Last month, senior music major Steve Eaton presented his thesis composition. The performance was broken into two sections. In the first, the audience sat in typical fashion, facing the musicians as they played. The last piece of the first section was two minutes long. The song consisted of one chord, played once and sustained over the duration of the piece. The movement of the song was all in the flux and change of the chord as the wavelengths gradually distended, warped, and eventually faded. The piece was preparatory, he informed us, for the longer work which would follow the break. After a short intermission, we were invited back into the auditorium. Musicians, singers and dancers were placed all around the stage and seating area. Steve encouraged us to walk around, while the musicians recreated the various sounds of a salt-marsh. From minute bird calls to a cello-rendition of an airplane passing overhead, the effect was hypnotic. Members of the audience lay on their backs beneath the pianos, stood behind the dancers, and squatted in front of a chorus of singers who whispered lines of dialogue. I sat down with Steve Eaton after the performance to speak with him. This interview was set in Steve’s common room in Spelman, which is stark white and empty save for a wooden table and a surfboard. His kitchen is similarly empty save for many bags and boxes of tea. He made me a cup and spoke to me about his music.
I would like to start out by asking you about the show. It seemed to be focused on teaching the audience how to listen, mostly. Was this your intention?
I think my idea of what music is has changed a lot over the past year, and I think it’s mostly because my listening has changed. What I think now is that all music is is listening, it’s not an active process, it’s just listening. Art is seeing as like a receiving. Listening is just allowing yourself to be a part of everything that is going on.
Was listening the inspiration for the show?
That’s my ideal right now. After I did the performance I wrote down a lot of stuff. I decided to be a music major. I mean I came here as an electrical engineer, and then made the switch. And then I started doing so much listening, I mean just so much. And I knew I wanted to compose music. And then I went down to the toe path one night, I mean very late at night. And I just stood there by the toe path and it was just the most beautiful music. I could never arrange something like that. I could never compose something like that. And I thought, ‘Why would I want to be a composer? That’s selfish. I mean, that’s wanting to own something.’
There’s still an element of arranging in a performance. I was wondering to what extent you feel that you yourself as an artist should limit arrangement? How do you go about that? Is your ideal to step out of that process as much as you can?
I think that, I mean, I was really psyched about the performance, but I don’t think it represents my ideal of what music is to me. I mean, I think it was great and I think it was fun for the audience and the participators, but I would rather see everybody participating equally all the time, like all members of the soundscape.
You would prefer to take an audience out to the marsh and tell them to listen?
I think what I would prefer is to have no direction of what music is, but rather it’s an everywhere all the time sort of thing. I mean, this is music (he points at the table) and this is unique, and this is music (he points to us). And what you notice all of sudden is the way this room is resonating, and there’s this sound coming from the air coming in and our voices are creating sounds in this dialogue.
And then there are the imperceptible noises, like the light bulbs.
Exactly, and so that, that I guess is my ideal.
There’s an aspect of sharing in a performance, and then there is this aspect of opening up which you are talking about which is highly individual, highly singular. Does that sharing take away from the opening up experience?
To what extent does devotion come up in your listening?
Almost always. It’s hard to put words to. I mean in my senior piece, and creating that, and being in the process of that happening, I mean, it was devotional all along, it was devotional to myself, to being part of the reception, devotional to all the things that I was able to hear. This is my meditative practice in the morning: just being out there listening. A lot of people who are religious have a personal practice. I know a lot of people who have a yoga practice; I mean, they wake up and do a yoga practice on their own. They, it’s completely inside themselves or whatever it may be. But other people also have other sorts of practice. It might be just being with their baby or going for a walk, and I started treating the piano as some sort of personal practice. And like six months I was just going to the piano every day with the lights out and just spending half an hour with the sound in the room just being with the piano, and that was me sharing with the piano and in terms of devotion how that factors in. It is just devotion to me being connected to things and allowing myself to be connected to things. And every time I allow myself to do that I feel like I am not being a creator.
How did you write and compose your piece?
So the way that it went down is that, like, I did a lot of listening, and I ended up recording a bunch of stuff this summer and wrote it down. And there are certainly a lot of trends that I started noticing, and things that I became familiar with. The way that I decided to force these things to happen was by almost a concept of probability. There are certain times in the piece when four people would have the same sound to choose from. The piece was also directed by signals. Like train whistle sort of sounds, or conch shells. It sort of functions like a game. Like a musician could be walking around, doing whatever they want, but once they hear, for example, Chuck play the cymbal, they have the choice to play this one bird sound. And this bird sound is a single chirp, and she can play it anywhere she wants in the room. But when she is done, she stays there and she does it consistently. But she can stop whenever she wants and start whenever she wants, but once she hears this airplane passing then she has the choice to play the gull sound or the mourning dove sound. So it goes on and on like that until the end when I start doing my solo and then she stops. Or she can keep going. Whatever. She can do whatever she wants. So that’s how the score goes. It’s like, O.K., it’s a game of choices and each of your choices is flexible depending on how you do it or how loud or, you know, you don’t have to do it at all, if you don’t want to.
What does the element of choice add to the music?
In the salt marsh there are hundred different animals, and they are all making sounds. There are millions of insects in and of themselves. Then there are hundreds of birds. If I had a thousand million people then maybe I wouldn’t have this game of choice. I would have everyone do a specific sound.
There were a lot of sounds that I needed to get. I had three people playing woodwinds. I needed them to cover seven sounds. It also came from having choices, which is a good thing, and it allowed for this…I guess it was to give the aural appearance of there being much more going on in space. I had this picture of you standing in place and there being a single pitch bird going on over here and something else over there, and to achieve this I told the performers that if you are going to change your sound, you have to go to a different place, you have to change your location. So your awareness is of two entities but there is only one person playing them.
Slowness is an important aspect of your music, no?
Yeah, slow not in terms of tempo or slow in terms of how quickly things change. Like when I was playing the solo, my hands were moving very fast but I guess that the effect is stillness. I would say that stillness is more what I am going for.
How do you receive music? Is it a matter of the ears? How does one best intake music?
I felt it for the first time this year. I never felt myself taking in music this way but right through here (points to forehead), right through my third-eye point. It was awesome, like it was the first time. And the first time it ever happened, it was in classes my first day back. Because I was doing beautiful listening all summer and stuff, but it was not till my first day back and I was hearing a Beethoven sonata played and I was in a closed room and I felt it hitting that spot.
How did you make the switch from music to engineering?
It happened really late sophomore year. After I had already declared, and we had all declared. I was in my bed, and I had a moment of clarity or something. It was wild, and I just stopped what I was doing and I just looked up and there was like this really cool shape thing floating in the air. It was a cone and another cone in the opposite direction, and they were meeting at the point, and they were just floating in the air, and they were balanced perfectly. And I wasn’t saying anything or doing anything, and it was just music music music happening in my head. Almost like a mantra or something “music music music” and so I just switched.
You had played music in high school?
I wasn’t super involved in high school. Just music happened, and I made the switch and everything was beautiful.
What do you think of yourself in high school?
I don’t think about it so much, but other people who knew me in high school mention it a lot when they are around me, because it was a different story. I was football player, captain quarterback football player dating cheerleader, just like really into the things I was doing. Like working out and being a tough guy. I was a lifeguard. Very different. Totally different.
What do you think of that time?
It was cool. It was where I was at. I was doing my thing. I felt very happy. It was good.
In terms of emotional content, it was the same, just in a different mold?
Yeah, it was real good. Emotionally, I was in a great place. I was having a very successful time with football, and I had a great girlfriend. I’m talking about the end of high school. Beginning of high school was strange, but towards the end I was into my own. But it was a totally different self than now. With football, I was feeling good, because I drank a lot in middle school and the beginning of high school. But with football I stopped drinking, and I was feeling really good, and I was feeling very social, and it was a lot of fun.
And has the transition from that been all right?
Yeah, I mean it’s been a long transition. I mean, my friends can’t believe it. I had short hair, I was real clean cut. Freshman year was the same thing; it wasn’t real different, but the summer after freshman year everything started changing. I got really into surfing. I think the water has taught me all things. The water was my first teacher. I believe that the water can tell you all things, all truths and untruths. It started showing me a lot of things when I just started allowing myself to be and just see and just ride. That was huge. That was the transition right there. Sophomore year I was less willing to allow myself to be in something that was not so true. And then I became more and more O.K. with leaving things that were not so true.
Were there things besides engineering that were not so true, that you didn’t want?
Yeah, I had joined up with Ivy club. That wasn’t true. I dropped out. Even like what I was doing. Like how I was holding myself and acting, with Ivy club and just socially at that point. My whole physical schedule. Just drinking and being reckless. I mean there were so many transitions in my life.
What do you think of the general social life on this campus?
I think it’s pretty silly. I mean, it’s just not for me. It’s silly for me to think of myself in that place, but I know that I was so I guess it makes sense for some people. But I don’t think it’s a positive thing for the world or for anybody. Like I don’t think that people are giving themselves positive energy, and without people giving themselves positive energy, they can’t give it to other people. And if that is not happening, then I don’t think that the world is being lit up.
Would you recommend Princeton to someone?
I wouldn’t go to Princeton now, and I wouldn’t send my own kid here. And I wouldn’t encourage and also wouldn’t discourage. That’s all. At this point I’m not too into being in a university any time soon. I don’t think I’m going to grad school or anything like that, though there are a lot of positive elements. A lot of positive energy is present always, but, yeah, that’s not where I’m at.
It sounds like the primary desire it to stick to what works with where you are at. Do you have any larger desires?
I mean that is kind of how I am right now. But in terms of…well, I have a girlfriend right now who I love. And this is the first time I could ever see a settling down of any sort. This is the first time I’ve ever had like a distant…perhaps something, to settle down. It has something to do with opening up.
What do you think of civilization?
When things are going well, it’s like an animal race flourishing: it just makes sense, and it is very harmonious. I think that when that’s not the case any more is when people are flourishing without actually being at harmony with what’s around them when it wouldn’t normally make sense for people to flourish there. But they can because of what we have and what we do then I think that is the cause of a lot of strange things happening. Like men being oppressive and obviously, like, war and everything.
What do you think is the state of our harmony?
Right here, right now?
Right here, right now.
I mean, I don’t know where to find the harmony right here, right now. I live very, very far out east on Long Island, and I see some really really great harmony out there. But it is not so often that I see that. Are you encouraging a meditative type of thinking? Yeah. I think I would encourage that in anyone I met.