Cornelius Dufallo’s Journaling: Solo Violin, Seven Unique Composers

Violinist Cornelius Dufallo’s new CD Journaling presents the music of six contemporary composers living in the United States as well as some of Dufallo’s own original pieces. All for solo violin, sometimes with electronics, the results showcase the musical language of each unique compositional voice. Dufallo’s tone has an earthy, gentle, serene quality to it—almost a pastoral American sound for the new millennium. His playing is straightforward and for the most part somewhat subdued. All this allows for clarity in comprehending the different styles presented on the disc.

Dufallo himself has cultivated an ability to expand the possibilities of solo violin through the use of electronic loops. His own Violin Loop V is a particular standout on this disc. Beginning with relatively simple rhythmic figures put together, and the use of different registers and articulations for each layer allows them to be heard discreetly and as parts of a coherent whole. The improvisatory melody has a freedom to it that is a nice contrast to the steady loops—there is a floating quality to Dufallo’s soaring melodic fragments and a rhythmic looseness that gives it a gorgeous calm.

Cornelius Dufallo - Photo by Jill Steinberg

Cornelius Dufallo - Photo by Jill Steinberg

Huang Ruo’s Four Fragments pulls out an entirely different sound and style from the violin by having it emulate the Chinese two-string fiddle [Ed. note: erhu]. Dufallo’s tone works well to capture this idea, and sliding into pitches as well as a sense of inflection further demonstrate the versatility of this violinist. Ruo’s composition is perhaps the most melodic on the CD, with overall emphasis on lengthier horizontal lines, and as such makes it a more captivating piece. The use of drone-like bass notes contributes to the earthy quality, and the excursions into the upper register really sing while maintaining Dufallo’s gentle touch. The piece moves through a lot of different material, and the use of different articulations helps to provide contrast and climactic moments. One more frantic passage created by increased rhythmic intensity and harsher bowing was particularly memorable. On the other hand, the title, Four Fragments, betrays the fact that as a whole this piece is more a presentation of many different ideas rather than a coherent and captivating integral whole. It is nonetheless a good exploration of a new approach to the violin.

Vijay Iyer’s Playlist One (Resonance) is something of a virtuosic violin etude in Iyer’s diverse musical language. Its strength is in making the violin sound like many different instruments owing to the use of multiple techniques and timbres. The phrasing is very conversational, and Iyer’s writing and Dufallo’s playing excel at making the solo instrument sound like several different voices.

Kenji Bunch’s Until Next Time is probably the most substantive track as a solid solo violin piece. It begins and ends with simple though energetic alternations between two notes. From this develop different musical ideas, and the choices of different textures in different sections feel more like a coherent piece moving through different material rather than patchwork. There is a clear melodic line throughout, even in moments of figuration, and Dufallo is particularly adept at bringing this out. Dufallo’s use of expressive timing gives life to each phrase and contributes to the natural flow of the composition.

John King’s Prima Volta, on the other hand, does sound like patchwork. The use of computer in chance-determined processes as well as the material itself seems lacking in any musical coherence. The electronic transformations of the violin don’t offer anything new or exciting in terms of sound, but rather come off like amateurish video-game music. It seems these days most new music releases have to have one somewhat cheesy laptop piece, and unfortunately Journaling is no exception. While this piece of John King’s for me was a miss, I did recently hear one of his compositions make excellent use of trombones with electronics in a recent performance by Tilt Brass. The point here is that acoustic instruments with digital transformations can result in new creative heights or second-rate gimmickry, and in this case it’s the latter.

Joan Jeanrenaud’s Empty Infinity and John Luther Adams’s Three High Places are both far more textural in nature. Jeanrenaud’s piece has a certain eerie, unsettled quality to it fitting for that part of a horror movie when you don’t quite know what’s going on but you know something is afoot. Adams’s piece, on the other hand, has a gorgeous simplicity to it that’s indicative of the Alaskan nature that surrounds the composer. The use of disparate registers together, with Dufallo’s gentle ethereal high notes and earthy lower notes, made for a serene beauty. The fast but delicate bowing of the second “high place” gave the music a shimmery whistling quality.

Journaling highlights Cornelius Dufallo’s unique strengths as a performer: his use of loops in a way that allows the music to breathe rather than locks it into rigidity, and his delicate touch even during reaches into the uppermost register. This CD also makes for a good introduction into the music of several significant contemporary composers who have all cultivated their own style. Journaling is an accurate title, though for me it indicates a weakness of this release: the compositions are all intriguing in their own right, but they feel more like interesting journal entries rather than captivating essays. Everything is on some level emotionally restrained and lacking in extremes—in a sense very anti-Romantic. Perhaps this just reflects my own aesthetic difference with all things postmodern: I like unifying elements and larger narratives, not ones that flatten everything into banal simplicity, but that allow for elucidation and complexity within a coherent framework. It’s that sense of gravitas, that there is something being said (musically), that I find most captivating as a listener.

Cornelius Dufallo, Journaling (Innova, 2012) | Buy on Amazon


David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.

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