AMN Reviews: Tom Flaherty – Mixed Messages [New Focus Recordings fcr 326]

The title of composer Tom Flaherty’s monograph recording Mixed Messages can be read as referring not only to the title track for violin, piano, and electronics, but more generally to the work of electroacoustic composition, which mixes the messaging of two different ways of creating sound. As it happens Flaherty, who directs the Pomona College Electronic Studio, mixes the messaging of acoustic instruments and electronics with a well-honed sense of complementarity. The works presented on this album represent a style of composition in which the electronics are an often subtle, and always natural, presence within the overall sound, serving to augment or emphasize harmonies and textures.

This comes out clearly on the album’s centerpiece, the three-movement Recess (2017) for string quartet, performed here with the optional electronics part included. The piece is grounded in the accumulation and repetition of brief motifs, which in the first movement form the foundation over which intertwined single lines drift downward, and in the third movement provide a pulsing, compressed rhythmic energy. The second movement features thick harmonies set out in long tones moving in and out of greater and lesser dissonances. On this movement in particular the electronics play a role in regulating the density and resonance of the sound’s overall texture, while maintaining the movement’s harmonic transformations as its center of musical gravity.

The mixed messages of the title track, from 2014, arise from its harmonic undecidability. At its center is a four-note chord that, depending on how it’s presented, could be major or minor, or consonant or dissonant. Acoustic piano and violin are accompanied by samples of violin and piano, which fruitfully complicate an already complicated harmonic knot.

Other highlights include 2020’s Release for violin, cello, and electronics, which integrates electronics-enhanced rhythms with timbral contrasts based on different string techniques, and Threnody (2003) for cello and electronics, which sets up a real-time, stimulus-and-response duet between live processing and a semi-improvised cello part.

Daniel Barbiero

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