You may not know his name, but you’ve heard him play.

Eric Gorfain’s intuitive way with stringed instruments — particularly his signature electric violin — has made him and the group he founded, The Section Quartet, vital contributors on albums as diverse and as influential as Kanye West’s Late Registration, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, and others by Queens of the Stone Age, Jenny Lewis, Foo Fighters, and more.

Eric Gorfain of The Section Quartet

I first heard Gorfain’s name as I listened to the Quartet’s inventive interpretations of Radiohead albums like OK Computer and The Bends. Later, he would demonstrate extraordinary discernment, marrying the woman who has been, for me, the single most influential singer and songwriter: Sam Phillips.

I’m eager to introduce you to his new solo album — released under the moniker tone-cluster — which I’ve been playing almost every day lately. I’ve been listening under headphones while walking, looking at the sky and the sea, and then, inspired by what I’ve heard, writing.


But first, some background:

When I was growing up, I was taught to listen for “the message” of a song. Songs had either good messages or bad messages — that’s what influential voices in my religious community insisted. This was, I understand now, a terrible way to experience music. First-time experiences with songs were occasions of suspicion in which I strove to arrive at a judgment of the song’s message. Consideration of the beauty of the music, the excellence of the musicianship, or the poetry in the lyrics were secondary — if they were considered at all.

Perhaps that is why I felt such freedom and joy in the world of instrumental music. If I wasn’t sifting the lyrics, skeptical and distrustful, I could just listen and enjoy. My grandfather’s library of classical music on vinyl was a wonderland of sounds and impressions. I began spending my allowance on movie soundtracks because, while I wasn’t allowed to see movies because of “dangerous messages,” the music was generally regarded as harmless.

I think I became a novelist because instrumental music had the mysterious power to fill my head with ideas and images. One enigma inspired the making of another. As my high school English teacher Michael Demkowicz once said, “Art is what happens when a person encounters mystery and feels compelled to make something of it.”

I’ll repeat that:

Art is what happens when a person encounters mystery
and feels compelled to make something of it.

Half a century later, I understand that songs, stories, movies, and other creative work that is heavy-handed with “messages” is, well… bad art. The purpose of art is not to deliver messages — that’s what straight talk is for. Art is what happens when an artist shapes something that they cannot merely explain straightforwardly. Art reminds us that words cannot tell us everything. Even art made of words — poems, stories, lyrics — asks us to pay attention and reach for the “more” than the words are saying. As Elvis Costello once said, “People ask me all the time, ‘What does that song mean?’ Well, if I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I?”

That’s the mystery — the “More” — of art. Its ambiguity is, for the patient and observant, endlessly rewarding.


A perfect example of this comes to us this summer in this strange and haunting tone-cluster album called KYO SHU (available here on Bandcamp).

It’s the album I’ve been playing most often this summer in part because of the worlds that its experimental soundscapes invite me to explore. Listening to it the first few times, without any knowledge of the specific memories that inspired the various pieces, I was moved to write down images they were inspiring. I’m writing a new novel set in an imaginary world, and I could go back to other favorite instrumental albums, but those compositions are already deeply connected in my mind to stories I’ve already written. Gorfain’s music… it’s doing something different and new.

So, talking with him last week, I was astonished to learn how powerfully and precisely this music was speaking to me. In fact, even the artist himself was surprised at just how similar my imaginings were to the memories from his past that inspired this music.

KYO SHU is a Japanese term that means both “reminiscence” and “nostalgia” — and this album of experimental soundscapes finds Gorfain recalling vivid memories of his younger days in Japan, feeling a longing for the immersive sensory experiences, and making something of them that can convey his feelings. As he talked about his memories, I came to understand the sense of longing that weaves throughout the album.

Overstreet:

You’ve worked on such a consistently surprising array of projects, I’m surprised that when you started something so new and so personal that it was such a… surprise! This album is so different from your work with The Section Quartet. Where did this come from?

Gorfain:

I started working with this sonic palette a year-and-a-half ago. I was using guitar pedals and different effects and looping pedals with my electric violin to make sounds. It’s not song structure — it was just improvisation in my studio. I was recording these things; I didn’t really know what they were or if they were anything at all. When the pandemic hit and there was suddenly a bunch of time on my hands, I opened up these sessions on my computer and started listening and I thought, “Yeah, I really do have something.” And then I started doing more.

Right around that time, I had been really thinking about my time in Japan quite a bit. A little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of longing for being there — it’s been three and a half years since I was last there — and the nostalgia and the memories just collided with the music. I would listen to some music, and it would trigger a memory, and I would say, “Okay, here’s a memory — now let me hold that in my mind and play some more music.”

The first piece was “Yuki no Rotemboro (Onsen in the Snow).” I thought of a memory, an experience, and improvised a soundtrack for it. Then I did a little bit of cleaning up, adding some other sounds and things, and gave it a little bit of form, because it was just a freeform experiment at the time.

Other pieces followed and suddenly I had an album.

You can follow tone-cluster and learn more about this album on Instagram.

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July 12 : Day 25 : 5 Remaining EXT. – A JAPANESE OUTDOOR HOT SPRING RESORT – 12:37am A light snow is falling on the trees surrounding the pools of volcanically heated hot spring water. A 30-year-old male sets down a carafe of hot sake on the edge of the pool before slowly stepping into the water. The air is freezing, but the water is scalding, so he quickly enters the pool (up to his neck). He sips his sake as he soaks in the “onsen” while looking up at the treetops, the frigid air cooling his face as the rest of his body is warmed inside and out. Just then, he thinks of her…. #onsen # 温泉 #sake #日本酒 #experimentalmusic #music #violin #experimental #soundscape #dronemusic #improvisedmusic #musician #avantgarde #violinist #soundart #electroacoustic #amplifiedviolin #electricviolin #japan #nostalgia #reminiscing #郷愁 #ドローン音楽 #エレキーバイオリン #アバンガルド音楽 #ノイズ音楽

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Overstreet:

Your Japan memories have such a particular power for you. Can you describe something of your personal history with the place?

Gorfain:

I had a Japanese influence early, when I was growing up: I learned violin via the Suzuki Method, which Dr. Shinichi Suzuki developed in Japan to teach string instruments and piano. So I think a lot of the tenets of Japanese society were already engrained in my subconscious. I didn’t understand the language, but I got the societal things about it as much as an American can in a very different society.

After my freshman year of college, I was back home for the summer. A friend of my mother’s, who was an educator at California State University — Sacramento, was teaching in a program in which two groups of Japanese students came over, each one for three weeks of immersion, basically, to learn and practice English. So I spent six weeks hanging out with other kids my age and we hit it off. In the mornings they would have English lessons and in the afternoons they would hang out in small groups with American college students and put their English lessons into practice. They were learning through having to converse — so we’d go play miniature golf or we’d go to the mall and basically just talk. I kept in touch with a lot of them via letters — good old-fashioned air mail.

The following summer, after my sophomore year, I was going to save up some money and go on a trip. I spent five weeks over there just as a tourist. I only stayed in one hotel — the rest of the time I stayed in their homes or dormitories. I had a crash course in being in Japan. And I loved it. I loved Japan.

The following summer, there was an opportunity to do an exchange program at a small music college in Japan. I applied, I got it, and that changed my life. I spent a year and a half in a small mountain town of about 60,000 people — I’d never lived in a small town like that anywhere — and then spent three years in Tokyo. 

Overstreet:

My impressions of Japan come primarily from art: the films of Yasujiro Ozu, above all, but also literature — Shasuko Endo, Pico Iyer, and the writings about Zen Buddhism by the Christian monk Thomas Merton. I’m sure my impressions are limited and naive, but I am drawn to a sense of a more contemplative way of life. Is that just a fantasy, or is that something of your experience there?

Gorfain:

There is nothing slow about Tokyo. Tokyo and Osaka to a certain extent are their own places.

And then there’s rural Japan, which is very slow — a totally different life. I can’t compare it to rural life in America because I don’t know rural life in America — or Europe or anywhere. There are plenty of people there who are very Western, in that they’re ‘go-getters,’ going for success in their field, ambitious. But in general, it’s a slower, more contemplative life — because they’re a little more in touch, even subconsciously, with nature and with the spiritual, and a little less engaged in the hustle and bustle.

There’s a juxtaposition and dichotomy between traditional Japanese culture — which you think of in terms of tea ceremonies, or kimonos, or other things that have a ritual and are time-consuming — and the modern culture — which is more about pachinko parlors, neon signs, and blaring PA systems everywhere, and lots of noise on the streets and lots of light.

That’s one of the things about Japan that I love and that has always been fascinating to me. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out. But there is definitely a dichotomy. It’s fascinating to me that a country that had such a serene, pastoral cultural history then produced this other bright-lights, neon, fast-paced, modern society and that the people can exist in both in the same time.

Overstreet:

So, let’s get into the album and its various sounds and colors. It opens with “Mangetsu (The Full Moon).” Hearing it, I wrote these words: “On a bed of dark, roiling clouds, suddenly a bright, cold, clear tone — like a mother bird calling for children she knows are lost. Come home.” And then I jotted down “2001: A Space Odyssey!” because it reminded me so much of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

Gorfain:

The moon is revered in Japan. It’s revered everywhere, of course. But I toured with an artist over there, and he had a song called “Mangetsu,” about the idea of that gigantic moon hanging over the horizon. There was a moment when I was in my early 20s —  I remember rice fields, low hills, and then the moon coming up over that and lighting up the rice fields. It’s as simple as that. It’s magical. Is this really happening?

The imagery came back into my mind, and the circumstances. The music that came out is a little abrasive, and there’s a lot of dissonance, a lot of sound but not a lot of melody. It’s kind of spastic in a way. There was something about the energy of that moon shining down on that land and shining down on me — that’s what I had in mind.

In Taiwan there’s the Moon Festival every October. They have special sweets and they drink tea and they watch the full moon rise. They have such reverence for the moon. And I’ve always been someone who loves to just stare at the moon. Those harvest moons that come up low over the horizon — they always blow my mind. Whether it’s inherently Japanese or not, it’s something that is much on my mind.

Overstreet:

You seem very focused on inspirations outside of yourself when you compose, rather than what is probably the more common artistic impulse — to communicate your circumstances, your opinions, or something that you’re going through. 

Gorfain:

For the track “Onsen in the Snow,”  I remember how it felt, sitting in the hot spring water with the cold winter air and snow in my face. It’s a very vivid image. I don’t remember if I was sad about something.

But then, having said that, I should say that another journalist I was talking to recently asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks: “Is her ghost in this music?” He said that out of nowhere, and I was like “I don’t know… probably? If I really think about it.” That kind of thing is coming from deep in our subconscious. I did go through some stuff — and there’s got to be some of that in the music.

Overstreet:

Another track that inspires me to write is “Mayonaka Sakkyu (Midnight Sand Dunes).” But again, I was just playing the music, not looking at track titles or liner notes. And this is what I wrote down: “Wind dusting dunes, long sloping lines, marked by a measured pace, perhaps the pace of a heartbeat or of footsteps, as a man walks by night.”

Gorfain:

I was an exchange student living in a small town, and I had befriended some people there. One of the staff members of the university grabbed a couple of friends and me, and we drove out to these dunes on the Japan Sea coast that were about an hour and a half away. I was 20 or 21. It was that time of life where you do crazy things — you leave at midnight and go out to walk over sand dunes with people you barely know. It was a youthful dalliance of a sort that then just turned into a surreal scene.

We got there at one o-clock in the morning. I’d never been to sand dunes, so that was new. It was dark, and it wasn’t hot. And it was just surreal — you’re in Japan, you’re hearing waves, and then you come over the dunes and you see waves crashing in the dark. We walked around for a couple of hours and headed home. I don’t remember the thoughts that went through my head. I just know that I was already in a foreign land, and then suddenly I was in a foreign land in a foreign land.

For this piece, I went backwards. I had made a piece of music, I had created the bed of it, and the darkness of it. And then, independently, I had that memory of the dunes, which resonated. And the memory found the music. So I played a melody over it with the memory clearly in mind. In the studio, I gave myself a large distance between myself and the microphone in order to really get a sense of distance and expanse, and to capture that memory. The music sounded like that experience for me.

And apparently it sounded that way to you too!

Tottori sand dunes, from Wiki Commons — User:Geofrog / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

Overstreet:

My favorite piece is the last one: “Saishu Densha (Last Train).”  Apparently, my impressions of that weren’t quite so exact. I did get a sense of a passing train, but mostly I was imagining standing on a porch or sitting next to a window and hearing rain on a tin roof or some other material that would clatter with differing notes.

Gorfain:

When I was living in the rural area, I would sometimes have to go to the nearby big city for something. I would take the train there and back. On the train ride back, generally speaking, there wouldn’t be many people or any other people on the train. It was a two-car train, very small. And it would go through these country roads and mountain passes along a river.

I remember just sitting there and staring off into the distance at the twinkling fires and lights of the farmhouses, the small country road on the other side of the river with cars driving up and down. It was about an hour and a half for the trip. Sometimes you were tired already, and you’d fall into a dream state, with the rhythmic sound — you could see trees blowing in the distance, in that blue dusk light.

Those are the memories. I can still picture it. It’s something I’d really love to experience again.

Overstreet:

The most challenging track is one that will probably raise the most questions for listeners. “Kon Ran” reminds me of some of the darker scenes in David Lynch films, when there is a clash of the natural world and the mechanized, industrial world. It often sounds like a propeller or a wind tunnel, but it’s an ominous roar.

Gorfain:

I wasn’t afraid of noise, of creating something that was more drone than melody. It was a musical experiment.

As I said earlier, Tokyo is a dichotomy of the traditional and serene set up against a hectic, controlled chaos. At the end of the day, everything there is controlled. The chaos is within a box. It’s interesting to be able to see that from a distance.

When people rebel there, they rebel with other people in the same way — they find their clique, and then they go deep.

I like making a record like a set list, with peaks and valleys. Putting “Kon Ran” in the middle of the record, it felt like a peak. It was different from the other songs, but it fit and was a bit of a centerpiece.

I made a music video for it — I paired it with some footage I shot from the passenger seat of a car in Tokyo on the highway. A bit of an homage to Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation. She captured Tokyo so well.

Overstreet:

This material could make for a surreal, transporting live show. Do you have any aspirations to take it on the road and play these pieces for live audiences? And, given that you play everything on this record, is that even possible?

Gorfain:

I would love to perform this stuff live. I would love to do shows here in L.A. But there are places outside of America that might be more open to this music — Europe and Asia, for example.

Having said that, these are all improvisation-based. I don’t know that I could ever reproduce what you hear on the record. I could come close and mimic it, but every performance would be different. There’s an indeterminacy to it, and there’s chance to it that I can’t replicate, not only because I didn’t write anything down, but also because of the pedals I was using. I don’t know what the settings were — I was turning things and changing things.

But in terms of performing this type of music, even if I’m performing with a theme in mind, I would love to do that. Each performance would be unique.