By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Stravinsky once observed that only people who live outside Hollywood have Hollywood-size dreams. People who live in Hollywood dream of working. And that ever-more-elusive fantasy is exactly what Eric Gorfain, Los Angeles resident, has achieved. A founding member of the Section Quartet, he has arranged for rock bands, singer-songwriters (including his wife Sam Phillips), and rap/soul artists and producers including Dr. Dre. Most recently Gorfain was the sole arranger for a new orchestral album, Drastic Symphonies, with British heavy-metal rock band Def Leppard and British heavy-classical band the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was recorded last year at Abbey Road and released this May. Though this may seem a bit far afield for a classically educated violinist, Gorfain is living proof that a background in classical music combined with curiosity, ingenuity, and persistence is a wonderful segue into a career in the recording industry.
The members of Def Leppard said that the title came from a “drastic symphonic” mash-up they had in their heads, and they felt that Gorfain was the perfect choice for making it a reality. “I was always a fan,” Gorfain tells me during a video conversation and explains how he had come to meet and work with them. “I first met [Def Leppard guitarist] Vivian Campbell in the mid-’90s here in Los Angeles. We became friends, and over the years, he even sat in on a few live performances with my string quartet.”
Six years ago, Gorfain was called in to write arrangements for Tesla, a rock band coincidentally from his hometown of Sacramento, because the producer wanted to use strings on a few songs. That producer turned out to be Def Leppard’s other guitarist, Phil Collen. A few months later, Gorfain was called in to arrange strings for the Down ’n’ Outz, a side project of Def Leppard’s lead singer, Joe Elliott. Next, Def Leppard asked him to arrange strings on their 2018 Christmas single. It turned out they were making a new album [Diamond Star Halos] in 2020 (released in 2022), and the band asked him to arrange strings once again. “It was a six-year journey,” he says.
The orchestral album, Drastic Symphonies, is something new, which Gorfain described as “a reimagination of both classic hits and deep tracks. The band chose songs that would work well in the classical orchestral milieu because they didn’t want this to be just a repackaging of hits but rather a true orchestral collaboration. They felt that doing this would enhance the drama that’s inherent in their songs.”
“My goal,” Gorfain adds, “was to add orchestrations that felt like they had always been there. Not just slather strings and brass and flutes onto their songs but to actually make it all work and sound natural. As a fan myself, I had a good perspective on what fellow fans might want to hear but also the professional perspective of what it would take to inject an orchestra into their songs.”
Gorfain explains that the process of putting the album together may not have been straightforward but was definitely “meticulous.” Over a period of six months, the band’s producer, Ronan McHugh, gathered together the original multi-track recordings, converting them to digital files so they could “pull them apart and analyze how those records were produced. The record-making nerd in me loved it. It was so much fun.” Gorfain ultimately wrote more than 20 arrangements for the album, 16 of which were recorded.
Gorfain started playing, using the Suzuki Method, before he was five, influenced by his dad who had played violin as a child. Neither had any idea that it would lead to a life and a career beyond “broadening a little child’s horizons. As I got older and got into it,” he says, “it was clear I had an aptitude for it. But even though I was studying classical music, I was also listening to pop radio—like any kid in the ’80s. And I was lucky that my parents had records by the Beatles and Bernstein alongside Beethoven.”
When Gorfain got to the University of California Los Angeles, he still hadn’t made his own “connection between the rock and classical worlds.” It was an older classmate who was already a professional electric bass player who advised him on how to be a working musician: “If you’re not going to be ‘the best in the world’ at something, then you’d better be good at a lot of different things—if you want to work.”
Gorfain took the advice to heart and learned how to be versatile. “I’ve done studio work, arranging, composing, scoring, engineering, notation, all sorts of stuff. You keep all the plates spinning, and it turns into a career. From my experience,” he says, “you aren’t taught at school how to be a studio musician. You learn by getting hired and doing it.”
In order to make the leap from being a purely classical musician to a more versatile one, Gorfain offers a piece of advice: “Know yourself: your strengths and limitations. When I was a kid, I was a fan of Itzhak Perlman, but I knew about myself early on that I was never going to spend 18 hours a day in a practice room in order to be like him. And that was OK, because knowing that about myself helped me become more interested in different facets of music. And that’s what my career is like. One day I’m creating an experimental soundscape with my electric violin, the next I’m writing a string arrangement for the Section Quartet to record, the next I’m working with Def Leppard, and the next with Dr. Dre. And it makes for not only a more interesting career but a more interesting life. Not to mention a big old jumble of music running through my head at any given time!”
Gorfain is proud of his work with the Section Quartet. “We’ve been part of a movement making it OK for classical kids to play rock music—we’ve been a bridge between these two different worlds. These days, kids are not only studying Suzuki and playing Mozart symphonies and concertos, but they’re also listening to AC/DC and Billie Eilish. Better yet, they want to be playing Billie Eilish songs with their friends—and on stringed instruments.”
He points out that the connections go both ways. “Since 2001, the Section Quartet has arranged and performed songs by Radiohead as Radiohead has incorporated much more orchestration over the years into their own sound. YouTube and the internet have given kids the opportunity to find any kind of music they’re interested in within seconds, so the idea of genre is being blurred. Perhaps it will eventually be wiped away,” he muses, “which would be a good thing.”
Gorfain cites his friend Rachel Barton Pine as a prominent classical soloist who has made the connection. “She also plays electric violin and likes heavy thrash metal. I lean more toward melodic hard rock. Whenever she can, she’ll do a hard rock show at a local club a day or two before her classical concert. It gets more people in the doors for the orchestra, and she loves doing it.”
Asked about arranging for his wife, who’s made a dozen or so albums in addition to scoring TV shows like Gilmore Girls, Gorfain says that “working on her music is great because her sense of melody and rhythm are incredibly strong. She grew up as a dancer, so her sense of rhythm is baked into who she is and how she writes and how she performs. When we work on a string arrangement, we collaborate.
“And whoever I’m working with,” he adds, “I always try to keep it different and interesting and to have fun with making music. It’s a privilege.”