Chamber Music for Strings: Jane Antonia Cornish’s Continuum

In Jane Antonia Cornish’s second solo studio album Continuum we get a clearer aural picture of the young Brit’s voice. It is rooted in lilting harmonies, easily-discerned repetition (often embedded in clear passacaglia or ternary forms), and idiomatic instrumental writing. Played by the talented Decoda (the first ever Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall), the album steps firmly in the world of luxurious string writing producing delightful sparks of tonality and stays put.

Cornish’s music reveals a rabid obsession with consistent idiomatic writing. The strings, whether it be the cello quartet in Nocturnes I-III or the string septet (which includes electric bass) in Continuum I-II and Tides, are presented as beautiful purveyors of rich tonality and rhythmic synchronicity. Cornish does not shy away from finding a sonority and letting it wash over the listener without interruption. The easily discernable passacaglia-like forms are at the heart of this insistence on uninterrupted sonorously delightful world, especially in the first two Nocturnes and Tides.  If it isn’t a passacaglia, other conventions of ternary-like form are employed, it seems, to give the listener an easy point of entry into this harmonically rich world. Entering this sound world is easy. It is warm and welcoming. Cornish’s earnest insistence that string music should not be complicated with avant-garde string techniques or even rhythmic complexity allows for this access. Yet, the harmonic washes and drone-like passages cloud up any way of egress.

Jane Antonia Cornish

Jane Antonia Cornish

There are moments in the album where the cloudy skies clear enough for a glimpse of an exit out of Cornish’s obsessions with arpeggios and diatonicism. In Continuum I composed for string septet, including the electric bass, Cornish creates a more contoured passacaglia melody rather than the fragmented motives that pervade rest of the tracks. The theme is grounded in a diatonic tonality (as with her other works) but the melodic contour allows for a narrative that seems to actually want to move through time rather than freeze time. The real magic of this gem happens nearly three minutes in when the lead violin glides out of the narrative creating another melodic layer in an unexplored register. As a delightful contrast to the floating first violin, Cornish has the electric bass come in to give a stronger foundation to this solid piece. This piece is revelatory in that it illustrates the compositional range Cornish possesses and makes the listener wonder why this is expressed so deftly within one piece.

Tides perfectly sums up this consistently and deliciously predictable harmonic and melodic language that Cornish explores throughout the album. Rather than letting the waves of delectable harmonies pass us over, she conjures up a world of crunchy harmonic eddies. There’s more of an edge to the beauty of Tides that is unheard in the other tracks. It seems to be another glimpse into the composer’s mind that reveals a deeply rich understanding of not only harmony and color, but also narrative. It compels the listener to take another dive into the music. But instead of swimming we are bound to simply float. Several listenings of Continuum as a whole may leave the journey-hungry listeners unsatisfied while totally satiating the appetite for those who long for the safety of home.

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