Tom Flaherty: Mixed Messages

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About

Composer and cellist Tom Flaherty releases Mixed Messages, a collection of his electro-acoustic works for various instruments. Flaherty's music combines a versatile approach to diverse electronic approaches with a humanist's sensibility towards drawing inspiration from extra-musical events and phenomenon. Mixed Messages features performances by Sara Parkins, Maggie Parkins, Alma Lisa Fernandez, Cynthia Fogg, Jeff Gauthier, Sarah Thornblade, Mark Winges, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, and Vicki Ray.

Audio

Composer and cellist Tom Flaherty features several of his electro-acoustic works in this collection, highlighting his interest in phenomena, both musical and extra-musical. In each of these pieces, Flaherty posits a kind of puzzle and then uses the canvas of the piece to work through it, whether it relates to a programmatic idea, the relationship between instrument and electronics, or a component of the musical material itself. Within that frame, his expressive palette is broad and affecting and his development of material deft. This dynamic between conceptual frame and evolving detail gives Flaherty’s music substance and invites listening on multiple levels.

Shepard’s Pi for toy piano refers to the Shepard scale, a phenomenon of acoustics where simultaneous octaves are arranged in such a way as the sequence of pitches seem to rise endlessly without ever reaching the next octave. Flaherty chose to explore a similar paradigm on the toy piano because of the ambiguity that results from the sounding rods — in some registers the overtones of a given note can obscure the fundamental to such a degree that it is not clear what the principal pitch is. Flaherty toys with this concept and its manifestation on the toy piano, writing scale passages that mysteriously seem to remain in one register even as they ascend and rhythmic material that can be interpreted from different metric angles. Reinforcing the word play, Flaherty also embeds references to pi, 3.14159, in the number of sections, tempi, and electronic sounds that are integrated briefly.

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Threnody for cello and electronics is an austere meditation on the nature of war. The computer records and processes long sustained lines in the cello, distorting them in a miasma of overtones and unsettling timbres. Improvisatory pizzicato and staccato phrases trigger a percolating response from the live processing in an energetic contrasting section. The relationship between performer and electronics here is symbiotic but not imitative — the processing transforms the played material sufficiently, establishing a cause and effect paradigm that nonetheless allows the sounds to occupy an independent space from one another.

Under the Weather for viola, organ, and electronics integrates water sounds, more or less musique concrète, into the fabric of an impressionist work exploring the various modes of motion that water takes. The metaphor extends to the instrumental parts as well, with the organ playing liquid arpeggiations in support of floating viola lines.

Recess, written for the Eclipse String Quartet, captures the motions of childhood play in three movements, “Spin,” “Swing,” and “Tag.” The quartet’s sound is processed through live electronics via a MAX patch, a component of the piece that is optional in live performance. In “Spin,” musical fragments swirl through the ensemble, picked up by the electronics to reinforce centrifugal energy. “Swing” slowly accumulates energy, as the repetition brings us higher and higher into a weightless space. “Tag” captures the kinetic energy of chasing games, and the pure joy of play.

Violelation for viola and live electronics unfolds as a dialogue between the live performer and a MAX patch which divides the initial instrumental pitches into granules that animate the sonic environment for the rest of the piece. The texture that evolves is evocative, intentionally so, of components of Balkan music, with its modal emphasis and irregular, propulsive rhythms.

Mixed Messages for violin, piano, and electronics primarily turns one harmonic sonority around, placing it in different registers, inversions, and textural contexts, as a way of representing the ambiguity inherent in perception. The expressive language ranges from subdued and lyrical to furious and virtuosic. A sardonic, polyrhythmic passage breaks up the largely sustained texture, and leads into a climactic final section.

Release for violin, cello, and electronics strategically builds several points of tension — harmonic, rhythmic, timbral — only to release them as a quasi cathartic exercise. The piece closes with pointillistic pizzicati with sporadic sustained phrases in each instrument, an ethereal exhalation after the density of the earlier material.

– Dan Lippel

Recorded in Bridges Hall, Pomona College, Claremont, California
Recording engineer: Barry Werger-Gottesman
CD mastering by Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio

Cover photo: Dương Trần Quốc, Unsplash.com
Design & layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

All pieces published by American Composers Alliance

This recording was made possible in part through the generous support of Pomona College and the Sontag Fellowship

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty (b. 1950) is a composer and cellist who works with music for humans and electronics. In addition to the works presented here, recent commissions include Cello Concerto for cellist Robert deMaine, Looking for Answers for the Mojave Piano Trio, Recess for the Eclipse String Quartet, and Aftermath for violinist Rachel Huang. A recent recording of his Airdancing for piano, toy piano, and electronics was nominated for a Grammy in 2015.

His composition has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Music Center, the Pasadena Arts Council, the Massachusetts Council for the Arts and Humanities, the Delius Society, the University of Southern California, "Meet the Composer," and Yaddo. His music has been performed throughout Europe and North America by such new music ensembles as Dinosaur Annex in Boston, Speculum Musicae and Odyssey Chamber Players in New York, Earplay and Volti in San Francisco, Concorde in Dublin (Ireland), Gallery Players in Toronto (Canada), Mojave Trio, XTET and Brightwork newmusic in Los Angeles; and by such performers as soprano Lucy Shelton; cellists Robert deMaine, Maggie Parkins and Roger Lebow; violinists Sarah Thornblade and Rachel Huang; and pianists Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Nadia Shpachenko, Susan Svrček, Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay, and Karl and Margaret Kohn.

Published by American Composers Editions and G. Schirmer, Inc., his compositions have been recorded on the Albany, Bridge, Capstone, Klavier, Reference, and SEAMUS labels. He earned degrees at Brandeis University, Stony Brook University, and the University of Southern California, where he studied composition with Martin Boykan, Bülent Arel, and Frederick Lesemann and cello with Timothy Eddy and Bernard Greenhouse. He currently holds the John P. and Magdalena R. Dexter Professorship in Music at Pomona College where, despite preferring humans, he happily directs the Electronic Music Studio.

Genevieve Feiwen Lee

A versatile performer of music spanning five centuries, Grammy® nominated Genevieve Feiwen Lee has thrilled audiences on the piano, harpsichord, toy piano, keyboard, and electronics. She enjoys music that challenges her to go outside of her comfort zone to sing, speak, act, and play new instruments. She has appeared as a soloist in France, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Poland, and the Netherlands. She recorded Kurt Rohde’s ONE for speaking pianist (Innova), works by Tom Flaherty and Philippe Bodin on Elements (Albany), and appears on five other CDs. In the Los Angeles area, Ms. Lee has been a guest performer with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Chamber Music series at Disney Hall, Southwest Chamber Music, Jacaranda, Piano Spheres and the Hear Now New Music Festival. She’s a founding member of the Mojave Trio and performed in Carnegie Hall with the Garth Newel Piano Quartet. She is Professor of Music at Pomona College, California.

Maggie Parkins

Maggie Parkins is a ‘cellist, teacher, and enthusiastic chamber musician with a passion for new music which she performs with Eclipse Quartet, Brightwork newmusic, and Mojave Trio. She has performed in orchestras under conductors Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein, Simon Rattle, Oliver Knussen, and Andre Previn. She has performed at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Banff Centre, Festival Internacional de Musica de Cadaques (Spain), Heidelberg Castle Festival, Spoleto, Taktlos Festival (Switzerland), Scarlatti Festival (Naples), Tanglewood Festival, Bach Aria Festival and Wels Festival Unlimited. As an improvising ‘cellist Maggie has worked with the Jazz Passengers, Anthony Braxton, Caetano Veloso, Bjork, Zeena Parkins, Billy Childs, and Nels Cline.

Cynthia Fogg

Cynthia Fogg has performed extensively on both viola and violin. In Boston, she played for many years with Emmanuel Music and the Monadnock Festival. Since settling in California, she has played with a variety of organizations including the Pasadena Symphony and Monday Evening Concerts and has appeared as guest violist with the acclaimed Kronos and Alexander quartets. Ms. Fogg has recorded chamber music for Naxos, Bridge, Opus One, Cambria, Klavier, and Innova, as well as soundtracks for motion pictures and television. She currently teaches at Pomona College and Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

Mark Winges

Mark Winges lives in San Francisco, where he is active as a free-lance organist and is resident composer for Volti, a new music chamber choir. His primary organ teachers were Wayne Fisher (Cincinnati) and Alex Post (San Francisco). In addition to his work at bay area churches, he has performed at the San Anselmo Organ Festival, with the Berkeley Symphony, the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, WomenSing, and recently played a concert at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Visby, Sweden. He has also been heard as both organist and composer on the nationally syndicated radio program Pipedreams.

Sarah Thornblade

Sarah Thornblade is the associate principal second violin of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She is an avid chamber musician and a member of both the Eclipse quartet (a new music string quartet) and X-tet. She has performed with Camerata Pacifica, and the Auros Group for New Music (Boston). Her playing has been described by the L.A. Times as “rapturously winning” and has been called a “marvelously versatile violinist” by the Santa Barbara News. As a former founding member of the Arianna String Quartet, former quartet in residence at Eastern Michigan University, she won first prize at the Fischoff, Coleman and Carmel chamber music competitions. Sarah has performed throughout the country and abroad including festivals such as Tanglewood, Spoleto, Colorado Music Festival, Oregon Bach Festival, Norfolk Festival, Banff and the Portland Chamber Music Festival. She has collaborated with artists such as Gilbert Kalish, Jeffrey Kahane, Andres Cardenes, Randall Hodgkinson and Warren Jones. Sarah studied with Miriam Fried and Shmuel Ashkenasi. Currently, she is on faculty at Pomona College.

Sara Parkins

Award winning violinist Sara Parkins is an active studio musician for major motion pictures, television and recording artists. Sara has performed at the Oscars, Grammy's and other renown award shows. Composers she has worked with include John Williams, James Newton Howard, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Michael Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, James Horner and many others. As a violinist with diverse interests, Sara has toured the world as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral performer. She has participated in the Bravo Festival, Vail, Strings in the Mountains Colorado, Highlands Festivals, Santa Fe Chamber Music, Oregon Bach Festival, Takttoos Festival, Tanglewood and Orchestra de Cadeques among others. Parkins was a member of The Angeles Quartet which won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music performance of the complete recordings of the Haydn String Quartets. Sara currently performs with two well known chamber groups: the internationally acclaimed Eroica Trio which tours internationally, and The Eclipse Quartet, which focuses on the music of living composers. Ms. Parkins is a graduate of The Juilliard pre-college, attended the Curtis Institute of Music and has a Masters Degree from Stony Brook University in New York.

Alma Lisa Fernandez

Alma Lisa Fernandez, violist, attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and UCLA, where she received a Master’s Degree in Viola Performance. She performs regularly with such ensembles as the LA Opera Orchestra, LA Master Chorale, Long Beach Symphony, and Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra. As a chamber musician, she has been described as “...a soulful violist. (LA Times, Mark Swed), and has performed with chamber music Los Angeles based ensembles including the Denali String Quartet, the California String Quartet, and the Capitol Ensemble. Alma is also active in the Los Angeles recording industry, having played for numerous motion picture soundtracks, television shows, and record albums. She is currently professor of viola at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA.

Vicki Ray

Described as “phenomenal and fearless” Vicki Ray is a pianist, improviser and composer. She has commissioned and premiered countless new works by today’s leading composers. Ray is a founding member of Piano Spheres and head of keyboard studies at the California Institute of the Arts where she was named the first recipient of the Hal Blaine Chair in Musical Performance. She has appeared on numerous international festivals and is a regular member of the faculty at the Bang On a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA. Ray has been featured on the Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella Series as soloist and collaborative artist. Her widely varied performing and recording career covers the gamut of new and old music: from Boulez to Reich, Wadada Leo Smith to Beethoven. Her recording of Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things on Microfest Records received a 2013 Grammy nomination. Recent recordings include the premiere recording of Andrew Norman’s Sonnets with Eighth Blackbird’s Nick Photinos on the New Amsterdam label. Her recent recording of Daniel Lentz’s River of 1000 Streams – was named by Alex Ross in the New Yorker as one of the top 20 recordings of 2017.

Jeff Gauthier

Jeff Gauthier, violin, has performed with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Long Beach Symphony, Oregon Bach Festival and Carmel Bach Festival. As an improvising violinist Jeff has performed and recorded with artists like Nels Cline, Alex Cline, Yusef Lateef, Mark Dresser, Myra Melford, Vinny Golia, Todd Sickafoose, Phillip Greenlief, and many others. He was a member of "Quartet Music" with Nels Cline, Alex Cline and Eric von Essen for 12 years. His own ensemble, The Jeff Gauthier Goatette has recorded six CDs.


Reviews

5

Vital Weekly

Tom Flaherty has been around for many years, composing music for humans and electronics, though, as he says, he prefers humans. He is also a cellist who has played internationally, besides his daytime job as a professor at Pomona College in the USA. He has a long list of compositions, of which, unfortunately, only a few have been released as recordings - at least if Discogs can be trusted. The list goes back to 1974 - I guess when he was still studying - and only adds the electronic element from the 1980ies. The instrumentation causes curiosity as he mixes unusual sets, such as, '2 pianos, 16 hands, recorded electronics', 'viola, organ, electronics', violoncello & marimba etc.

This release collects several compositions written over the last 20 years, combining electronics with acoustic instruments, mainly strings and a toy piano. This instrument crops up several times in his list of works. He seems fascinated with not the basic sound itself but the behaviour of the harmonics of this instrument which are, in fact, a bit weird. I believe all recordings on this release are 'firsts', though probably performed several times already. Something I have come across with many of the SEAMUS composers, too, for instance, sporting long lists of compositions but very few, if any, recordings. Lots of work ahead.

The first track, 'Shepard's Pi' (a pun on the good old English pie, something you can actually eat in this country), is written for toy piano and consists of a long string of rising and receding scales, playing with the 'overtones' and mirroring the acoustic piano sounds in two different electronic processings. Not my favourite, though. 'Threnody', the second track, starts off the coming display of string music on this CD. The solo cello is no longer solo as the electronic processor plays back the sound, echoing, filtering, layering, and picking harmonics. I must say, this piece works better than the first, with the cello offering a better source for layering sound on sound and creating a space within which the music can develop and flow. 'Under the Weather' combines an organ with the cello (there is a distinct tendency towards the lower string scales here, but Flaherty is a cello player himself ...) into a very effective piece of music - electronic treatment (if any) is very sublime here. The three parts of 'Recess' have the Eclipse string quartet perform musical patterns that walk around the space, sparsely supported by live electronic processing (which eventually offers a continuous background) in a more expressionist than contemporary style. 'Violelation' does not address violence but violins ... in analogy to Bach's famous piece using the letters of his name, Flaherty uses here violinist Cindy Fogg's name to arrange and re-arrange notes of the solo viola. This might sound strenuous but actually works well, with a background growling drone made by processing the sounds (and yes, no i, n, y, or o). Again, the electronics allow the performer to play on several levels simultaneously, giving the music more breadth and the viola sound a variety of different characters, even breaking out into a Bartok-esque second half after pointillistic beginnings. 'Mixed Messages' is a duo of violin and piano, supported by a low growl of processed violin and a 'prepared piano' (?) sound reminding of Hania Rani. The final piece, 'Release', is a duo of strings with the electronics mostly limited to an echo track.

All in all, I had expected to find a more 'electronic' sounding approach - judging from the title. What we see, though, is strings-dominated music that is more related to Debussy, Bartok, and Janacek than contemporary electroacoustic music (which this does not pretend to be). Maybe I should have paid more attention to Flaherty's flippant remark that he 'loves humans more', though he teaches electronic music. An enjoyable release that reminds us that electronic processing can be a support for musicians in broadening the spectrum
of a performance and not only a means in itself.

— Robert Steinberger, 6.14.2022

5

Midwest Record

A set where new age meets contemporary classical meets outer space, this electro acoustic mover even brings toys into the mix as he follows Allen Toussaint’s view that there’s music everywhere. The kind of stuff you can hear playing at an installation and buy impulsively on the way out, you can bet that at the very least, your kids will be fascinated by a grown up playing toy piano. Wild in its own way.

— Chris Spector, 6.01.2022

5

Infodad

If Adler (born 1928) hews closely to the expressiveness of an older time even while incorporating comparatively up-to-date techniques into his music, Tom Flaherty (born 1950) engages in developing the sorts of compositions that listeners are more likely to think of when contemplating the “contemporary music” label. Although Flaherty is a cellist, his performances in seven of his 21st-century works on a recent New Focus Recordings CD are on electronics – and in the pieces using cello, someone else handles the instrument. Flaherty is thoroughly comfortable with the sort of avant-garde combinatorial approach that applies electronics along with traditional acoustic instruments – and some less-than-traditional ones – and mingles the non-electronic elements of pieces in ways designed to draw attention to sound for its own sake, rather than to any readily audible communicative objective. Not surprisingly in the case of certain avant-garde music, Flaherty is at least as focused on the methods he employs to create pieces as on the way those pieces come across to listeners. He is also fond, as many contemporary composers are, of titles designed more for cuteness or cleverness than for comprehensibility. All these characteristics are notably present in the first work on this CD, Shepard’s Pi, in which Flaherty performs with Genevieve Feiwen Lee – who plays toy piano. Of course, Leopold Mozart beat Flaherty to toy-piano writing by a couple of hundred years, but Flaherty uses the instrument in strictly modern ways. The work’s title refers to an acoustical phenomenon called the Shepard scale – listeners seeking to comprehend this piece will need to familiarize themselves with it – and also to the number pi, which is referred to in various ways throughout the work. Oh – and the work’s title is, of course, a pun on shepherd’s pie, so listeners should probably know something about that as well. The piece certainly contains some interesting sonic elements, but it is so weighted with layers of meaning that it is unlikely to reach out to more than a very limited number of listeners – a reality that will likely disturb Flaherty not at all. The other works on the disc are equally self-limiting, self-engaged and (often) self-important. Threnody pairs Flaherty’s electronics with a cello performance by Maggie Parkins that is processed, reprocessed, distorted, transformed, and generally pulled hither and thither in the service of a musical narrative that, as indicated by the work’s title, is intended as a lament – at more than 12 minutes, a very extended one. And so it goes through the remainder of the CD. Under the Weather combines Flaherty’s electronic water sounds with viola (Cynthia Fogg) and organ (Mark Winges). Recess was written for and is performed by the Eclipse Quartet (Sara Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello), with Flaherty’s electronics accentuating elements of movements called “Spin,” “Swing,” and (most effectively) “Tag.” Violelation, with its portmanteau title another example of attempted amusement, mixes electronics with viola (Fogg), having some of the same sound world as Under the Weather but with differing rhythms. Mixed Messages – a descriptive phrase that could be used for any of the works on this disc and in fact is the release’s overall title – includes violin (Thornblade) and piano (Vicki Ray) in one of the most-effective pieces on the CD, thanks to its wide range of tempos, rhythms and textures, and Flaherty’s willingness to make his points here without belaboring them. The final work on the disc, Release, is played by “The Smudges” (Jeff Gauthier, violin; Parkins, cello). Flaherty’s electronic heightening effects are rather prosaic here, and the piece has a static quality even though, objectively, there is a lot going on in it. Taken as a whole – or, for that matter, taken individually – these works so firmly fit most listeners’ associations with the notion of “avant-garde contemporary music” that their audience is pre-selected: those who like the approach of Flaherty (and many other modern composers) will enjoy them, while those who do not will sit this one out.

— Mark Estren, 6.23.2022

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