composers
do so not to discover a new dissonance, but to discover new kinds of
consonants and a wider base for harmonic motion. The
biggest problem that we have in America is, purely and simply, our
impresarios — the people who run music.
They are afraid of new ideas and are afraid to take a chance.
With a few exceptions, performers tend to accept it. After all,
they’re out there trying to make a living. They don’t want to
take chances. They have to have a check coming in every
month. I’ve been very lucky. For the last twenty years I’ve
been teaching at the largest
music school in the United States, if not the world, and I’ve had
access to really gifted young performers who don’t have the kind of
prejudices that sometimes older and established performers get.
They enjoy adventure! They enjoy stretching their
BD: So delving
back to Machaut is
really no different than delving ahead into Eaton? [Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377)
composed in a wide range of styles and forms. He is a part of the
musical movement known as the ars nova. Machaut helped develop the motet and
secular song forms (particularly the lai and the formes fixes: rondeau,
virelai and ballade). Machaut wrote
the Messe de Nostre Dame, the
earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer.]
I don’t think anyone would listen to the two ‘musics’ and say they
weren’t different, but they’re both
adventures. For that matter, once one does that,
then one can play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff with a certain amount of
adventure and enthusiasm.
BD: Are there
still adventures to be found in Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and even
absolutely! If you take a symphony orchestra and have them do an
music program... which is perhaps not such a good
idea, but if they do make a real commitment to new
music, then they can return to, say, the Eroica Symphony, and play it
as if the ink is still wet, and really get something out of it.
If their ears have had an adventure
with new and exciting and challenging musical materials, they can
discover that Beethoven also had an adventure with new and exciting and
challenging materials. Of course that’s why his music lives.
BD: We’ve been
dancing around this a
little bit, so let me ask the question straight out. What is
the purpose of music in society?
JE: Human beings
need to sing in the
same sense that birds do, that whales do, that wolves do. It’s
part of our nature. We all have the
need to sing. We all have the need to experience. This is
why we are talking about opera. You often hear
that opera’s a very artificial form, and yet to me it’s the most
natural art form. I have two children, and I
watch them growing up. They always say something like, “I’m
cowboy, you’re the Indian! Dum, da, dum, da, dum, da, dum,”
and they accompany themselves with music. They tend to experience
things with music
because music is so much a part of our existence as human beings, and
if it ever ceases to be, God save us!
BD: Would they
have done that if they
hadn’t watched all the John Wayne pictures where he’s the cowboy and
they’re the Indians?
JE: I think so
because at the time that my
children did it, they had never watched a John Wayne picture.
They had no television.
It’s just the natural impulse to play with song, or to act things out
with song, or to have drama with music. The unnatural thing in a
way is separate them — to put music in the
concert hall, and put drama
in the theater, and put painting in the museum. The most natural
thing is to bring all the arts together in the synthesis
which is opera, or which could be music-drama, or which could be
that we haven’t even imagined yet.
BD: Then are you,
as the forward-thinking
composer, also very much interested in the forward ideas of stagecraft,
and the forward ideas of make-up and lighting?
JE: Very much so,
and I involve myself with it as much
as a particular budget will allow in any opera production of mine that
have anything to say about whatsoever. For instance, I always
been passionately interested in opera for television. I wrote an
opera based on The Idiot of
Dostoevsky called Myshkin
in 1970, where all the action takes place within the mind of Prince
Myshkin. He himself never appears, and it was quite
successful. I never received a penny for it, but it’s been seen
estimated fifteen million people. It won the Peabody Award, and
the Ohio State Award, and it was shown all over the world by
USIA, and on closed-circuit television by various cultural agencies
and other governments. I really
don’t know how many people have seen it at this point, but the
thing is that opera for television is a very exciting idea.
BD: You are
speaking now of making an opera for the television, rather
than taking a stage production and trying to film it?
JE: Exactly, and
in making something, it used
the full resources of television with the hopes that eventually
television sets will have the kind of sound that they could and should
have. That is the only serious drawback.
BD: But that’s
JE: I’m sure it’s
coming soon. Yes, it
has to! Once people hear something sounding
better, they’re going to demand it.
BD: Do you find
that the home stereo system is
adequate to your needs?
JE: Oh, absolutely.
BD: So the
technology is here, and all we have to
do is connect it to the visual box.
JE: To the stereo,
yes. So there’s no reason why you couldn’t have the
highest quality-level sound. It’s just a question of putting good
enough speakers and a good enough amplifier into the television
sets. I’m sure that will eventually come.
BD: And then
you’ll have a screen the size of your
living room wall, and the images will be in three dimensions! [Remember, this interview took place in
1990, so everyone should acknowledge my Nostradamus-like abilities...]
[Both laugh] I really think there’s a great future
for opera on television. The one thing that always bothers me
about opera for television is this business of lip-synching. In
Michigan we didn’t do it. We pre-recorded the
orchestra and directed the sound at the singers by directional
speakers, and they performed. By the
very nature of what video tape is, television is a performance, unlike
the movies, which is more subject
to cutting and redoing and so on. There’s something about
the very nature of video tape that makes it a medium for live
BD: A lot of that
will come now with the
advent of the teeny-tiny microphone. Before, you had to have
the big microphones, and so they’d always be off-direction, or
course. I’ve used those tiny mikes at lot in stage productions
of my operas. For instance, in The
Ariel’s voice is continually being picked up,
and another voice is either added by adapting a vocoder [(a portmanteau of voice encoder), a
category of voice codec that analyzes and synthesizes the human voice
signal for audio data compression, multiplexing, voice encryption,
voice transformation, etc.], or using a
harmonizer [a type of pitch shifter
that combines the ‘shifted’ pitch with the original pitch to create a
two or more note harmony].
BD: You could run
each mike through whatever kind of electronic
synthesis you want.
exactly. Then I also
use digital echo. For instance, when Ariel sings ‘Hark, hark,
bow, wow,’ and
she’s joined by a chorus, which is called the burden, singing
‘bow, wow,’ the synthesizer did that. It’s just simply digital
echo, and that’s what I did in the film, rather than suddenly having a
whole chorus of spirits come on stage. I simply had Ariel sing
it, but at
the point where she sang ‘bow, wow,’ she was picked up by digital echo,
and her voice was thrown all over the theater. It’s
a much more effective way, and a much more magical way of
BD: Sure, exactly,
because then it’s really in the
BD: Are the
Well, I don’t think anything is ever limitless,
but they’re certainly inspiring. The job of opera composers is to
with precisely this kind of thing, and make it exciting, which is what
BD: Do you still
want to call it opera? You
don’t want to call it by a new name?
JE: That doesn’t
bother me. The word
‘opera’ doesn’t bother me just as it doesn’t bother me to call
something that happens with air molecules moving ‘Thai
music’. It’s a generic enough name that it
me. If somebody wants to call
it something else, they’re welcome to it, as long as they’re going to
experience it and have an adventure with it. That’s the important
thing. I must say with great
pride that nearly every last performance of every production of an
opera of mine since about 1975 has been completely
sold out, which means that the public is there, and they are hungry for
BD: Are these in
small theaters or large theaters?
San Francisco Opera,
for instance, and Santa Fe Opera. From what I understand, the
in history is Santa Fe Opera was the last performance of The Tempest.
They not only sold out all the seats, they sold out all the standing
room, and they had 500 waiting to buy tickets. A lot of this was
just simply that the
people were interested. They’d heard about what was done
technologically with that opera.
BD: But I trust
you don’t want to turn your operas into just
pure spectacle, do you?
JE: Oh, absolutely
not! They’re not a ‘spectacle’ in any
sense of the word.
BD: How many
operas have you
written so far?
JE: I think
nine. My first four
operas I would soon forget about. My first opera was written when
I was nine years old, and my best friend was an
undertaker’s son, and he wrote the libretto. We had twenty or
thirty characters come into the undertaker’s parlor in the course of
the first two acts, and all die by horrendous and rather
baroque means, such as poisoning, stabbings, etc.
BD: Did the
corpses come to life and sing?
[Laughing] Well, no. Eventually, at the end of the second
undertaker himself is forced to drink embalming fluid after having
poisoned someone, so at the end of the second act, everyone is
dead. But in the third act they all come back in their embalmed
state and move realistically around the stage. The opera
was called The Bitter End,
and I’m happy to say that it was never
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Oh, you should bring it out now! It could be the hit
in between the next two Nightmare on
Elm Street films!
[Much laughter] But there are a number of other things like
that, and my first real serious opera was called
Herakles, which was based on The Trachiniae of Sophocles.
It was done
and broadcast while I was living in Italy, and has been rebroadcast by
RAI many times there. It was also was used to dedicate the new
Musical Arts Center in Indiana.
BD: How long a piece is
JE: Actually, the
uncut version is
about five hours, and the cut version is about three.
BD: Should you
impose five hours of sitting on
the audience, or is three hours sufficient for them to
get the drama and the music?
JE: At the time I
composed it I was
twenty-three years old, and I miscalculated. It is
too long. The second act, in its uncut version, is two
and a half hours, and that is just too much.
hundred years from now, after you’re dead and gone, people will be
looking up these pieces, and just as historians have brought
back the uncut Don Carlos and
the uncut Mozart, now they will bring back the uncut Eaton. They
will feel they should do every note that you wrote,
and make sure that they’ve cleaned out his waste baskets, and put back
everything that he tore out of the score!
JE: Well, that’s
entirely possible. It
really is. I don’t know. Certainly it contains a lot of
very beautiful music and very telling drama, which was cut.
BD: Is this a
JE: No. This
was the last non-microtonal piece or
opera that I wrote. My next opera was Myshkin, which I told you about.
BD: In writing
that for television, did you have
time frame? Did you have to fit it into an hour, as Menotti did with Amahl?
The total duration is
fifty-three minutes. Then my next one was a
children’s opera, The Lion and
Androcles, has had a number of productions and
performances. The incredible thing about that is children have no
with microtonality at all. They don’t care. It’s just as
natural to them to sing in quarter steps as it is to sing in
half steps, as long as it sounds right to them. Then I wrote Danton and
Robespierre, and then The Cry
of Clytemnestra, which has had
approximately twenty performances. That’s been the most
successful of my operas.
BD: Where does
that fit in, story-wise, with the Strauss and the Gluck works?
JE: It has nothing
whatsoever to do with the Strauss, which
is a great disadvantage. It looks at the Agamemnon
from Clytemnestra’s point of view. It sees the action of the
Agamemnon, and actually ends
right before the Agamemnon
begins, with the beacons announcing Agamemnon’s return. Basically
it’s an opera about this woman who, in the
Agamemnon of Aeschylus, is one
of the noblest heroines in all Greek
drama. She has been given a very bad shrift by subsequent
cultural history. In fact, her daughter was sacrificed for
reasons of State, just as
the way you could say we sacrificed out innocence during the Vietnamese
War. So it was an opera done very much from that point of
BD: Is it meant to
be a political statement?
JE: It’s not a
political statement, no, except every
opera, everything that you do has all sorts of political
overtones. It’s also been called the first feminist opera.
[Laughs] One can interpret it in that way, but that was not in
my mind when I wrote it. It was adopted with great enthusiasm by
movement. After The Cry of
Clytemnestra comes The Tempest,
and then I’ve just finished a big opera
on a commission for the National Endowment for the Arts on Jonestown,
which is called The Reverend Jim
Jones. At this moment it awaits its first production, but
there are a number of people who are interested in
it, and hopefully it won’t be more than another year or so before it
sees the light of day.
BD: Do you have
ideas for the next one after that?
JE: Not really
no. At the moment I’m writing a
lot of chamber music. I just finished a big dramatic
cantata called The Divine Narcissus,
which is based on a
play by a great Mexican poet of the seventeenth century, Sor Juana
Inés de la Cruz, and now I’m writing a theater piece for a
group in New York, which is based on Peer Gynt. In fact, I think
my sense of
humor will fail me before this actually happens, but I’m thinking of
calling it Suite Peer Gynt!
[Both laugh] I can’t imagine a greater mismatch of talents than
Grieg and Ibsen, both of whom I have incredible respect
for as creative artists, but they certainly were different. Grieg
just writes a series of mood
pieces around this most dramatic and most telling, forceful
nineteenth century vision of Ibsen, and so what I’m going to try and do
in my piece is to seize the action
of the play and have all the parts of my ‘suite’ be
representations of the essential action, rather than mood pieces or
BD: His was
incidental music to the play.
JE: That’s quite
right, yes. Actually, I think I read somewhere that he objected
very much to
it being made into a suite when he finally let it go by because he
needed to pay the rent.
BD: And now it
turns out to be a big hit with
wonderful music. Grieg’s a wonderful composer.
BD: Do you feel that
sometimes composers are not the
right people to dictate how and where their music should be done?
JE: As long as
you’re alive, you’ve got to
try. Maybe we’re not, but the most important
thing for a composer is to be writing music and to be maintaining his
own artistic integrity and vision. If you let people kick you
around and push you around — or push your music
around — you’re not
going to be doing too much writing with much integrity.
BD: Yet, but even
a giant like Beethoven
has performances which differ wildly in playing time... and then there
is the use of old instruments and new instruments, and
all the pulling and pushing and stretching and compressing...
JE: Yes, but this
has all happened after his death. What happens after my
death is up to history. [Laughs] I have nothing to
say about it. On the other hand, I’m sure
Beethoven would have had very strong opinions on how his music ought to
BD: While you’re
alive, do you want every
performance of any of your pieces to be identical to the previous ones,
especially those you have either participated in or at least supervised?
JE: Oh, absolutely
not, but I do want it to be true to what I
envision. One of the
great things about music is that any piece has a
number of latent meanings in it, and any performance will make a series
of those latent meanings more or less potent. They can be
very different depending upon the artist, depending upon the hall,
depending upon all kinds of things, and a composer works with
that. But there are certain things that are untrue to what you
BD: So there is a
line in the sand at some place?
JE: There’s a
where you feel that this may be destroying the
essential vision of the work, and then you have to step
BD: Before we sat
down and turned on the tape recorder, we were talking about one
recording of a piece of yours that you didn’t particularly care
for. Is there no redeeming quality in that disc? Can
that not introduce people to something even though it may not be
exactly what you envisioned?
JE: I don’t think
so because it’s so false. The sounds that people hear are not the
sounds I envisioned. The whole nature of the piece is utterly
different from what I had envisioned, and to
me it makes absolutely no sense at all.
BD: Obviously to
the performer thought it was a coming
to grips with what was on the page.
JE: In this
particular case, I
wonder. For instance, even an essential matter like the
tuning is all wrong. That I don’t think is coming to grips
with what I had on the page. I don’t
want to get any more specific than that. The fact is that people
do deserve a lot
of credit for trying anything which is new. On the other hand, if
the composer is alive, performers also have a responsibility to check
what they’re doing, especially in the case
of something like a recording, because a recording is
making a documentation of a piece. If this particular piece was
done in a
concert performance by the performer or performers involved, I
wouldn’t have objected as much. But somehow, when it’s out there
on disc it documents what a piece is supposed to be like, and the
person who buys the record has no idea whether the composer has
approved that performance or not.
BD: So if I came
to that recording and I
listened to it, and was impressed by what I heard and found it as
being something quite viable...
JE: Well, I’m glad
in a way! [Laughs] The only
thing I could say is that I would like to play you another
performance of that piece so you could see what more
that piece is capable of being.
That’s all I
really want to find out about that, and we won’t even identify
it. Setting aside that
particular recording, are you basically pleased with the other
recordings that have been made of your music over the years?
JE: Most of
them. There’s one recording I consider very
important of my electronic music, which is a CRI
recording called ‘The Music of John Eaton’ [shown above right]. It has
which was a Koussevitzky commission, and
Blind Man’s Cry, which was the
most important of my
early ensemble-electronic pieces, as well as the Concert Music for Solo Clarinet.
Now it says ‘This
is a composer-supervised recording’, but it wasn’t! I had
nothing to say about the pressing of the recording. I was there
for the making of the tapes, but the only way I would encourage people
to listen to
that recording is to boost the volume way up. In making the disc,
somebody tried to save space and slapped a limiter on it. The
same thing happened on the Turnabout recording of the Concert Piece for Syn-ket and
Symphony Orchestra. This is crowded into a tiny
space. It’s a longer
piece than the one which precedes it, and yet it takes up thirty per
cent of the side, and the other (shorter) piece takes up
sixty per cent of the side.
BD: So the grooves
JE: The grooves
are compressed, which means dynamic level of the
end of the piece that precedes it is about a piano, and it’s as loud as the
beginning of my piece, which
Therefore, people have no conception of the
richness of the sound that is in my particular piece.
BD: Barring that,
if you just
played your piece on that record with no previous aural image of
anything else, then it’s okay, then it
JE: Then it would
stand by itself as long as person
playing it would turn up the volume to extent where they are listening
BD: Is this an old
record or a new record?
JE: It’s an old
record. It was made in 1970 or ’72 or
something like that. My living for
something like ten years was made as an electronic troubadour, giving
live performances of electronic music on sound synthesizers especially
built for that purpose. During the whole period between
1964 and 1970, when this recording was made, I must have
given close to a thousand concerts, performing electronic
BD: For what kind
JE: Oh, all
kinds! Anybody who would pay me, who would listen,
instance, I did the Concert Piece
for Syn-ket and Symphony Orchestra at
Tanglewood. I also did it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and
with the Dallas Symphony. I really did a lot of
performing of it. I was living in Rome for much of this time, so
a lot of the concerts that I gave were new music festivals in Europe,
such as the Venice Festival. There were
festivals all over Italy and Germany, and so on. There’s a
richness in the music that would appear in a concert hall that simply
was very difficult at that time to capture on a recording. There
were so much information that was being given out which was of an
unconventional sort that I’m rather
unsatisfied with all the recordings that were done of this particular
part of my musical output. I just felt the
technology of that time didn’t capture everything that was in
the live performances.
BD: Is it like
looking at one of the old
black-and-white films from the ’20s?
JE: Yes, in a way
is. But electronic music suffered more from that than
conventional music because I just hate the
limiter. The limiter is something I would to have just utterly
destroyed. I also hated the way that people would compress
things just to get another piece on a record. I would
have rather the piece not been recorded than been given that
kind of that picture. Of course, people who understand that can
correct it now.
optimistic] Now that things are coming out on CD, perhaps
some of the correction will be made at the engineering department of
the record companies.
JE: Yes, and I am
sure there are tapes which still exist. But Turnabout is out of
business, and I made two early recordings for American Decca, which
out of business about four or five years after I made them. I’ve
been told those were the first live performances of
electronic music on sound synthesizers.
BD: So you’re
really a pioneer?
JE: In that sense
could have been thought of being important documents.
BD: Did you work
at all with Otto
Luening and Vladimir
JE: I knew Luening
very, very well, but his was not
live performance on electronic synthesizers. They
were exclusively with magnetic tape, and with live instruments coupled
with magnetic tape. But I knew both of them very, very well, and
Otto still remains a very close friend. He’s one of the great
unappreciated figures of contemporary American
music. He probably did more to help American composers
than anyone else. He was constantly going around working for
the benefit of other people. He’s just had his ninetieth
birthday, as you
BD: Right. I
did a special program of his music and my interview with him on
WNIB. Do you foresee a time when the synthesizer, as you know it,
will be a standard part of an orchestra?
sure. I’m not talking about concert music necessarily now, the
kind of concert you hear in symphony orchestra
halls. Think about the music for
television and for radio. Think about the music that
we hear most of our life. It’s an incredible combination of
synthesizers and mechanical instruments.
However, having said that, let me take one step
forwards and two steps backwards, and say that I’m really disappointed
in the direction which synthesizers are moving right now.
JE: For all their
faults, the old analogue synthesizers were responsive to very
innovative kinds of controls in the formation of
sound by a human being. You could carve out your own envelopes in
a way you cannot on digital synthesizers. Electronic music has
vacillated its entire history between something I’d like to call the
‘theorem’ conception — a
purely controlling of
electronic materials which become musical materials in real time on a
very special instrument made for that — and the ‘Hammond
conception, where digital synthesizers have pre-programmed
envelopes which are very, very difficult to get into the sound, to work
directly with the sound, to take it like clay and shape it and mold
it. The digital synthesizers are, at least up to this point, very
much part of the ‘Hammond organ’
kind of idea.
BD: So, early on
we didn’t know what could be
made of it, and now that we know some of the things that can be made
of it, that’s being pre-programmed for it?
JE: Yes. Of
course, they work with a much richer kind of
sound material. The sound is far more interesting
to listen to than it was with some of the old analogue synthesizers,
with the single exception that you could feel a human being at work
with the things that were done with those synthesizers. Whereas
with the digital synthesizers, you feel like somebody’s pulled out an
organ stop very often, and, in fact, that’s what happens.
BD: So you don’t want to
lose the humanity, even
though it is a completely synthesized idea?
JE: No. To
me, that’s the whole
essence of music — to feel a human being shaping
envelope, shaping sounds. I’ve been working for seventeen years
on an instrument which has just been finished by Robert Moog
(1934-2005), so who knows? I may become an electronic troubadour
again. It’s an instrument in which
every key on 355-note keyboard has a Minikin chip
in it, and will respond to precise degree of finger touch, or
the vertical or horizontal position on the key, the
amount of space your finger covers on the key, and the hand
pressure once the key is depressed. So any key at any
particular time is capable of giving out four controlled voltages
which can be applied to anything whatsoever. With this we may be
able to return to what was good about the analogue
synthesizers, where you could shape the
BD: Are we
returning to something that was good,
or are we taking the next step?
JE: Well, taking
the next step. I don’t mean
returning, no. I mean this can be adapted through
programming in a way that we can get inside of what happens with the
digital synthesizer. Right now it’s very, very
difficult because very few things about a digital synthesizer are open
and can be controlled in real time. You take what you get,
essentially. You can program it at the beginning, but
once you’ve got something, you’re stuck with it.
BD: But you’re a
creator. Are these machines
that you don’t care for so much made for re-creators or
interpreters, rather than creators such as yourself?
JE: No, because
the way music begins is
with a complete engagement of a musician’s sensibility with a range of
musical materials. Whether that engagement is as a performer or
as a composer, you absorb, and then it becomes largely an
unconscious or an intuitive process, both the
composition of music and
the performance of music. Unless you can get that kind of
real-time control and engagement of the sensibility of the performers,
and through performances of
composers, it’s very, very difficult for music to come into
being. Music has never been anything except something
theoretical that’s dreamed up. Music has always involved
a very active social mechanism. The basic and most refined
instrument is the human voice, and it is still the
most flexible and interesting instrument of all. All
instruments aspire to the condition
of the human voice. The thing which fascinates me about this new
synthesizer is the way it combines the techniques of playing a
stringed instrument — that is the vertical and
occupied on a key — with the technique of
playing a keyboard instrument.
You can bring them together, and thereby for the first
time control the tremendous complexities of electronic music. So
far, no one would deny that the great problem with electronic music
has been its lack of susceptibility in the human nuance, as well as its
lack of real engagement of the sensitivities and sensibilities
of performers and composers. We’ve had a whole
range of new materials which keep coming at us
constantly. What we have is very, very little music in which one
feels a human being working with those materials in the same way that
you would be essential to all music... like a shepherd sitting out a
a flute over and over again until he masters
everything it can do and there’s almost a completed
deification between him and this reed pipe. Now imagine if
we could do that in some way with electronic music, with all its
richness and potential. That’s what needs to be done.
BD: Just as we now
the virtuoso violinist and the virtuoso keyboardist, are we going to
have the virtuoso synthesist?
JE: Oh, I think
so. In a way we have a lot of
them already. At a certain period of my life I
was a virtuoso synthesist. I made my living that way, and
certainly that will come again.
BD: Do you ever
see there being a competition for synthesists like in
the ones we now have for pianists?
JE: I wouldn’t be
surprised. It’ll be a while, but first of all we have to have the
synthesizers. There’s still a lot of stuff that needs to be
overcome about that.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the
future of music?
JE: [Thinks a
moment] Yes, I guess I
am! There’s always a
necessity for music. There’s a lot that goes on that makes you be
very pessimistic about the situation of music right now, but probably
things are better than they were when I was younger.
BD: How so?
JE: There are many
more opportunities for
composers. I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s,
and you heard very
little of the really new music that was being written. Composers
just had no possibility in the United States of making a living from
composing. Now there are many composers who are
doing that through commissions, through various kinds of programming,
and so on.
BD: Is there any chance
there are too many
young composers coming along?
JE: I don’t
know. [Laughs] There’s
certainly are a lot of bad ones, but there have
always been those.
BD: How do we sort
through it all so that the bad ones go
into something else, and the good ones remain working with their
JE: Listening is
the only thing
that’ll do it. Things
have a way of taking care of themselves. It’s still not a field
can enter and make a lot of money in a hurry. That just sorts a
lot of it out. One really does have
to make a commitment to music to get into it in the first place.
BD: You can’t
dabble in it! [Vis-à-vis
the record shown at right, see my Interviews with Lukas Foss and William Bergsma.]
JE: No. It’s
not like painting. Anybody can go out and buy canvas
and an easel and some paint, and start and keep shop. On the
other hand, with all the computer programs that are
coming up for the creation of music, we may soon have that
kind of situation where there will be a lot of home sleaze
being foisted on the public.
BD: Now with
will take what you play and record it, and then you can alter it and
it around, and keep it, will that be good to re-invigorate the musical
JE: The more
people are composing, the more
people will appreciate really good composition. The year I was at
the University of Chicago, I was asked to teach a course called ‘the
appreciation of music, materials and design’ for a group of people who
were not musicians, who didn’t know how to read music. In fact,
was the stipulation for entering the course.
BD: Music for
JE: Right, music
non-musical-literate. If somebody played an instrument, I threw
them out! The way in which I taught musical appreciation
was quite stimulating, and got them to create music and to
compose. I found myself really listening as much as they, and
about what they heard by the end of the quarter. I wish
I’d had about a year to do it. There is just not time
on the other hand, they all ended by writing a piece in
more than one voice. So having tried it themselves, they can
appreciate how good Mozart is or how good Beethoven is, much better
than they can by being told the recipe for a Mozart symphony.
BD: Can they then
appreciate how good Eaton is?
must say that that didn’t cross my mind.
BD: Do you feel
you’re part of a lineage of
the other hand, though, I’ve always been somewhat of a maverick in that
I’ve never joined any particular movement. I’ve never let my
represent a particular line. I was in
Europe, living in Italy through the ’60s, and I
used to hate the way
the young composers would all come back from Darmstadt with their
recipe for the year, their fashion for the year. In any case,
in the United States music is not as politicized or socialized as it is
Europe. We don’t seem to have that need, maybe because the
country is so vast.
BD: Even with the
Uptown/Downtown or East Coast/West Coast factions?
JE: In any one of
those areas you
don’t have really have much organization in the sense of people saying
is the way it has to be done, which does happen in Europe.
There’s always the idea in Europe of somehow creating the spirit
of the age. Yeats said that every worthwhile poet is either a
hundred years ahead
or a hundred years behind their time. But nobody ever expresses
spirit of their age, and one blessing to having been an
American composer is that we do avoid that kind of thing a lot.
BD: In general
terms, what advice do you have
for composers coming along?
JE: Write the kind
of music you love and want to hear
on a concert. Be true to your own taste, and gradually keep
trying to expand it. It’s always a great problem when composers
genuine. In teaching composition, I usually spend about
two or three years getting composers simply to be honest with
themselves in saying, “I like this. This
is something I
really believe in. This is something I’m really enthusiastic
about,” and until you get them to that point, you
can’t do anything.
BD: But once you
get them to that point, then you
can work with them and help them?
JE: Then they work
with themselves! Composition is largely a voyage
in self-discovery. One of the most interesting composers in
Europe, who died recently, was
a Count in Rome named Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). He would get
every morning at 4 o’clock, meditate for two or three hours, and
then he would improvise on a little instrument that he had built
especially for himself. At the end of that period, which
would be about 2 PM, if he got something that he really liked, he’d
it and have it notated. I would not go that far, but I do think
there is a way in which all
worthwhile composition is basically a religious act. It’s
basically an act of meditation. It’s an act of discovering a
vision. It always burns me up when people from the outside say, “You’re
simply indulging yourself if you
say you write for yourself.”
The reason why this is so wrong is that before a composer can do
anything, he must lose himself and be captured by
the beauty of whatever music he’s trying to create. It’s almost
like the old saying ‘He who would find his life must lose
it’. That certainly happens in
don’t mean to say that all composers should immediately go and join a
church, or something of that kind. That’s not what I have
in mind at all.
BD: It’s a
personal and spiritual revelation?
exactly. It’s a quest. It’s a continuous
search, and it’s something to which any worthwhile composer has
dedicated his entire life.
BD: Is it fun?
JE: There’s a lot
of toil, there’s a lot of hard work, there’s a
lot of sweat, there’s a lot of genuine tears. I
wouldn’t call it fun. I’d call it joyous. There
certainly are rewards when you do capture a vision, when you hear the
occasional really good performance that does likewise. Everything
else just pales into insignificance. Everything else
you experience in your life seems so small in
BD: You just
turned 55 years old. Are you at the place where you thought you’d
be, or where you think you should be?
JE: I never really
thought like that. I was
always so excited about what I was doing — and I
still am — that I just don’t think in those
good. You’ll be a little kid forever!
Probably! [Has a huge laugh] The only time I
think about that is when I think about some of the
responsibilities I’ve taken on — like children
family. But I never had any program of being such-and-such as a
composer at such-and-such an age, or anything of that kind because it
doesn’t seem to me that’s the point.
BD: So you’re
happy with where you are now?
yes. Naturally, everybody has things they would
like to change, or would like to have different in a way...
wish you lots of continued success. Thank you for the
JE: You’re more
than welcome. I
really appreciate your interest.
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 9,
1990. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.
This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.