Karine Hetherington from ArtMuseLondon caught up with composer and saxophonist, Christian Forshaw, and soprano Grace Davidson, shortly before the release of their latest album, Historical Fiction. Christian’s arrangement of Handel’s ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’ has already attracted 36,000 views on YouTube and was featured on Classic FM.
Christian and Grace, what are your earliest musical memories?
C: Beatles and choral music. My father is an avid Beatles fan.
Even though the two seem a world apart, both of them gave me a really strong sense of melody and structure – aspects I still value very highly in the music I listen to and write.
G: My earliest musical memories are of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, in the West End, age 3. I knew all the songs and stood on my chair. Singing developed then at 15, when I knew I really wanted to sing and not practice the violin & piano for hours!
Christian – what made you take up the saxophone and what type of saxophone do you play on your new album?
C: At school we were always told that you should begin on clarinet and then progress to the saxophone, so that’s what I did. It’s actually completely misguided because the saxophone is much easier for small fingers than the clarinet.
I do play all of the saxophones but tend to lean towards the soprano and alto. Those are the two that I play on Historical Fiction. I can find my voice with those instruments, and particularly enjoy the soprano sax’s ability to make a chorister-like purity.
What baroque instrument does it replace – it seems to complement or echo the soprano voice on this album?
On Historical Fiction the saxophone often plays the role a trumpet, oboe or flute/recorder would fill, but I’ve also tried to bring in some more contemporary aspects to the sound on this album.
Grace – you have made a career out of singing early music. How do Christian’s new arrangements change things for the voice/interpretation, if they do at all?
G: I do sing a lot of early music, often performing with period instruments and in churches and old buildings. I also sing contemporary music, often recording in studios for film and tv soundtracks for contemporary composers, so this fusion of modern and old is absolutely in my comfort zone and something I feel very at home with. I love singing in studios as much as I do churches.
Christian – how long did the album take to record?
C: We really took our time and recorded over a period of 18 months. We began with Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine, and then the rest of the material grew out of that sound.
Your compositions, in response to the baroque/renaissance repertoire on the album surprise the listener – mostly bite-sized, meditative, introspective, or nostalgic in mood. Can you explain a little what you were trying to achieve…?
C: I wanted to avoid a ‘Baroque Favourite Hits’ album. That’s really where the title Historical Fiction came from. We took certain key pieces from that era, and wove our own narrative around them.
The linking compositions take elements from the pieces they precede (melodies, counter-melodies, harmonic sequences etc.), and then expand, magnify and develop those ideas in a more contemporary way. Even now I have to remind myself where the elements came from, because out of their original context they take on a very new identity.
Historical Fiction is your fourth album together. How did you meet? Why does your collaboration work do you think?
C: Grace was booked to sing as part of the choir on my 2nd album ‘Renouncement’, but the soloist was ill and Grace kindly stepped up. I was in the control room when I heard her singing Downland’s “None But Me” and we all sat there with goosebumps.
We’ve never really spoken about the way our sounds should interact. Grace feels that she phrases like an instrument, and I’ve always tried to phrase like a singer, so I suppose we meet somewhere in between.
G: We met almost by accident. I was called early one morning and asked to step in for a soprano who had gone ill.
Are you going to perform the album live?
C: During the recording process I always envisaged it as a performance project. Whilst the range of sound is extremely broad and varied, the elements used to make those sounds are very simple. We have the official launch concert at Temple Church in London on 28th September 2021, and additional performances in Beverley on 24th September, and at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst Festival on 2nd October.
G: We absolutely do intend to perform the album live, yes, and we are pleased to have a small autumn tour to look forward to.
Christian –you’ve performed with Brian Eno, toured with different bands – do you like to mix it up a bit?
C: The nature of my instrument means I’m constantly moving in and out of different territories. But my approach to the instrument and the way I phrase stays pretty constant. I firmly believe that the things that make music effective and powerful aren’t confined to a specific genre but are universal.
Do you both tend to live in the past?
C: I have a reverence for period performance and listen to a huge number of authentic recordings. But at the same time, I’m fully aware of how relatively young the saxophone is and so I allow my instrument to shed different light on the music.
Do you read historical fiction?
I love historical fiction and have read quite a lot of Philippa Gregory.
G: I don’t read historical fiction myself, but I do love old buildings, churches and artwork, and obviously the music. I live in a Tudor house with lots of wonky floors and beams.