John Eaton, an avant-garde composer of operas both grandiose and chamber-size and an early proponent of synthesizer music, died on Dec. 2 in Manhattan. He was 80.
The cause was complications of a brain hemorrhage, said his wife, Nelda Nelson-Eaton. He had fallen on Dec. 1 while walking to St. Peter’s Church in Midtown for a performance of his work “Fantasy Romance” for cello and piano.
Mr. Eaton, who studied composition at Princeton with Milton Babbitt, Edward T. Cone and Roger Sessions, wrote music in a variety of forms but was best known for his operas, many of them envisioned on a colossal scale and written microtonally — that is, using the quarter-tone intervals between the 12 semitones of the Western octave.
“Heracles,” a tragic opera about Hercules and the poisoned robe of Nessus, required 300 performers. Its premiere, in 1972, inaugurated the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University, where Mr. Eaton taught for more than 20 years and directed the Center for Electronic and Computer Music. His “Danton and Robespierre,” a seething drama set in the French Revolution, had 40 solo roles, a chorus of 250 and an orchestra of 150. It was first performed at Indiana in 1980.
After succeeding Ralph Shapey as teacher of composition at the University of Chicago in 1992, Mr. Eaton concentrated on short staged works for a handful of performers that he called “pocket operas” and a new genre he called “romps for instrumentalists,” in which costumed performers took on dramatic roles while playing their instruments.
While studying in Rome in the early 1960s he became intrigued by the Fonosynth, a large synthesizer at the American Academy of Rome designed by the Polish-Italian sound engineer Paolo Ketoff. He helped Mr. Ketoff develop a portable version, the Synket, and used it to give some of the first live performances of electronic music on a synthesizer.
“I went all over the world with the Synket, giving more than 1,000 concerts,” Mr. Eaton said in a 2013 interview at the Museum of Making Music, in Carlsbad, Calif. “I was the first electronic troubadour.” The synthesizer was featured in his 1966 composition “Concert Piece for Synket and Symphony Orchestra.”
He later worked for 20 years with Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, to develop the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard, a synthesizer that responded to a variety of pressures and placements of the performer’s fingers. In 1992 he wrote the first work for the instrument, “Genesis.”
Mr. Eaton took an uncompromising stand on his art. Opera, he believed, should make audiences stretch their musical muscles. As a result, most major opera houses shunned his work, which some critics found technically impressive but impenetrable. He found his primary audiences and support in universities and experimental settings.
“Opera has always been the place where composers have tried out the newest ideas,” he told Capital New York (now part of Politico) in 2010. “Composers today are writing lollipops for the audience.”
John Charles Eaton was born on March 30, 1935, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and grew up in East Stroudsburg. He studied music at Princeton, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a master’s two years later.
While in college he wrote his first opera, “Ma Barker,” a chamber work about the notorious Barker crime family. A keen swing pianist, he also led a student jazz group, the Princetonians, who recorded two albums for Columbia Records, “Johnny Eaton and the Princetonians” and “Far Out, Near In.”
After leaving Princeton, he spent more than a decade in Rome, supported by three Prix de Rome fellowships and concert tours with his quartet, the American Jazz Ensemble. In Rome, after writing “Heracles” in a free serial style, he embraced microtonalism as a way to achieve greater expressiveness in his music, a development reflected in his 1966 work “Microtonal Fantasy.”
“We have imprisoned our music in a jailhouse of 12 bars,” Mr. Eaton told Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1985, referring to the 12 tones of the octave. “It’s not natural, and it’s not something that’s going to continue.”
This new orientation was reflected in “Myshkin,” a large-scale work based on Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot,” commissioned by PBS and broadcast in 1973. Its electronic effects and microtones conveyed the central character’s psychic swerves between rationality and irrationality.
Three more operas in this vein followed — the children’s opera “The Lion and Androcles” (1974), “Danton and Robespierre” (1978) and “The Cry of Clytaemnestra” (1980) — prompting the music critic Andrew Porter to anoint Mr. Eaton “the most interesting opera composer writing in America today.”
“The Cry of Clytaemnestra,” after receiving its premiere at Indiana in 1980, left the confines of academia to receive performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the San Francisco Opera. “The Tempest,” with a libretto by Mr. Porter, had its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 1985. In 1990, Mr. Eaton was awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation.
At the University of Chicago, from which he retired in 2001, Mr. Eaton turned his attention to smaller work, writing for a troupe of his own creation, the Pocket Opera Players. They made their debut in 1993 with the romp “Peer Gynt” and the pocket opera “Let’s Get This Show on the Road, ” a retelling of the biblical creation story.
He composed about a dozen pocket operas, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2010), based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who ages in reverse.
In addition to his wife, a singer who often performed his work, he is survived by a daughter, Estela Eaton, who wrote the librettos for several of his operas; a son, Julian; and an older brother, Harold.
Mr. Eaton remained buoyant about the possibilities for opera as a native art form, even though, for most of his career, critics were writing its epitaph. “American opera does not need to be saved,” he told The New York Times in 1985, “it only needs to be done.”
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