Composer Jane Antonia Cornish has scored some big hits (pun intended) with her film music. Her signature style tends to be reflective and atmospheric, meticulous to a fault: a wasted note would be a serious crime in her universe. Her latest album, Continuum opens with Nocturne 1, a starkly minimalist, Lynchian series of very subtle variations on a very simple motif for strings that Angelo Badalamenti would no doubt approve of. As it grows darker and louder, bringing to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula soundtrack, the ghosts of the deep, robust roots of the trees whose wood became cellos and violins begin to flicker, their microtones dancing across the bows of the string ensemble Decoda. Composers tend to write best for their own instruments, and Cornish being a violinist, that strikes particularly true here. For that matter, the whole album – out from Innova and streaming this week at WQXR – is as starkly gripping as its opening track.
Nocturne II opens with such precision and clarity that its sonorities could be produced by winds instead of strings – and then that macabre theme kicks in! The third and final Nocturne is an achingly crescendoing grey-sky tone poem. Again, the cello quintet achieves such a crystalline timbre that they could be french horns.
Cornish’s cinematic prowess stretches across the horizon on Continuum 1, a spacious, moody Great Plains tableau of sorts – it’s tempting to say that it reaches Spielbergian heights. The second movement refers obliquely to the Glassine pulse of the opening Nocturne, with a series of wavelike echo effects as hypnotic as anything Glass ever wrote. The solo cello piece that follows offers a fond nod back to the Bach cello sonatas, adding both Cornish’s signature spaciousness and minutely honed sense of tasty string overtones. The album winds up with Tides, a vivid illustration of waves and echoes. A thousand electronic composers have used machines to follow similar tangents, but Cornish’s triumph is one of echoing nature exactly as it exists rather than through the bottom of a laptop.
And it wouldn’t be fair to end without mentioning the rapturously precise and inspired solo performance by Decoda cellist Hamilton Berry at the album launch party last month at Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, where he gave voice to an austerely poignant Cornish sonata as well as a colorful solo pastorale by George Crumb that required considerable split-second extended technique.