Tom Flaherty: Looking for Answers
Albany Records

Looking for Answers represents textura's third encounter with the music of Tom Flaherty (b. 1950), as the past few months have seen compositions by the Pomona College Music Professor appear on releases by the Inoo-Kallay Duo (Five Conversations About Two Things, Populist Records) and Nadia Shpachenko (Woman At The New Piano, Reference Recordings). What makes the latest encounter special, however, is that not only does Looking for Answers feature Flaherty's compositions exclusively, it documents another equally important side of the award-winning California composer, namely his accomplished cello playing. Not only does he play on five of the six works presented, he performs Remembrance of Things Present solo.

As the Inoo-Kallay Duo and Shpachenko recordings so clearly illustrate, Flaherty's work can be mischievous in the way it flouts convention and explores unusual juxtapositions in the formal structure and/or arrangement of a piece. It's a devilish side that can be glimpsed on occasion during the eighty-minute release. Though the chamber-styled format lends the material on Looking for Answers a sober mien, Flaherty's irreverent side is still very much present, even if one has to look a little more closely to find it. One can certainly locate it in the informative liner notes he contributed to the CD package (of Euphoric Waltzes, for example, he wryly notes, “As I am married to the violist, it was obvious that it needed an extensive viola solo”).

That Cellopianian Flights might be heard as a “song surrounded by dances” is suggested by the movement titles themselves, with the naturally ruminative “Recollections” framed by “Tangoid” and “Marchuet.” In keeping with Flaherty's approach, the latter aren't one-dimensional dance treatments: as it scales its wonky upward path, “Tangoid” never actually deploys the defining rhythms of the tango but instead draws on the form's sensual character; “Marchuet,” not surprisingly, blends aspects of the minuet and march into its framework whilst also sneaking a mariachi feel (not to mention a stirring melody or two) into its six-minute presentation. Performed by Trio Euphoria, Triphoria, also not surprisingly, relates to the number three in that the single-movement piece features three tempi, three musicians, three basic musical ideas, and a three-note figure that provides the seed for most of the pitch material. Animated by stabbing cello patterns (reminiscent, in fact, of those powering Bernard Herrmann's Psycho soundtrack), Triphoria alternates fluidly between aggressively uptempo and serene nachtmusik passages.

Reflective of his interest in electronic music (in addition to his Music Professor role, Flaherty is also Director of the Electronic Studio at Pomona College), the three-part title work supplements the violin, cello, and piano playing of the Mojave Trio with electronically manipulated sounds derived from the instruments. As a result, the soundworld expands noticeably, becoming crystalline in certain moments and speckled with percussive detail at others.

Though Looking for Answers obviously shows that Flaherty is serious about his work , he isn't insufferably precious about it. Having enumerated the formal properties of an instrumental piece such as A Walk in the Park, he writes, “(I)f listeners hear dogs barking at a nest of bees, followed by soaring birds overhead, children playing and arguing, taunting nursery rhymes, maybe even a drum circle in the distance, who could criticize them?” Such levity on the composer's part is, to say the least, refreshing.

March 2015