John Eaton

 From “Excerpts from a Conversation with Frank J. Oteri”
…Well, let me, first of all, say, that as a microtonal composer, I’ve never been much of a theorist. My mind doesn’t work that way. I use whatever gets the job done. I haven’t been very much involved with any kind of puristic approach, nor have I been particularly concerned with finding a system that I could teach, or a system that would be consistent. I’ve just simply used what I’ve used because of the great, great expressive potential of it. And although I’ve composed a lot of chamber music and a lot of orchestral music, I am fundamentally interested in opera and I believe that more than anything else, microtonality extends expressive possibilities, particularly for the voice.…the way that I got involved with microtonal music was, frankly, through jazz. I supported myself all during my 20′s as a jazz musician, or rather, as a performer, of both contemporary music and jazz. And they’re just so expressive there. I mean, the 7th, the flat 7th which approaches the 7th harmonic, very often comes off sounding like the cry of a frightened child. It has a kind of purity, a kind of, also, anguish involved, you cannot get in any other way.…[With quartertones] I’m thinking in terms of a point of departure, a field of action for performers to express an expressive need of mine which hopefully the context of music would convey. I remember a performance of my Concert Piece for 2 clarinets tuned a quarter of a tone apart, 2 oboes tuned a quarter of a tone apart, and flute, which, you know, which at least in 1964 or so when I wrote it; the flute was the instrument that was most adaptable to the playing of quartertones because of the work of Gazzelloni and various other people… The first performance of that was done by my good friend William O. Smith at the University of Washington. And he called me up after the first rehearsals and said “We’re using these tuning devices and we just can’t seem to get passages right.” I said, “No, look, don’t work on it that way. Play it. Play it over and over and people will hear what the pitches are supposed to be doing.”…I think the reason that [the microtonality of Haba, Wyshnegradsky, Carrillo, Ives] never took off, if I can say so, is that as gifted as all these composers were, for them, they were dealing not so much with necessities as with possibilities. And I think now, for many composers… the use of microtonality has become a necessity. We need it to express what we hear. We need it to express what we feel. We need it to capture the energy of contemporary life.…I want the audience to be so swept up in the human experience of my music, or spiritual experience that I feel my music is involved with, that they don’t notice microtonality per se. In other words, I think that if an audience listens to something as an experience of how in tune it is or something of that kind, that the whole point is somehow being missed, and the music has failed. Of course, in opera, you involve the audience so much with action and with what’s happening on stage, that the music is the center of that action. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have time to think, oh, well, this is a quarter tone sharp, or flat.…I really write for people… I’ve never been very interested in the systematic development of microtonality for the simple reason that it’s not important to me. It’s not important to me to found a school; it’s not important to me to have disciples. What’s important for me is to communicate the vision that I have in sound with the audience that’s hearing it. And it really seems to. My music really seems to do that, if left alone. Not if somebody is lecturing people on what they should be hearing!
Issue 17 – Vol.2, No.5 September 2000

For the full interview, and to see the rest of NewMusicBox’s issue on microtonality, click here.


John Eaton was called “The most interesting opera composer writing in America today” by Andrew Porter in The London Financial Times. Through his vast works in a variety of mediums, he has received international recognition as a composer and performer of electronic and microtonal music, and has written over fifteen operas.

Eaton’s works have been performed extensively throughout Germany, France, England, Spain, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Israel, Japan, Korea, China and the former Soviet Union. In America, his works have been performed by the San Francisco Opera, Cincinnati Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Santa Fe Opera, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Festival performances include Tanglewood, Aspen, and Pepsico Summerfare. In addition, several works have been broadcast on Public Radio and Television including his opera, Myshkin, which was seen throughout world by an estimated 15,000,000 people.

John Eaton has received several prestigious awards including a Mac Arthur Foundation “genius” award in 1990. His music was chosen to represent the U.S.A. in 1970 at the International Rostrum of Composers (UNESCO). He has received a citation and award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, three Prix de Rome Grants, two Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as commissions from the Fromm and Koussevitsky Foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He has lectured at the Salzburg Center of American Studies, and was Composer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome. In September 2000, his career was celebrated in the American Music Center’s web site and excerpts of his operas can still be seen as well as an extended interview in the archives of

Eaton is Professor Emeritus of Music Composition at the University of Chicago. He taught there for 10 years and at Indiana University (Bloomington) for 20. His compositions have been recorded by Albany,C.R.I., Indiana University Press, (American) Decca, and Tournabout, and are handled by Shawnee Press, G.Schirmer (A.M.P.) and European-American Music.


 MM-JEaton.WAVJohn Eaton website

from Mass
Aguavá New Music Ensemble
Carmen Helena Téllez, Conductor

From CD “Canticum Novum: Sacred Vocal Music from the Late 20th Century”

Aguavá 2001-1-CD-T

This excerpt from John Eaton’s Mass used with permission of Aguavá New Music Studio.