musical Mavericks

AE interviews Microtonal Composer John Eaton
February 21, 2007

On Saturday, March 3 and Sunday, March 4, Musical Mavericks, a two-concert series featuring the microtonal music of John Eaton, Stuart Dempster, Pamela Z, Todd Reynolds, Robert Dick, Mike Lowenstern, Bill Smith, Rob Paterson, and Sean McClowry will take place at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York. We asked John Eaton, known for his work microtonality, why he does it. Aren't the twelve notes enough?

AE How did you become interested in microtonality?

JE Even as a teenager, while playing jazz piano, I envied what the other instruments were doing with pitch - playing blue notes, bending, glissandi over short and long ranges. To paraphrase Varèse, I felt constrained 'by the prison house of 12 bars I was locked into' on the piano. Because of this, very early I began playing directly on the strings of the piano with various implements: a glass, a knife (not a good idea!), a chisel, etc., to give me precise pitches, as well as tone colors, between the piano's tempered notes, making available microtonal glissandi. (Evidence of this can be heard in my Songs for R.P.B., available on the CD First Performances, which was incidentally the first piece to use live performance on a modern synthesizer.)

In the early 1960's, I also became very interested in woodwind multiphonics, spurred on by my collaboration with the fantastic clarinetist-composer William O. Smith. I discovered that what interested me about them was their "bad" intonation compared to the tempered pitches of the piano.

My usual music for large ensembles at this time often consisted of huge clusters, so-called "sound-masses". It was frustrating to me that one chromatic cluster can only be differentiated from another by tone color. There was a threat that music might become a lot of sound and fury, signifying relatively nothing. But by untuning the clusters - having them consist of 1/4 tones, or 3/4 tones, or 1 1/4 tones instead of always semi-tones - I could create a hierarchy and basis of movement between them. (Later, when more engaged in microtonality, I simply dropped clusters altogether; the microtonal intervals in themselves were fresh enough to engage me as a composer.)

While living in Rome, I also became interested in other microtonal vernacular musics besides jazz, such as Arabic music. To help me hear microtonal pitches - not all 1/4 tones - I rented another piano at the time and tuned it down 1/4 tone. I wrote a piece for the two pianos shortly after finishing my Songs for R.P.B. called Microtonal Fantasy. When Brooks Shepard, the music librarian from Yale, heard me play it, he sent to me photocopies of the manuscript of the three Ives microtonal pieces, of which we gave the European premiere on the same concert on which I premiered my own work. I knew almost nothing about the microtonal music of any of the earlier twentieth century composers (Barth, Ives, Haba, Vishnygrodsky, Carillo, Partch), educated as I had been in traditional harmony and counterpoint, the Schillinger System (which with all its interest in electronic music never broached the worlds beyond tempered tuning), and the serial frontiers of Princeton.

My later explorations in microtonality led me to polymicrotonal compositions such as my opera Danton and Robespierre which, in portraying the opera's two protagonists, contrasts the different musics produced by the two polar generating principles of microtonality: (1) the further division of tempered tuning with its multiplicity of function for any given pitch; and, (2) the creation of just intonational systems with each pitch representing a pure harmonic (overtone) function of a basic pitch. (A sample of this can be heard in my Mass on the CD Canticum Novum recorded by and available from the Aguava Ensemble.)

AE Why was your Concert Piece for Syn-Ket and Orchestra microtonal?

JE My Concert Music for Syn-Ket and Symphony Orchestra (recorded on the CD First Performances referred to above) is microtonal because I wanted to bring the electronic music of the Syn-Ket and the orchestra into the same sound world, a microtonal one. To do this, I divided the orchestra in half and tuned one of the halves a quarter tone lower than the other. It then plays the clusters referred to above, based on 1/4 tones, 3/4 tones. and 1 1/4 tones. The Syn-Ket uses a variety of microtonal approaches, such as pulling down harmonics from its filters and dividing the semitone in various ways, to deal with the same melodic and harmonic materials as the orchestra.

AE How did you come to use the Syn-Ket as a concert instrument?

JE I never liked working with tape because I was a klutz in the studio - always tearing or breaking the damned stuff! I also was upset that whenever one took a tape piece, created in the dry atmosphere of a studio, to another aural environment, it utterly changed. But more than these considerations, I felt what was lacking in most early electronic music was human nuance. When I saw the Syn-Ket for the first time, I exclaimed to its inventor, Paolo Ketoff, "But Paul, this is not a miniature studio. This is an instrument!" I got him to add a keyboard that was velocity sensitive, like a piano, and responsive to sideways motion, like a clavichord. We also worked on adding noise modulation, reverberation and other devices to "humanize" it, make it responsive to the touch and the practiced technique of a performer. Like a pianist who would play, for example, the Hammerklavier Sonata differently in different acoustical environments, I set about mastering the Syn-Ket in such a way that I could re-create a composition 'from scratch', so to speak, in any concert situation. I wrote a series of pieces and became perhaps the first Electronic Troubadour, giving more than a thousand or so concerts on the Syn-Ket and an early Moog modular unit over a ten year period.

AE In looking back, what are your reflections on performing with an electronic instrument?

JE I still think that live performance is the way to go. Unfortunately, a digital era intervened which, while enriching sound, tended to remove direct control in real time from the practiced fingertips (or embouchures) of performers. At the time that I first performed on the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboards, I felt that the digital sound units that were creating the aural materials simply did not allow for enough human interfacing. It was like threshing wheat with a surgeon's scalpel! Now, I believe that has changed, with faster computers and more sophisticated synthesizing software.

© 2007