Last year I wrote about the music of Christian Forshaw, and the CD Sanctuary. You might want to read that post along with this one.
I've just bought the new CD Midwinter, a collection of music earthed in Advent, and celebrating the Incarnation, itself earthed in the historical particularity of the birth of Jesus. Several of the tracks are worth a post in themselves so I'll return to this CD between now and Christmas.
We all listen to music differently, I suppose. What we hear, what we listen for, is largely a matter of personal taste, but perhaps also depends on individual temperament and receptivity. But something else happens when the music you hear is music most of which you've heard before, because it is part of a known tradition. Memory triggers resonance, mind and heart are prepared with remembered thought and feeling, so the music has an emotionally enriched context.
Yes, but what if the familiar tradition is subverted by unexpected surprise? That is what Christian Forshaw and the Sanctuary Ensemble achieve in this (somebody suggest an alternative to the overused "stunning") extraordinary CD. Impatience with traditional form and content, the pursuit of novelty for its own sake, the assumption we can do better than the efforts of those before us - these and other dismissive shrugs towards tradition are not what Christian Forshaw is about. The music on this CD is widely representative of Christian traditional Advent music. So whence the unexpected surprise? It is in the way the Advent music tradition has been handled by artists who value what is essential, and repristinate the music to prevent it from falling into unexciting cliche.
The first impression on listening to the whole CD is one of paradox. The sound conveys vastness and intimacy, spaciousness and immediacy, as voice, saxophone, organ and percussion paint images of great harmonic power. The soprano soloist, Grace Davidson, brings a singular beauty and clarity to the prayerful longing of Veni Emmanuel. Throughout, the saxophone is used as a voice which communicates meaning in sound not only without words, but in ways that transcend words; at times reprising instrumental impressions of phrases still fresh in the mind, at other times developing themes which evoke in the listener that same Advent longing and looking towards light, and upwards.
Several times the way the tracks are arranged and produced, the power of the instrumental intervention, like a revelation, is sudden, unexpected but welcome. In places Forshaw rises to those high piercing passages that express not only musically driven aspiration, but the determined ascent of the heart and soul towards unreachable truth that nevertheless irresistibly beckons. The power of Forshaw's musical arrangements complements without dominating, virtuosity serving the music and empowering the hearer. It's characteristic of Forshaw's work that saxophone, organ and human voice, at times weave sound together and then separate into their own controlled virtuosity. On this CD the human voice is enabled, without diminishment, to articulate in clear powerful diction, that particular kind of truth-telling we call story, in this case Advent.
One of my favourite carols is Christina Rosetti's In the bleak midwinter. On this album the first verse is sung with aching restraint, followed by a passage of saxophone solo that is as near to a theology of hope as I've ever heard in music. The following verse about "What can I bring Him" moves slowly towards its simple resolved response, the only gift that makes any sense, because it makes no sense, "Give my heart".
This album is, in my humble but unprepared to be contradicted opinion :-) ! - music worthy of the great human themes, vast theology and great contradictions of grace and cruelty, gift and loss, celebration and fear, forever embedded in the Advent cycle, and waiting to be expressed in "utmost art".
If you want to buy the CD you can order it from Christian Forshaw's own website where at £9.99 + p&p it is cheaper than Amazon, and will come within a few days of ordering.
O Come! O Come! Emmanuel.