Out in western Nebraska, there's a couple of windswept little towns on
the Platte River where some people try to eke out a living from the dry
soil. Even along the river, miles separate individual households, and
north, in the sandhills, the solitude is as profound as any on the
continent. Antelope still roam out there. Flocks of migrating Canadian
geese rest in the river shallows in November, crossing this ribbon of
water on the fly ways towards the Gulf of Mexico.
William Eaton's parents met and fell in love in this country and the
taste and touch of this fading world lives on in their children. It's a
pure Americanism, direct and honest, spacious and easy going, informed by
daily contact with the wide open infinities of time and space and the
windy relentless prairie.
While Eaton grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, he has always returned for
holidays and family gatherings to the original home in Lisco, on the
river, where his grandmother still lives. When he was seven his Uncle
Charlie gave him a ukulele and showed him the chords for "Five-feet-two,
Eyes of Blue".
His first performance was before an audience of 800 at Irving Junior
High School in Lincoln, playing banjo and guitar with The Balladeers, a
folk trio including his older brother. In high school, as lead guitarist
for Candy Machine, Eaton spent most Saturday nights in farm towns hundreds
of miles from home playing the top 40 music of the 1960's to local teens
starved for links with the outside world.
When he moved to Arizona to attend Arizona State University in Tempe,
the demands of his schedule did not permit participation in a musical
group. For a time he considered musical performance a pursuit he'd have to
give up as he accepted the responsibilities of adulthood. His considerable
intensity was devoted to academics and athletics, areas in which he
excelled. His guitar was tucked under his bed, only to come out when he
needed a break from the efforts which earned him the ASU pole vaulting
record and the title "Outstanding Graduate" of the Business College. But
another factor was beginning to influence Eaton at this time - the
surrounding country was working a spell on him.
The voice of the desert, that dry and brittle presence behind all the
activity around college life captivated this young Nebraskan. Here was
another solitude, another silence, another infinity beyond society; a
place of origin. Opening to desert life permitted Eaton to see Tempe's
local characters in a different light.
A chance meeting with a luthier student led Eaton to visit the Juan
Roberto Guitar Works, a sweltering Quonset hut established when ex-pilot
and luthier John Roberts returned from years in Nicaragua, flying for a
lumber company, bringing with him a lifetime supply of exotic tropical
hardwoods. Here in 1972, Eaton built his first guitar and his 22 year
association with Roberts began.
He felt his business education was incomplete, so Eaton attended the
two-year MBA program at Stanford where he specialized in small business
finance and accounting. While at Stanford, Eaton also studied classical
guitar with teacher Charles Ferguson.
His final project for the business school was the development of a plan
for the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, successor to the Guitar Works, an
accredited technical school devoted to the design and creation of stringed
musical instruments. After graduation, Eaton returned to Phoenix and
carried out this plan. The Roberto-Venn School has attracted students from
all over the world with over 800 graduates in its 20 year history.
The first years after formal education were critical in developing
Eaton's artistic perspectives. Family and academic commitments fulfilled
for the moment, he could at last embark on the personal quest which had
been taking shape during his school years. While engaged in the
Roberto-Venn work, he read omnivorously and investigated the spiritual and
philosophical disciplines of many cultures. He spent days and nights
outdoors, deep in the mountain areas outside Phoenix. He slept under the
stars, living out of his car for two years. He contemplated the origins
and dynamics of music. He wandered in the desert, and played with "erasing
personal history" and "stopping the world". He began to imagine and create
the remarkably innovative instruments for which he is noted.
While this was not a time for performance before large human audiences,
he began playing pieces in a variety of solitary settings, on a cliff in
the moonlight by a quiet pool in a shadowed canyon. This period of Eaton's
life is a source for much of his subsequent work, and the subtle qualities
of sound, light and air experienced in the desert can be felt behind his
Eaton's return to the audience began after this retreat time. In late
1978, he frequently played in the moonlight near Arcosanti, the
experimental community in Central Arizona. Interested people collected to
listen to these sessions. Eaton's awareness of the acoustic properties of
various spaces, which grew out of his instrument building, led him to
stage impromptu concerts in a variety of improbable locations. Handwritten
signs promoted events at the Arizona Sand and Gravel Building, the Central
Arizona Project Siphon Tunnel at Granite Reef Dam, and the Monroe Street
Civic Building, culminating in 1980 with the Sunset Moonrise Concert on
South Mountain, the beginning of his formal performance career.
For the following 14 years, Eaton has explored the ways people can be
brought to interact with music. Venues for his performances have ranged
from intimate music settings to concert halls with a full chamber
orchestra behind him, to outdoor amphitheaters with audiences of
thousands. He has composed, improvised, collaborated, lyricized and scat
sung. Solo performances have alternated with group appearances.
Through programs sponsored by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Eaton
and his wife and work partner, dancer Christine Lamb, have brought the
spark of music to school children throughout the state in extended
residency programs which usually conclude with a music and dance concert
put on by the children, using instruments they have designed and built.
Throughout these years Eaton has always had one instrument or another
under construction at the Roberto-Venn school and he continues to teach
there. Most recent in his collection, the lyraharp guitar, was completed
in May 1994 and incorporates his accumulated knowledge of building
guitars, harp guitars and lyres with the sophistication of Roland's
synthesizer technology, permitting voicings for nearly every existing
musical instrument. The new instrument has had a profound and expansive
influence on Eaton's musical directions.
Eaton's recording career began in earnest when Carry the Gift, a
collaboration with Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, was issued by
Canyon Records in 1988. The Nakai/Eaton duo, a relationship which began in
1984, has proven to be an appealing combination. The two have played in
concerts throughout the West and have worked together on other recordings:
Winter Dreams in
1990 and Ancestral
Voices, a 1994 Grammy Awards Finalist for "Best Traditional Folk
Eaton has collaborated with other artists as well. On Tracks We Leave (1989),
Eaton was joined by Udi Arouh, Arvel Bird, Claudia Tulip, Rich Rodgers and
R. Carlos Nakai. Wisdom
Tree (1992) features double bassist Edgar Meyer, and includes William
Clipman, Robert Tree Cody, Arouh, Bird and Tulip. On his 1994 Canyon
release, William Eaton Ensemble's Where Rivers Meet, he
collaborated with Claudia Tulip, Will Clipman, Allen Ames, with assistance
on some pieces from Udi Arouh, Haijung Choi, Rachel Harris, and Keith
Johnson. Feather, Stone
& Light, a musical trialogue among Eaton, Nakai, and Clipman was
released in the March of 1995 and is currently on Billboard magazine's Top
New Age Albums chart (May 26, 1995).
Eaton lives in Tempe, Arizona with Christine and his two children, a
girl, Taylor, and a boy, Walker.
Eaton's interests in the varieties of musical experience and expression
are sure to lead him into new areas of creation, performance and
collaboration. His earliest experiences, childhood time in the sandhills,
the years on the desert, the many books and conversations, fuels his
curiosity and influence the sounds which come from the remarkable
instruments he designs and plays.
Link to Canyon Records,
where you can purchase recordings on line.
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