The Fragility of Flow

Roadblocks, the muse, and an unexpected descent into lunacy

My professional career has generally been one of removing obstacles to the creativity of others. I’m sure it was my theatre training that taught me to hide the nuts and bolts in the interest of creating a captivating illusion…and from day one in the recording studio I have always been intent on making the necessary technology as invisible to the artist in process (and audience at home) as possible. Nothing makes me feel less creative than discussing wire, sample rates, dither, or converters… as necessary as those considerations are to making good recordings. Good art seems to flourish when its creation is unencumbered and effortless. And in my experience nothing is more destructive to the ephemeral muse than an unwanted technical interruption.

Normally I have my own creative process sorted out and streamlined, but recently one of the speakers in my writing room gave up the ghost. Or at least became haunted. The treble came and went randomly, kicking me out of whatever moment I was trying to sustain (or arrive at in the first place). It was one of a few occasions in my life when I thought another me would be useful (moving the Hammond is also one of those occasions). When I can’t hear what I’m doing, I can’t make music. And, quite simply, I go crazy when I can’t make music.

Composing music in a computer is fine. Great, even. The flexibility of sounds and textures at my (literal) fingertips is endless (at the moment we won’t get into the question of why my music has a limited palette… that’ll be for another blog). But the music really isn’t IN the computer. The music happens when it comes out of the speakers; when the various drivers move the air in the room around and my ears say “yes!” or “dude, time for a walk.” So when a speaker starts to have opinions about when it will and won’t play… I can’t get at my art. Well, worse than that, really. I can start to get there and then get unceremoniously kicked off the path, like being awakened each time you fall asleep. There is no arrival at the immersive sense of “flow” and I can’t get my thoughts out. It’s genuinely uncomfortable. People whose instruments move air via vibrating strings or twisted up metal tubes (looking at you, Oster) don’t have this problem.

At these moments the technical me shows up to solve the problem. Internet research leads to sourcing, ordering, and installing suspect components. Great. But it doesn’t work. This goes on for longer than I care to admit. My tension/stress level goes up. The hairline visibly moves. Buying stock in Ben and Jerry’s becomes a serious consideration. No flow means no good me. Loss of access to my art means making art for others is harder… which is a bad place to be when all I really want is to help people breathe easier and fall with complete trust into every piece of music I work on.

I spoke with Larry, my new imaginary boss, and we decided that I could buy a new set of speakers. More internet research led us to discover how spoiled I am by my monitoring situation in the control room (a different room specifically set up for critical listening, which means not full of keyboards). Heated discussions ensued. I almost fired him and vice-versa. We tried to keep six feet apart which proved difficult. At the end of it all we settled on a two part solution with a third part. We bumped elbows and felt good about our efforts.

In January we installed part one, a pair of KEF LS50 “meta” monitors, on the stands amongst the keyboards. We listened to some music and were impressed. But that’s not the test. The test is the choices the speakers lead me to make when making sounds and setting levels in the process of composing. Late at night at the end of the month I fired up the whole system and made some music for the first time in a month. It felt good and I got lost in it almost immediately. The gear vanished, I arrived, Larry seemed satisfied and the air moved.

The next morning I took the piece into the control room and listened there as a mastering engineer, and, amazingly, there was nothing I wanted to change. I felt a wave of relief wash over me… and slowly the trust in the availability of my creative work is coming back. New pieces are arriving, I am forgetting about the technical and focusing on the musical, and I’ve not heard from Larry in a few days.

January 2021 News

https://mailchi.mp/4320f845f9d3/news-from-tom-eaton-january-2021

My first monthly track for 2021 is a new piece called “in the shadow.” The lengthening shadows of winter inspired this slowly breathing study of darker spaces. I frequently move ideas between piano and guitar, and in this case the guitar made some choices for me and it decided to open the piece into a slow, modal exploration. It’s free and on Bandcamp now.

The recent loss of ambient pioneer Harold Budd really hit me, and this track is dedicated to his memory.

November News

A quick rundown of what’s been going on. The creative process during a pandemic… working remote, in person, and alone!

November 2020 Newsletter

Lockdowns and social distancing have created challenges and opportunities in a life of music making.  The process always ends here, with music coming out of my speakers in Newburyport, but the journey to get to this point calls for flexibility and creative thinking as working from a distance has become a necessary part of making art.

Lost in the Moment

I remember the exact moment last year when Peter Guralnick told me the title of his next book… we were sitting in my control room and I was in the middle of writing my new album. We were discussing why people make music… a process we each have deep perspectives on but from very different vantage points. The title, “Looking To Get Lost,” is as perfect a description of my personal process as I’ve ever heard, and, as it turns out, is a concept that has come up again and again in the thousands of interviews Peter has done with a musicians over the years.

Part of what draws me to music is the atmosphere around the notes, the feelings that the sounds evoke, and the landscape in which each piece lives. I’ve always gravitated towards textural music: music that doesn’t reveal itself fully, or at least rewards as deep a listen as you are willing and able to give. I always strive to create a world for each piece I work on: a place that is believable and trustworthy.

That can be a problem when the moment is so easily broken. The part of me that wants to get lost in the music is like a dog who can’t help but snap his head towards every possible squirrel. Maybe I’m spoiled by being able to listen to music in rooms that are actually quiet, but little anomalies (clicks, thumps, creaks, or anything not of the world of the music) break the spell for me… shatter the illusion of being alone in a place made of music.

I think that’s part of why I love mastering, actually, because I have the opportunity both to shape the final form of the world of the music for the listener and to remove any small events that break that fragile spell.

When I am truly lost in the music I know I’ve done my job.

Going deeper in is always rewarding. Peter’s Looking To Get Lost is out now…

A Musical Swiss Army Knife

Today a friend of mine called me a “musical Swiss Army knife” and it got me thinking about the various ways I’ve contributed to projects over the years. A quick trip over to AllMusic pretty much confirmed his assessment. Here’s an alphabetical list of the things I’ve been credited with over the years:

Accordion
Adjustments (huh?)
Autoharp
Bass
Bells
Cajon
Chimes
Composer
Cymbals
E-Bow
Engineer
Featured Artist
Fender Rhodes
Fretless Bass
Glockenspiel
Guitar (Electric)
Guitar (Nylon)
Hammond B3
Handclapping
Jaw Harp
Keyboards
Lap Steel Guitar
Loop Programming
Mastering
Melodica
Mixing
Organ (Hammond)
Percussion
Piano
Primary Artist
Producer
Rainstick
Shaker
Shortwave Radio
Singing Bowls
Synthesizer
Tamboura
Tambourine
Textural Sampling
Vibraphone
Vocals / Voices
Water Bottle
Wood Block
Wurlitzer

Interesting.

https://www.allmusic.com/artist/tom-eaton-mn0001886836/credits

Shining a Light on the Path Through

Lately I’ve been considering where I’m headed with my music-making existence, and those thoughts led me back to the beginning of my creative life.

I started my “professional” career as a theatrical lighting designer. It’s a fascinating job which takes advantage of both sides of my personality; the technical, detail oriented Tom, and the more liquid, emotional Tom. 

The technical me learned to draft, learned about electricity, learned rigging, and learned how to direct a crew of stage technicians to get a lighting design from paper to actual fixtures on pipes. The artistic me learned that the degree to which you can steer an audience’s attention to a particular actor or object on the stage is, on the one hand, obvious, and on the other miraculous. And of course you have power over the quality of the light; its color, its intensity, its density, and its direction. 

A well done lighting design draws attention to every artistic choice made in a production except the lighting itself. I learned how to be effectively invisible.  It felt powerful and rewarding to be the lens through which an audience viewed the art we were creating. 

Put simply, the audience follows the path created by the lighting designer. It’s quite literally the only thing they can see. The ability to invisibly guide the attention of an audience served me well when I moved somewhat laterally to sound design and eventually to opening a recording studio.

A recording engineer initially was thought of as a purely technical individual: a fellow (almost always male) who accurately captures the events that happen in the studio and delivers them faithfully to the listener. The white coats of the engineering staff at EMI/Abbey Road we’ve seen in Beatles pictures were those sorts of chaps. 

But things got more complicated as options emerged over time. Technology allowed more discrete tracks to be recorded on tape, which allowed more microphones to be used, which allowed changes to be made to the balance of the recording after it was made, and allowed the addition of further musical parts after the initial recording was completed. The Beatles happened to be making music as this technology was maturing and the progression of their work is a perfect case study in the exploration of possibilities.

This “option explosion” continues today. Now, faced with unlimited tracks and an unlimited ability to manipulate each track into what seems to be nearly anything we’ve arrived at a place where the superstars of the engineering world don’t care at all what the original event sounded like. 

Every sound that comes out of your speakers or earbuds is a fabrication, an opinion, a choice. In reality it always has been, it’s just that today the actual number of available subjective choices you can make about each sound within each second, each song and each album are infinite. Of course, on the technical side we still have to get those ones and zeros into a container (cd, mp3, etc.) that only holds a certain number of ones and zeros, but that is a very small part of the overall picture.

The recording engineer today is really quite like a lighting designer. The job is to shine a light on the best part of the work, and to carry a lantern through a musical journey for the listener to follow. The quality of that “light” is infinitely variable and completely subjective.  There is formulaic music, and certainly there are successful engineers who do the same thing over and over again, but the real appeal to me of audio engineering is lighting the path through each piece of music based on the piece itself, not on the needs of the marketplace or what has come before. 

To say it differently, my job has always been to frame the art of other people.  To draw your attention to the things I want you to see or hear without you being aware that I am even working.

In 2016 I started releasing my own music to the public. The winter of 2015/2016 was an odd time in my life during which some key things fell apart and some other things came together. The tools to make the kinds of music I had been dreaming of making landed in my lap at the exact moment I hit an enormous emotional upheaval. In a month I wrote and recorded an album that would become “abendromen.” I had no intention of putting it out as its purpose was a kind of personal therapy, but I was convinced otherwise by some people I trusted. 

The idea of putting out an album immediately created a problem of perspective.  Choosing to release the album meant asking people to look at me, not through my eyes or ears at another person’s art, but at me directly. 

I was completely unprepared to be put in a frame, even of my own making. I was unprepared to be visible. I turned down interviews, mailed only a few copies off to people at radio I knew from my work as an engineer and producer, and swept the real me into the corner while trying to celebrate the art creation of people with whom I was working. Having a light on me was terribly uncomfortable after spending so many years deliberately trying to be unseen and unheard.  

But change is the constant, and I’m adapting. I’m making more and more of my own music, and I am both settling into the light of attention and embracing the role of light-bearer with my music. I think I’ve always been trying to shine a path through, now I’m just doing it with my own notes and emotions.

A Sound from Outer Space

Max Crook, the Musitron and Musical Terra Incognita

There must have been a well-worn spot on the dashboard of my Dad’s Ford Econoline.

In the late-1970s my antique dealer father and I wandered the back roads of southern New Hampshire looking for a desk or chair that he knew had value, or he knew he could sell for a profit, listening to all kinds of music from his formative years.  The Beatles and Stones, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly, Simon and Garfunkle (“a Picasso or a Garfunkle” remains one of the best throw away lines ever sung) and even Warren Zevon all popped in and out of the cassette deck as I learned to tap in time on the dash in front of the passenger seat. To this day there are entire albums from that era that seem to me to be full of hits simply because we listened to them so many times.  

In those days, my ears were leaning in for time and patterns and, for the most part, ignoring the colors and timbres of the instruments.  Neither of my parents played an instrument and my ability to tell a guitar from a glockenspiel was pretty limited.  Instead I was immersed in the feeling of the time passing… the way forward momentum was generated as songs moved from verses to choruses and back again.  It would be some time before I would know that bridges were not just things that got the van across moving water.  

At least one of the tapes we listened to was a “Golden Oldies” collection, or perhaps a cassette made from one of the many “Golden Oldies” LPs we had at home (I still have a bunch of them).  These collections introduced me to the Coasters, the Tokens, the Kingsmen and solo artists like Leslie Gore, Little Eva and Del Shannon.  

Charles Westover had taken on the name Del Shannon before “Runaway” raced up the charts to number one in April of 1961, and Del seemed poised for continued success.  It didn’t exactly happen that way, as he never had another number one song, and he more or less faded away inside the machine of the music industry despite working with luminaries such as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, and even producing an album for a young Bob Seger (thanks, Wikipedia, for that one!). He drank, got depressed and eventually committed suicide.  As Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

Del had a great voice, with that falsetto that no one seems to use any more and gravel and grit when he wanted it, and he was particularly good at playing and singing the role of “the boy left behind.”  But “Runaway,” dark and lonely, stood out to my young ears for one singular reason.  In the middle of the song, out of nowhere, came a sound from outer space.  It was a sound my ears couldn’t categorize, couldn’t really understand, and couldn’t get enough of.

Max Crook was the mastermind behind that sound.  It was played on a clavioline electronic musical instrument (an early synthesizer design) that he had modified into a singular machine he called the “Musitron.”  Max co-wrote “Runaway” with Del, and played that middle Musitron solo that lit my ears on fire.  It’s almost an organ… but also obviously not one, and the way it dances and glisses with an almost voice-like vibrato was unlike anything I had ever heard.  It was truly featured in the track, right up front, where so many other songs would have a sax solo, or later an electric guitar.  My kids would call it ‘flexing,” a kind of showing off, in both the sound and the playing of the sound, something you can do that no one else can… and in the case of “Runaway” it really was both something unheard of and something only Max could do.

Like Del, though, and so many in the music biz, Max’s momentary momentum was not a sign of things to come.  He had a solo career and played here and there, but largely faded back into the world of “regular” folks. He became a firefighter and alarm installer while still making music in public sporadically. He was 83 when he died on July 1st.

I must have been about 8 years old when Max opened my ears to a world where sounds could be created beyond the bounds of traditional instruments, but strangely I only connected the dots last year when the solo to “Runaway” popped into my head randomly.  I knew it note for note though I hadn’t heard it in decades.  A little interweb research turned up the history and the person behind the sound and the playing, and Max’s passing made me realize yet again how influential that solo was.  And lately as I carve imaginary sonic landscapes out of my synthesizers, I can’t help but think back to my Dad’s van and the beauty and mystery of Max’s creation.  It was a sound from outer space that opened a door I didn’t even know was there.