Kind of like opening up and embracing a truly infinite universe after limiting one’s beliefs to hard and immutable religious doctrine, the beauty of ambient new age music is that there is no one “correct” way to interpret it. Whether one listens for pure relaxation and destressing after a hectic day, or as a wafting soundtrack to otherworldly spiritual experiences that start in our minds, every moment, each brilliant touch and nuance is best read through a prism of our own desires and imagination. This is the most inspiring way to embrace How It Happened, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Eaton’s eight song, 70- minute masterwork (his first for the legendary Spotted Peccary label) that is all at once a glorious and subtle, illuminating yet deeply mysterious meditational dreamscape of never-ending intrigue.
Whether they know him by name or not, anyone who has been enjoying new age music for the last 25 years has been touched by Eaton’s sonic imagery. Though he has released a handful of solo recordings, including the intriguing two album drop of Indesterren and Abendromen in 2016, he has been a force behind the scenes as engineer and producer of hundreds of albums since he opened his first commercial studio in 1993. He is perhaps best known for his association this past decade with genre great Will Ackerman, engineering and co-producing countless indie artists (including the ensemble FLOW, which includes Ackerman) at the iconic Imaginary Road Studios.
Eaton draws on those many years in the service of others’ brilliance to make How It Happened the heartfelt aural journey it is. Truly allowing his compositions the time and space to breathe and unclutter the listener’s mind, he brings the magic via detailed craftsmanship using subtle piano notes and chord progressions (at times), synths, acoustic and electric guitars fretted and fretless basses, accordion and percussion. With such an arsenal, he could easily use these instruments to overwhelm us with too much sonic info. Instead, he paints his aural visions with gentle, gossamer strokes designed to open consciousness. It’s a classic example of an artist leading us into his world but not forcing us in one direction or another once there.
Perhaps the most productive mental and emotional inlet for openminded listeners is to clear our mind of the day’s bustle going in, then as Eaton delicately eases us along, to bring beautiful images from our own lives to the moment. But if trying to conjure such things brings added stress, we can start with some of the clues Eaton gives us in his liner notes: “How it Happened is a collection of stories about taking the unseen paths, drawn from moments sitting or walking by the north branch of the Contoocock River in New Hampshire, the Mississippi River in New Orleans and the beaches where the Merrimack meets the ocean here in Massachusetts where my studio is.” Maybe start with those calm visions of water from his memories and then bring your own sense of liquid flow drawn from places you’ve been. Match your own memories and expectations to the sense of aural wonder he shares.
These are simply suggestions on how to best grasp the enormity of Eaton’s journey from the moody, murky and uber-soul-seductive and relaxing opener “Ice” to the expansive, mystical and soul-levitating nearly 14-minute closer “Until Her Eyelids Flutter Open.” As the album eases on, his concept seems to be to help us find those openings, those clarity-filled passageways, in our own souls. “An Unexpected Opening” is a haunting, hypnotic excursion, blending sweet, graceful piano notes with wafting ambience and mystical synth tones. Clearly by design, we never know what the title How It Happened refers to, and the phrase’s inclusion in the immersive and emotional, slow building (from dusky piano to the shimmering soft sunlight of pedal steel guitar) “Mk, and How It Happened” continues to keep us guessing.
Eaton clearly wants us to reflect simply on our own life and take a step towards making breakthroughs. “The Slow River” is pure, unfettered reflective ambience, allowing us to slow our hearts down and stop our minds from racing for eight minutes of quiet reverence. Eaton also generously provides a natural image to launch our restrained flights of fancy from on “Later, at Night, By The Lake,” which brings extra pulse, star-filled, free flowing mystery to our water-based musings. It’s a moment that starts in solitude but brings to our senses the mystical power of creation.
Eaton offers another clue as to his overall intention (or perhaps, notion that evolved along with the music) by titling the next track, the stark, free-floating and spirit enveloping “Genezen,” after a Dutch word that means “to cure.” Even if only for the duration of the song or full album, Eaton’s music, the ultimate aural massage, will definitely cure any tension. That concept seems to be confirmed with the gossamer duality of tender piano meditation and guitar-tinged comforting divine embrace that eases our minds once and for all as we experience “The Fog and the Lifting” through Eaton’s uniquely attuned sensibilities.
While we may never know How It Happened, or what that title specifically refers to, maybe that’s for the best. And it’s possible Eaton doesn’t even know exactly. Speaking of the album, he says, “As my life progresses the music reflects where I am, so it’s always going to be different but I am not steering it. My music is an outlet for my emotions, always born out of improv rather than thought about. That great Vangelis quote always seems to make sense to me… ‘I act as a channel through which music emerges from the chaos of noise.’ It feels like that most of the time.”