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Ethel’s violinist/composer Cornelius Dufallo treks without baggage

Ethel:Ralph Equality Farris, Mary Rowell, Corenlius Dufallo, Dorothy Lawson

When I met with violinist/composer Cornelius Dufallo, whom many know as a member of the very original, postmodern, somewhat premiere-focused group f string players called Ethel, he gave me the big news about the group straight away: Mary Rowell, one of Ethel’s founding members, will be leaving the group as of June 1st, to pursue different lifestyle choices and Jennifer Choi, of the same younger Juilliard Alumni generation as Dufallo himself, will be joining the group.  So, in a way this article is bidding fare well to Ethel-violinist Mary Rowell and making a hello-shout to Jennifer Choi.

Eagerly answering an audition call for the then already-reputable Ethel-band when they had an opening, Dufallo joined the quartet six years ago. He describes the relationship with all members as excellent and really close. He remembers:”We clicked right from the beginning. Mary is going to be missed and will continue to be involved during the transition process, to make sure that Ethel will keep on going strong.”

What attracted Dufallo to Ethel’s core concept was the commitment to the imaginative programming of contemporary music, executed with great artistry as well as personal dedication.

Specializing in music composed after 1995 seems not to be an unusual undertaking anymore and especially not in the New York area and the few other Metropolitan centers around the country. Even the press, for the most part, is enthusiastic:

”New music is hardly scarce during the main part of the New York concert season, and spaces like issue Project Room, Galapagos and the Tank specialize in it year around. But spring and summer are a virtually nonstop parade of festivals celebrating the experimental,” says Alan Kozinn in his article about Ethel’s opening program of this year’s Tribeca New Music Festival at Merkin Hall (see Alan Kozinn’s review in the New York Times May 24th. 2011)

But only in recent times has such gusto, developed and persistently pursued by promoters, supported by internet advocates as well as educational and private institutions, not to mention the younger growing audiences, proven new music to be of such a high public esteem.

What seems to have made a real difference in the new appreciation compared to a former unwillingness of audiences and press and programmers alike may be the actual high quality of music making. This new batch of musicians brings to new music projects a unique versatility, a high quality of training, as well as an innovative and engaging, invigorating dedication.

It is hard to put a time stamp on development. Some movements just happen because the time is right. They happen through minor shifts that are not tremendously noticeable and just lead to the next level of being. Whether just grounded in its “Zeitgeist” or a symptom of a more reflective lifestyle, these changes bring reality to a new level of consciousness.

The more I talk to some of these talented musicians engaging in new music projects, the more I become impressed with their  very thoughtful way of connecting their musical narrative to an activism, making an actual socio- cultural impact in the process.

Many employ their talents for educational needs, environmental issues and practical-oriented solutions for different worthy causes. Although the need to communicate verbally seems to be an imminent new development for many artists- and typically many of them are writers themselves, if not public relation managers in disguise- they take seriously the need to clarify and conceptualize. They link this aspect to a very direct, pro-active and entrepreneurial approach that explores a connecting drama of performance, music and life in very creative forms.

As we converse about such philosophical aspects of his music making, Dufallo, who received superb classical training with Julliard’s teaching coryphées as Dorothy DeLay, Robert Mann and Marcel Kawasaki, describes some of Ethel’s projects for the coming season:”Ethel has already done so well in the past and we continue to have great projects lined up, like the continuation of our “Present Beauty” project. This describes a program very much in demand, as we have toured it already throughout the country to great acclaim. It relates to the concept of beauty in the present moment, featuring music by composers of Philip Glass, Huang Ruo , Julia Wolfe, Mark Stuart and Terry Riley. The connective tissue of the program’s music is that in one way or another, all these compositions relate to the concept of experiencing the beauty of the present moment and its meditative element represented in their music through differing musical elements.”

Another program Dufallo describes is: “Music of the Sun.” It is an exemplary outreach project, involving a unique collaboration with Native American flutist Robert Mirabal from Taos, New Mexico. The program revolves around different practices of tribal festivals and sun mythology of Native American culture, as originated or transmitted from Taos’ Peblos reservations. These will be presented in connection with some music from the concert music world, such as John Luther Adam’s piece:”Sky with Four Suns,” describing the seeming existence of multiple suns through specific light constellations – the so called “Alaska-effect.”  Dufallo pauses and exclaims:” I would also like to mention our connection to the Native American community in Arizona, where we partake every September at the “Grand Canyon Music Festival” which, in coordination with local High school programs, we engage kids from the reservations in creating pieces for string quartets. It is an utmost meaningful experience. “

The close connection to nature and environmental forces becomes apparent in some of Dufallo’s own works which will be presented at this program, like his “Aphelion” for solo-cello. This work describes the point most distant to a planet’s orbit, symbolizing the state of human loneliness, but also evoking thoughts about other cosmological aspects and our relationship to the sun and the earth, our own planet. ”It is important that we keep on thinking about these connections”, he remarks. "Dorothy plays this beautifully”, he adds, as he talks about this composition, which is something he never formally studied, but keeps studying all along.

“Even though I have been composing since high school, it never occurred to me that I should study composition formally. I was much too busy practicing violin, since everyone was so good at it,” he explains talking about his Juilliard years. He gives programming a lot of thought:”Concepts within a concert program give the audience something to hold onto. It helps people to go with you on a journey. My music is not programmatic, but we are using a conceptual idea, around which each piece centers and connect the different pieces with one another. We are performing music that can be very challenging. Some of it is intense, loud, and fast. In our experience it has helped audiences to relate, to accept those different and new aspects of our music, when we present it in a context.” There is also another aspect, about Ethel’s performances: Stage behavior becomes more casual, less formal, which helps break down barriers between the audience and the performers. By talking, laughing and joking with the audience, what’s become known in theatrical performance as the” fourth wall” is virtually eliminated, creating a milieu rather than a staged presentation.

“We still do play in concert-halls, they just have superior acoustics. However we do perform as well in clubs and we have recently also reached out to unusual public spaces, where we like to take spaces over for installations. For example, for the opening of the new Alice Tully Hall, we performed a newly commissioned piece by Phil Kline in the lobby of the venue. We also like to position ourselves into the performance space, playing from different corners in the room, creating a different stage experience.  For our 2008 BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) performance of “Truck stop”, director Annie Dorsen helped us with the concept of putting together different disciplines. The idea was to find local musicians on road trips, learn some of their music while in those different communities, new music we have not heard before on instruments producing different sounds. In Hawaii for example, we found slack key guitar player Jeff Peterson and in Kentucky bluegrass Banjo-player, Dean Osborne.

 We then brought the musicians here, as soloists and installed a recording studio on stage. The “performance” became a recording session that was witnessed by the audience. “

Independent of all Ethel activities, Dufallo also started a group called “ne(x) t works” in 2003, a collective of avant-garde composers. He wrote “Mindscape 2” for the MATA Festival in 2009. Another group he got involved with (his first) and actually co-founded was “flux” which got invited to perform at the Ojai Festival.  “I remember when Jazz legend Ornette Coleman came to Juilliard and I was impressed with his creative thinking outside the box. He was so inspirational, so deeply committed to his individual approach, representing the very best in the arts, America has to offer.”

As a composer/performer it can be difficult to decide which role one wants to partake in:  “I do perform more of the music of other’s than my own. I sometimes get a little bit sick of my own music. My 2009 recording “Dream Streets” consists of all my own compositions, which I have performed on several occasions. By performing other’s music, I learn. I do from time to time perform a classical repertoire as well; however I do not enjoy it as much as I do when performing contemporary music. New music does not have the same baggage that, let’s say, romantic music possesses. First of all, the missing link of “communication” is a drawback for me, as is the weighing down of all the historic interpretations, associations, teachings, in short all the filters innate to traditional repertoire. With contemporary repertoire, I feel a direct connection with the composer and there is also some input possibility. I can suggest things while working with the composer on the performance of a piece, there is a give and take and there is clarity, no guessing.  That does not mean I don’t enjoy listening to traditionally classical music, I do love it and it is deeply familiar to me. But as a performer I prefer being involved with the here and now of contemporary music. That includes the use of technology and the inclusion of popular music, which always played into classical music as well. It may be a little more shocking that Electronics found their way into instrumentalisation, but I am sure that immediately following the harpsichord, the emergence of the fortepiano was no small stride either. Why should it all stop at a certain point in time, why should it not rather continue? We have to keep on moving and growing, therefore we have to keep on changing.”



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