Remembering John Eaton (1935-2015)

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
— Sir Isaac Newton

Bob Moog was renowned for his remarkable humility, despite his tremendous accomplishments. One of the reasons that he deflected many accolades was due to his awareness that his technical achievements were created while standing on the shoulders of giants, both those who came before him, and those with whom he collaborated closely. Dr. John Eaton was one of those giants.

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We were saddened to learn that John passed away on December 1, 2015. He was Bob Moog’s long-time collaborator in creating the Eaton-Moog Multi-Touch Sensitive keyboard, and a cherished friend. John was a prominent composer of operatic and microtonal music, a pioneer in integrating new forms of electronic music into opera, a professor, and a husband to wife Nelda, and father to his two children, Julian and Estela.

His accolades are many. He was a two-time recipient of the Guggienheim Fellowship (1962 and 1965), three-time winner Prix de Rome, and a MacArthur Fellow (1990). Eaton was Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome, taught at Indiana University Bloomington for twenty years and the University of Chicago for ten, where he served as Emeritus Professor of Music.

John was a prolific composer and wrote over 20 operas over his nearly 60 year career, including  Myshkin (1970), Danton and Robespierre (1978), The Cry of Clytaemnestra (1980), and The Tempest (1985).  He founded the Pocket Opera Players (1992) a small, innovative opera company created to tour easily, perform original music in nontraditional venues, and allow instrumentalists to take part in the expressive action of the opera.

Eaton-Moog

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John Eaton and Bob Moog, reviewing the score to Genesis. [Bob Moog Foundation Archives]

John first crossed paths with Bob Moog in 1966. In the early 60s John had worked closely with Italian inventor Paulo Ketoff to help bring Ketoff’s early Syn-Ket (Synthesizer Ketoff) to live performance. [Read much more about Ketoff and the Syn-Ket here: http://120years.net/tag/paul-ketoff/].

 

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Paulo Ketoff (right), and John Eaton (playing), performing with the Sky-Ket in Italy, 1963. (120years.net)

 

In 1966, he brought the Syn-Ket to the United States from Rome in order to share its capabilities with various educational facilities. It arrived in the states not working correctly, and John, desperately searching for a solution, was advised by his friend and colleague Joel Chadabe to seek out Bob’s help in repairing it. John tells the complete story here:

After that initial meeting, John and Bob began discussing possibilities for a new instrument, responding to John’s concern, “I thought what was lacking in electronic music was human nuance….so that you could effect every aspect of music.”

Together they set out to create a highly expressive keyboard controller that would respond to the subtleties of human touch. In 1970, John received a grant from Indiana University that would provide initial funding for the project. He and Bob collaborated on the Eaton-Moog Multi-Touch Sensitive Keyboard (MTS) for over 20 years, with John providing musical direction as Bob built prototype after prototype, implementing improvements with the advent of new components and new ideas. By the time the instrument was completed, the MTS was touch sensitive in five ways:

  •  the amount a key is depressed
  •  the front-to-back position on the surface of the key
  •  the side-to side position on the surface of the key
  •  the amount of pressure added to a completely depressed key
  •  the amount of area a finger covered on the surface of a key

 

The MTS is considered to be a precursor to today’s Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (MPE) MIDI controllers.

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You can see John demonstrating the Mutli-Touch Sensitive keyboard controller, in 2010, here:

At last, after decades of devotion to the project, the instrument was unveiled on May 29, 1992 at the University of Chicago, featured in John’s opera Genesis. 

5-29-92 Moog Synth concert by John Eaton, postcard announcement, front
Postcard announcement: Bob Moog Foundation Archives

5-29-92 Moog Synth Concert by John Eaton, postcard announcement

 

In the article below, from Piano & Keyboard (March/April 1993), Bob acknowledges that the future of the instrument was to be passed on to others, both musicians and software engineers.

4-93 _And Moog Created Genesis_, article with Bob, Piano and Keyboard magazine, photo with Bob, p.20

4-93 _And Moog Created Genesis_, Piano and Keyboard Magazine, photo of Bob, p.21

 

4-93 _And Moog Created Genesis_, Piano and Keyboard magazine, photo with Bob and John Eaton, p.22

Bob and John were scheduled to attend the NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) conference in 2005 to find a software engineer who could help them make the controller work with a modern computer. A week before the conference, Bob called John to tell him that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and would not be able to make the trip. He passed away three months later.

For the past 10 years, John made efforts to bring the controller to life but was not able to do so.

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One Response to “Remembering John Eaton (1935-2015)”

  1. Taylor Martin

    Zappa had an Eaton for his guitar.

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