Tuning system supplies operas with fresh edge
Composer John Eaton will the guide the Friday evening audience at Bellefield Hall in Oakland through the distinctive operatic world that is the core of his creativity.
Eaton, the Franz Lehar Composer-in-Residence this year at the University of Pittsburgh, will be using videos of his operas to demonstrate his work, and two chamber pieces will be performed live.
Born in Philadelphia in 1935 and raised in East Stroudsburg, from age 5, Eaton’s musical experiences have been uncommonly varied. A pianist interested in composing from age 6, he wrote his first opera when he was 9. His high school band teacher showed him how to play every instrument, had him make arrangements for the ensemble, and also introduced him to jazz.
Eaton supported himself as a jazz pianist for 20 years, including while studying classical composition at Princeton University will such formidable figures as Milton Babbitt, Earle Kim, Edward Cone and Roger Sessions. Eaton’s jazz combos featured clarinetist Bill Smith, and later flutist Herbie Mann and others. Eaton played at the Village Vanguard and other top New York City clubs, and released recordings on the Columbia and Epic labels.
He finally gave up jazz in 1970 because “I love to compose in the early morning, by 5 a.m. But when I played jazz I wasn’t likely to go to be going to bed by 5 a.m. The two just conflicted.”
Eaton has written more than 20 operas, and will illustrate the individual use he makes of special tuning systems for dramatic emphasis. As a pianist, he’s especially aware of the little compromises in tuning a piano sound to make it sound reasonably good in every key — a development Johann Sebastian Bach celebrated in his famous “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
By contrast, Eaton uses the uncorrected “just” tuning that sounds best in the initial key of a piece, such as C major, and sound less and less “in-tune” as the music moves to more distant keys, such as F sharp minor.
Eaton also emphasizes that his “Danton and Robespierre” is the first opera in which two alternate tuning systems are used. At the beginning of the opera, when Robespierre is at his most rational and idealistic he sings beautifully in the original key. But as the opera progress and his idealism gives way to ruthless practicality and the “Reign and Terror,” Eaton has Robespierre sing in distant keys that have an extra “howl” to them because of the tuning system.
The music for Danton, the quintessential liberal, is written in quarter-tones — which lie between the notes we normally hear.
A computer would be a big help with all the math involved in analyzing what lies behind Eaton’s music. Fortunately, listeners need only their ears to appreciate the sound combinations he’s invented.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Bellefield Hall, 315 S. Bellefield Ave., Oakland.