Cornelius Duffalo’s Journaling, featuring the work of John King, Joan Jeanrenaud, Huang Ruo, Vijay Iyer, John Luther Adams, and Kenji Bunch

By Daniel Garrett

Cornelius Duffalo, Journaling
Recorded and mastered by Jody Elff
Produced by Cornelius Duffalo
Innova Recordings, 2012

On Cornelius Duffalo’s collection of compositions Journaling, Duffalo’s delivery of his own “Violin Loop I” is churning, taut, glimmering, sounding eastern, of the great Orient.  The violinist, fiddler, and composer Cornelius Duffalo is drawn to both acoustic and electric music, to classical, jazz, and popular music.  He is part of a generation of musicians who assumes the existence and value of different forms of music, American, European, and beyond, not only that of the western classical field.  Cornelius Duffalo’s performance of “Prima Volta,” written for violin and laptop computer by John King, has short sawing rhythms, long notes, comic swipes on the bow, electronic density, burbling noise, skittering, tapping, sustained fast rhythms skittering then dense like feedback, sharp strikes, sawing to and fro, squeaking swirls, rising tension, little squalls of sound, rhythm rising—sustained—then fading, silent pauses, low frequencies breaking into alarms, saw-like bowing, and then an emphatic end.  What else sounds like this?  Contemporary composers are doing something worth doing, imagining connections across cultures and beyond prejudices, and bringing forth new combinations of sounds.

Cornelius Duffalo grew up in a family of musicians, began playing violin at about age four, was composing music in high school, and he studied at Julliard, from which he received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.  Cornelius Duffalo has collaborated with composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Phil Kline, Joan La Barbara, and performed with Ornette Coleman, Butch Morris, Thomas Dolby, and Jill Sobule; and Duffalo has been involved with several music ensembles—Flux Quartet, Ne(x)tworks, and Ethel.  Duffalo released Dream Streets (on Innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, 2009).  “I began the concert series ‘Journaling’ in 2009 to document my work with extraordinary living composers while also creating a repertoire of twenty-first century violin music,” Duffalo told Chris McGovern of the online page The Glass at WordPress (April 14, 2012).  Duffalo’s album Journaling features the compositions of Joan Jeanrenaud, Huang Ruo, Vijay Iyer, John Luther Adams, and Kenji Bunch, with his own work.  Joan Jeanrenaud’s “Empty Infinity,” written for violin and digital loops, allows the contemplation of vast space and could be the score for a science-fiction film—melodic, sonorous, with waves of swirling sound, with stark long notes, and possibly an undertow of melancholy.  “Four Fragments” was written by Huang Ruo, who likens the violin to a Chinese fiddle; and his composition, inspired by life and travel, sounds Asian and has long wailing notes, akin to a woman singing in the highest part of her range; and it becomes focused, forward-moving, formidable, somewhat frenzied.  Something quieter, more playful, emerges.  I could not decide if I was hearing melody as emotion, or emotion as melody.  When the Huang Ruo piece was performed live by Duffalo in Manhattan’s East Village in 2009, music critic Allan Kozinn wrote, “As in many of his scores, Chinese articulation styles—sliding notes and gracefully bending notes—mingle freely with Western moves and diatonic harmonies” (New York Times, December 1, 2009).  Then, the piece was performed alongside works by Anna Clyne, Corey Dargel, Annie Gosfield, Alexandra Gardner, and Duffalo’s own composition.

On Cornelius Duffalo’s Journaling, short, repeating patterns begin to expand, double, triple, quadruple in Vijay Iyer’s “Playlist One (Resonance)” then become simple again; and there is plucking, wailing, then great fast rhythm.  In his album notes, Duffalo says the Iyer piece “alludes to the tradition of virtuoso variations, complete with fiendishly difficult passages of harmonics, double stops and left-hand pizzicato, while also creating a unique contemporary sound world.”  Duffalo’s “Violin Loop V” is quiet, elemental, seeming natural, with a wall of sound set against a plain rhythm.  “Three High Places,” written by John Luther Adams in memory of his friend Gordon Wright, is something of a sonata and has strange, solitary sounds, throbbing, whistling, and spirals of ringing tones, possibly and oddly birdlike.  That Adams and Wright shared an interest in the natural environment explains the allusions to wildlife in the commemorative piece, with its sections named “Above Sunset Pass” and “The Wind at Maclaren Summit” and “Looking toward Hope.”  Kenji Bunch’s “Until Next Time,” though inspired by an old Scottish fiddle song, seems as much as anything else on Journaling the sound of the contemporary classical moment, as it rises and falls with controlled tension, fluttering, melodious, sad, with its modulations of rhythms and moods.  There is more that can be said about Cornelius Duffalo’s Journaling, but what must be said is that it is genius expressed as exquisite beauty.

DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.