When Julie Nicholson heard Christian Forshaw’s piece Mortal Flesh on the radio in 2005, she got in touch with the composer to request permission for the work to be performed at the funeral of her daughter, Jenny, who had been killed in the London bombings on 7 July. Now, seven years later, Christian’s latest recording with his Sanctuary Ensemble is a musical response to Julie’s book A Song for Jenny. Tell us a bit about how this disc, Songs of Solace, came about.
The initial root for the project was the relationship that I’ve developed with Julie Nicholson, a Bristol-based vicar whose daughter Jenny was killed in the bombings in London. In the aftermath of that she contacted me to ask if she could use a piece of my music at Jenny’s funeral in Bristol. Then, after that, Julie commissioned me to write a piece – which she provided the text for – and that piece formed the first piece for the new disc. Over the next five years I began to write other pieces based on texts quoted in her book, and along the way I was also commissioned to write a piece for the opening of the memorial to the victims of the bombing in Hyde Park so that’s on the disc as well.
These pieces are closely linked to the bombings and the aftermath – were they difficult to write because of the powerful emotions involved?
I’ve been fortunate enough never to have experienced that kind of tragedy in my life, and the danger of writing music which is a reaction to an event like that, is you can appear glib. The pieces came from many conversations with Julie, during which I tried to understand her situation. And because it has been such a gradual process I’ve been able to test the water – she’s heard a piece and responded to it – so I’ve felt more confident in writing.
How did you use Julie Nicholson’s book when you were writing the music for this recording?
Four of the pieces on the disc use text taken from the book, A Song for Jenny, but the rest of the works were a more visceral response to having read the book. Julie’s book explains so clearly what she went through – the range of emotions, the energies you experience after that kind of tragedy – and my job as an artist is to empathise, musically, with things around me. Some of the music on the recording isn’t pretty – because grief isn’t pretty. Some of it is meant to console, but some of it is also meant to enrage.
How did you avoid the recording becoming too morbid?
Julie’s book wasn’t all dark and morbid – there were elements of the book where I was just filled with horror, but there were also examples of the way humanity draws together – the way Julie’s family and friends supported her, the reactions she got from strangers. There was a lot of – I don’t know if you can say ‘positive’ coming out of it, but a lot of warmth. So I tried to capture that, and also to capture something of this personality. I never met Jenny, but everything that I’ve heard about her suggests she was this radiant character, a great lover of music and very funny. So I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a dark, morose album but that it had light and joy in it as well.
‘Songs of Solace’ will be launched at a concert at St Giles’, Cripplegate on 7 July, 8pm.