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The Music

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty

We are very excited to be performing Tom Flaherty’s Moments of Inertia during our 2011-12 season. The piece was commissioned by Dinosaur Annex for its 26th season and premiered in Boston on May 4, 2003. We found out about it in the same way we find many works that have not been composed specifically for us –by searching the web!

Upon its premiere, Moments of Inertia received wonderful reviews. David Cleary of the New Music Connoisseur wrote “….the sound world is irresistible, making scintillating use of its flute-viola-cello trio. In brief, it’s an absolute must-hear.”

Asking Tom to be one of our Featured Composers has given us the opportunity to ask him all kinds of question about being a composer and a cellist and Moments of Inertia. The following is from a “conversation” via email between Tom and Suzanne.


SG: What are your musical influences?

TF: Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, Carter, Messiaen, . . . Too many to name. I guess I am most affected by the way several simple musical elements become so much richer when they interact. The counterpoint of two lines in Bach, the juxtaposition of large sections in Beethoven, the simultaneous meters and tempi in Carter, the conflicting modal fragments in Bartok and Messiaen - they all make my pulse quicken, and I look for that kind of effect in my own music.

SG: When you compose, do you have a particular approach or process?

TF: It's a bit scary to think too much about this, much like the centipede who was paralyzed when asked to talk about how he walks. But in broad terms, I try something and listen to it. If it needs adjustment, or elaboration, or contrast, that becomes clear pretty quickly. I suppose in the end it's basically trial and error, but with more trial than error as time goes on. Knowing the performers I write for is always an inspiration and guide for what's missing. And knowing what an instrument typically does well or has not been asked to do before can inspire a passage.

SG: Moments of Inertia was commissioned by Dinosaur Annex. Did they ask for something specific or did you have a free hand?

TF: Dinosaur asked for a piece for any subset of the group, and this particular combination seemed relatively unexplored and very appealing sonically. I had no idea that there were standing ensembles of the sort, and that I would come across Eight Strings & a Whistle a few years later!

SG: Did you have a chance to work with Dinosaur Annex while composing the piece for them?

TF: I wrote the piece without much interaction, but I knew two of the performers quite well, and had written pieces for them in the past, so their sound was in my ear as I worked. Once rehearsals began, we talked on the phone some, and I was able to work with the group during one of their last rehearsals. By then they had the piece well in hand, and there were just a few details to clarify.

SG:  Does the title have any special significance?

TF: The title Moments of Inertia came to me when the piece was nearly finished. The piece has curious states of motion, sometimes simultaneously active and still, or moving fast and slow at the same time. In physics, "moment of inertia" describes the relationship of a rotating object's speed to its distribution of mass. We've all seen an ice skater's spin speed up effortlessly when she pulls in her arms. The image of that skater seems a good match for some of the things that happen in the piece.

SG: Composer, Hilary Tann once said that premieres are a little like a blind date – among other things, you hope it goes well.  I kind of feel that way the first time I perform a work. What is it like for you when you hear a work of yours being performed for the first time? Does that feeling change the next time you hear it?

TF: Premieres are always exciting. Sometimes the piece matches your memory of the ideal in your head, but often there are surprises in the way performers interpret the music. An accompaniment figure might take on an unexpected life of its own. What was conceived of as an important arrival might be taken by performers as just a way station to a more important point down the road. In the hands of strong performers a piece can turn out to be different than expected, and often for the better. Like a public reading of a poem, the details and broad outlines of the "text" are the same every time, but every performance can bring new meaning to the work. So, premieres are always exciting, and so are subsequent performances!

SG: You mention conflict in the first movement of Moments of Inertia as coming from a sense of simultaneous motion and stasis. You write that the third movement, With headlong agitation,  “tosses all ambiguity to the wind.” During a recent rehearsal, we had a discussion about what we feel are the moments of ambiguity (in the third movement) and  how they are created by the tension between the lyrical phrases/lines and the 16th note passages that “accompany” them. To us, this kind of ambiguity is what can create agitation. Would you mind commenting or adding to that?

TF: It is lovely for a composer to hear of performers discussing a piece! Too often, just getting the notes lined up at the right dynamic takes 80% of the available preparation time.

I think the ambiguity I was referring to in the program notes was meter-related. Where the "downbeats" are can be ambiguous to an audience without the score in front of them, and that very ambiguity can have an effect on the emotional impact of a passage. But the ambiguity you refer to may have more impact on the listener. I do like to have several things happening at once and I love it when backgrounds and foregrounds switch places unexpectedly. One moment rushing 16th notes seem to be what a passage is about, but on another hearing they may seem like background to a lyrical line. The listener's focus can move in and out, like the eye looking at the three dimensional illusion of a Jackson Pollack painting.

SG: You perform regularly as a cellist. How does that influence your compositional process or even language?

TF: I try to keep the performer's experience in mind while composing. Music is for me something to do as much as it is something to listen to.  The connection between those two perspectives is where I have the most fun as a composer. I try to limit technical struggles for the performers to the places where I want the listener to sense struggle. It's important to me that my music brings pleasure to the performer as much as the audience.

At the same time, I must admit I often write in such a way that the performers and listeners experience the music very differently. Sometimes when the audience hears a swirl of several meters dancing at once, the notation for the performers is laid out in a way that makes it easier to keep together than the listeners might guess. I do find myself in both roles often enough that I think through every moment as both listener and performer.

SG: You also compose music using electronics, another way to explore sound and create all kinds of color palates. Has this effected how you compose for instruments when not using electronics?

TF: Actually for me it's the other way around. Humans are always more interesting to me than computers. Almost all of my electronic music involves live performers, sometimes with a prerecorded electronic part, but more often with interactive electronics, so the electronics follow the live performer. Computers do open the door to new sounds or offer new ways to play with time. I often use them for the things humans can't do, but I put more effort into making them sound human than into making humans sound electronic.

SG: What are your thoughts on New Music in general?

TF: Wow. There's a big question! I love a wide range of current things, from recent Elliott Carter to Steve Reich. The next generation's John Zorn, Annie Gosfield, Lee Hyla. Frank Stemper, Eric Moe, Roger Zahab, Jeffrey Mumford, Mark Winges, and Augusta Read Thomas are among favorite composers that come to mind quickly.

I don't think of any of these as revolutionary or reactionary or showy or polemical. They all see the huge range of expressive possibilities in sound and time available to the 21st century composer, and have chosen the range most suited to themselves. Some use tonal centers, some avoid them; some have a steady beat, some don't; some are consonant in the general scheme of things, some are extremely dissonant. In my mind what they have in common is that their music is fresh, un-mechanical, and convincing.


Tom currently holds the John P. and Magdalena R. Dexter Professorship in Music and is Director of the Electronic Studio at Pomona College in California.  His music has been performed throughout Europe and North America, by such new music ensembles as Speculum Musicae and the Odyssey Chamber Players in New York and Gallery Players in Toronto. On the West Coast, his music has been performed by Earplay and Volti in San Francisco, and XTet and Ensemble GREEN in Los Angeles. He has received numerous grants, prizes and awards from, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Music Center. His work has been recorded on the Albany, Klavier, Bridge, SEAMUS, Capstone, and Advance labels. Tom is a graduate of Brandeis University, S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, and the University of Southern California; his primary teachers in composition include Martin Boykan, Bülent Arel, Robert Linn, and Frederick Lesemann.

Tom is also an active cellist in the Los Angeles area. He is a founding member of the Almont Ensemble and also performs with Celliola and Quartet Euphoria. He studied cello with Timothy Eddy and Bernard Greenhouse.

We are looking forward to having many opportunities to perform Moments of Inertia this season. As our luck would have it, Tom is on sabbatical this Fall and spending some time on the East Coast. We look forward to meeting and working with him and introducing him to you at our concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 11!