Premieres by John Eaton | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Premieres by John Eaton 

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at Mandel Hall

May 29

For the past 18 years or so, University of Chicago music professor John Eaton has collaborated with Robert Moog on devising an electronic contraption capable of producing more different sounds than any other instrument in existence. Moog, an electrical engineer by training, is of course celebrated for having invented the synthesizer that "switched on" Bach in the 60s and later became a mainstay for rock musicians, though he has since expressed dissatisfaction with his gizmo and the mass marketing it inspired. He says the venture with Eaton is more serious, in the tradition of the master piano makers who were at the service of Mozart, Beethoven, and other demanding composers. Working with Eaton, who in his younger days earned a living as a jazz musician, Moog has come to share contemporary composers' appetites for more detailed nuances and varied sound effects. The result of his and Eaton's tinkering is the multiple-touch-sensitive synthesizer, which was unveiled in a concert of Eaton's chamber music last month.

The instrument can best be described as three 49-note keyboards stacked on top of one another, each attached to a computer. The electric sensors on the keys allow them to respond in a variety of ways to a finger's pressure--with a sensitivity not possible for an organ or a piano. The triple keyboards add to the extensive sound possibilities, and playing them requires the dexterity of an organ virtuoso--which Eaton hopes will discourage dilettantes and pop performers from commercializing his new instrument.

For the debut Eaton wrote a short piece titled Genesis that shows off the keyboards. A study in texture and density, the piece starts off rather like Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with primordial drones, gurgles, groans, and whispers. Slowly it shifts into Asiatic tribal chants--Tibetan perhaps--punctuated by the clangor of anvils. The wails and croons that follow are chased away by celebratory chimes and whistles. It's impressive special-effects music--Danny Elfman should check it out before writing the score for the next Batman. But how does one evaluate it when there are no other works to compare it with? Facing a bank of PCs and other electronic gadgets programmed by Pieter Snapper, the cheerful and intense-looking Eaton left no keys untouched in an energetic performance. One could almost mistake him for the Wizard of Oz. Yes indeed, the synthesizer is versatile and colorful, capable of generating sounds that are weird and wonderful. With it at one's disposal, who needs an orchestra?

In a program note for his 1964 Microtonal Fantasy (for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart), Eaton hints at what he has in mind for the synthesizer. "In this piece my interest is in microtonal sonorities and intervals as such, rather than the use of 'out-of-tuneness' as a coloristic resource." The clusters of three notes--cells of quarter tones--at the opening germinate and permute. These "expositions" are separated by "lyrical" episodes built on microtonal intervals. This progression, Eaton claims, seems inevitable. To the listener, the fantasia proceeds at once arbitrarily and rigorously--the seemingly random, off-pitch clusters flow out of one another with some logic. Eaton, who played this work carefully on two pianos, believes it's among his most inner-directed compositions. No one is likely to dispute that claim.

Four Miniatures, commissioned by a friend of Eaton's for her beau, a stockbroker who's an amateur tenor saxophonist, is a series of uncomplicated bagatelles. In one the sax (nicely handled by Paul Bro) is a peevish noisemaker with a penchant for blowing raspberries. Another is a bluesy elegy, and the finale is enlivened by unexpected twists and turns. The entire set reveals an irreverent streak in Eaton's personality: after all, how seriously can one take a Wall Streeter's need to show off? Bill Clinton, here's a showpiece for you.

A Packet for Emile and Bill, a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and clarinet, is based on intimate poems by Emile Snyder and incorporates techniques developed by clarinetist William Smith. Both men have been Eaton's friends since the early 60s. The texts--full of aphorisms and with titles such as "On My 60th Birthday" and "Diva"--are whimsical, contemplative, and passionate. They are never sentimental, especially as sung by Nelda Nelson (Eaton's wife). Her approach was ardent and sensuously dramatic--from the trembling that surged into a shout to the wildly flamboyant leaps in the last song. Accompanying her with equal passion was clarinetist Eric Mandat.

Eaton's vocal writing, from songs to operas, is arguably his best-known work. One of the pieces that contributed to his reputation is A Greek Vision, written in 1981 for Chicago performers Elsa Charlston (soprano) and Carole Morgan (flute), and based on three poems by Angelos Sikelianos that deal with birth and redemption. "Sparta" tells the story of an elderly husband who urges a young man to conceive a child with the husband's wife, from the husband's ambivalent point of view. Curiously, the voice is the soprano's singing mostly in the upper register, garnishing the words not with irony but rapture. In "The Return" a soul hovers over its fondly remembered native Greece, about to be reborn. Not surprisingly, the singer's phrases echo and resonate with the aid of digital-delay manipulations, a technique presaging Eaton's synthesizer; the piece ends with the phrase "to the sand's edge" accented by the bellowing of a foghorn. "Aphrodite Rising" is the most atmospheric of the three and shows Karlheinz Stockhausen's imprint. This poem describes the ecstasy of a beauty's struggle against the forces of nature to be born. As conveyed by the flute (played by Jayn Rosenfeld), the air is briny. Every sound is stretched into infinity or retracted. Against the primal backdrop the singer (Aphrodite, one assumes) shrieks, screams, then halts. Her sensual utterances linger like tender caresses, and the erotic charge is palpable. Heidi Schmidt, who sang the part, confided during rehearsal that she almost had an orgasm. I'm not surprised, even though her interpretation lacked the knowingness of an Elsa Charlston.

The concert's second half was devoted to Peer Gynt, Eaton's "theatrical romp" for instrumentalists composed for the broad-ranging New York New Music Ensemble and performed for the first time here. The piece represents another direction Eaton's explorations have taken him: carrying out the Italian Futurists' manifesto for a populist musical theater. In the ten vignettes of this Peer Gynt, loosely based on the same Ibsen play for which Grieg wrote the all-too-well-known incidental music, the instrumentalists "act" out the folk legend: recite, shout, sing, mime, even dance--rather like medieval troubadours. For Eaton, "many of the actions take place as part of lies, fantasies, dramas, and other imaginings." Appropriately, the instruments are extensions of their owners' personalities, and they also comment on the action. In one scene flute and clarinet engage in a duel. In another the cellist is the troll king's daughter who's about to marry Peer, who wears a bridal veil. For Anitra's dance Peer unscrews his clarinet and blows into both halves. Plenty of refreshingly novel touches heighten the impish fun. Eaton has ingeniously integrated a number of contemporary instrumental techniques into the action so that the performers don't seem self-conscious about them.

As Peer Gynt, clarinetist Jean Kopperud displayed the boyish swagger of Mary Martin's Peter Pan. She rolled, pranced, and somersaulted with the athletic grace one might expect of an avid parachutist, which she is. The other members of the NYNME were uniformly outstanding; cellist Michael Finckel and violinist Linda Quan in particular had several charming star turns. Keeping the hecticness under control was conductor Richard Duncan. Yet curiously, it isn't the story that registers. All I remember now is how Kopperud and company blithely proved that a musical instrument can be more than that.


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