Art in Paradise: The Big Pond

Valley native Craig Eastman headed west some years ago, fiddle at the ready, and invaded the City of Angels in search of musical success. It’s safe to say he’s found that success.

When Eastman recently returned for his annual tradition of tearing up the Valley with Bo Fitzgerald and the YankCelt Band, he discussed his voyage into the upper echelons of working as a studio musician and playing on film soundtracks.

“Going to California was like landing in a big pond,” says Eastman. “I’ve been playing with all kinds of people, and when I come back to the Valley, I get to report back, like from the Lewis and Clark expedition.”

Eastman has indeed been playing with all kinds of people. He’s shown up on recordings by some big-name players, including Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Steve Martin and Hugh Laurie, and on some big-name films, including Brokeback Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and Blackhawk Down. He’s become known not only as a violinist, but as a multi-instrumentalist who’s in the habit of finding and learning new instruments when he’s in need of a particular kind of sound. L.A., he says, is a great place to find those new sounds.

“One of my favorite things about L.A. is how international it is,” he says. “It’s got one of the largest populations of people from other countries. There are Armenians, people from Thailand, more Germans than anywhere outside of Germany. There’s an incredible list of countries for which that’s true, and they all bring their music with them. I enjoy learning different instruments. Like when I was doing The Last Samurai movie—I got to go out and get an erhu [two-string Chinese fiddle] and take lessons from an erhu master.”

He’s picked up a long list of other instruments, including the Moroccan gimbri and the West African goji. In one case, the quest for a certain kind of sound led him back to the Valley. “There was a particular sound I needed for a King Arthur remake. I called Matt Stamell in Amherst. He knew this Amherst College physics professor [Lloyd Craighill] who made instruments on the side.” Craighill had made a one-of-a-kind octave violin, and it filled the role perfectly. Eastman notes that the violin turned out to have been made from a tree that blew over in front of the church where his (and his parents’) wedding took place.

The voyage into film music began unexpectedly for Eastman. “I got a call out of the blue from this composer, Hans Zimmer,” he recalls. “He’s done about 110 scores, from Gladiator to True Romance to Pirates of the Caribbean, all kinds of big, blockbustery movies. He called me to record Irish music for a Barry Levinson movie. At first told him I couldn’t do it. The music supervisor said, ‘No, no, you really want to do this.’

“I went over for an 11 o’clock thing to meet him and listen to some of the score. I ended up leaving at 4 a.m., and we ended up recording a bunch of stuff. He ended up asking me to be in his house band—we played the solos and music for a bunch of scores for many years.”

For Eastman, film music is all about evoking emotion. “I found I really had an affinity for playing music that had a specific emotional attitude,” he says. “It’s almost like doing therapy on the characters and the plot, and playing that.”

Because he’s strongly focused on improvisation, Eastman has ended up composing for films as well as playing others’ scores. “In Brokeback Mountain, I ended up writing a couple of songs, but I didn’t play on the rest of the score,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll collaborate on a whole soundtrack, and sometimes I’ll come in and play other people’s stuff.”

“My favorite thing is to teach kids how to express themselves with their instrument,” says Eastman. “When you have the music on the page, you’re like a mechanical device to reproduce live what’s on the page. I ask the kids ‘How’s your day going?’ I tell them to play it, describe it through their instruments. If you’re sleepy, what does that sound like? That turns into a pretty open form of art. I found that doing film music was exactly the same thing.”

His affinity for emotion- and character-based playing has made film music a good fit for Eastman. “The reason they hire me is because I can play things with really specific emotional attitudes and really make the pieces come alive with a vocabulary, having it sound really gravelly like a horn, or glassy like an erhu,” he says.

“I think that everyone has a distinct musical voice,” Eastman says. “It comes down to, almost, casting. It’s almost like being a character actor. I’m lucky that I play a lot of different characters.”

Author: James Heflin

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