Regards sur l’Infini: Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong

Across the globe, musicians stopped making music in March this year.  Or, at least, they stopped performing publicly, together, and communicating directly to audiences in concert halls, opera houses and theatres.  During the past seven months, musicians have been endlessly inventive and imaginative to keep alive conversations with their audiences, often in new ways.  Digital technology, and skills and production values, have developed enormously and innovations may well influence the way we create and experience all art forms in the future.

For some, the cancellations, isolation silence will have been traumatic – personally, professionally, financially, and psychologically.  For others, being forced to hit the ‘pause’ button, may also have had some advantages.  Professional musicians live tremendously busy lives, rehearsing and performing, learning new music, travelling frequently: lockdown may have been an unexpected opportunity to reflect and re-think.  As the American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain observed on her blog, ‘Covid has disrupted our normal patterns.  It has forced us to be more radically present than ever … We are adrift on a raft of the moment.  The past is meaningless, the future is entirely unknown.’ 

I spoke to Katharine in advance of the release of the new CD, Regards sur l’Infini, that she prepared and recorded during lockdown with her long-time collaborator and friend, the pianist Sam Armstrong – a disc that she has described as ‘a portrait of composers and writers reacting to pivotal moments, a collection of deeply personal stories that together tell a larger story about the restless human gaze.’

Back in early March, the summer months ahead looked characteristically hectic.  “There was a lot packed in, both chamber and orchestral projects, and a lot of music to be learned at a fast pace,” Katharine tells me.  “The first concert to be cancelled was a recital with Sam – it wasn’t a surprise, really, and it was a sign of what was to come.  Sam has been a friend for a long-time and it isn’t unusual for him to come and stay in Rotterdam, where I live, so we decided that he would come anyway.  At first, I thought it would just be for a few weeks – I lost some concerts and deadlines – but I think I Sam had a more realistic sense of what was ahead.  After two or three weeks I realised, ‘This is it.  The year gone.’  I still had a few engagements in the Fall, and I just thought, ‘Well, we’ll see.’”

There were inevitable adjustments to be made, but Katharine retained some optimism and hope.  She’d been working on a programme for some time, which was related to that on Regards sur l’Infini, but she hadn’t been sure how she was going to rehearse it; now she had time to expand the scope of the programme and begin preparing, hoping one day in the future to be able to try it out in a recital.  “It’s interesting how much the programme changed and evolved during the time that Sam and I were rehearsing,” she remarks.

Katharine and Sam performed the programme in public, in Oegstgeest, two weeks before recording the disc in early August in the Concertgebouw de Vereeniging in Nijmegen, though they’d also given some private ‘virtual’ performances for friends before that.  “We did a run through in the living room – our neighbours were incredibly patient!” she laughs.  “It was blistering hot in June and July, and we had to have the doors and windows closed.  I was covered in sweat – it was exhausting.  But, it’s incredibly important to perform a programme like this, without being able to stop.  It’s not really about overcoming performance nerves, rather learning what your body can do, and receiving feedback and information from the audience to whom you are telling a story.”  She reflects, “I’ve never been better prepared, though the recording is of course just a snapshot, at a particular moment in time.  The programme, and our performance and experience, of it will continue to grow.”

Regards sur l’Infini presents a programme of French song.  “When I was preparing the programme, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a ‘song recital’.  Instead it was about the connections between different songs and poems.  I guess it was a kind of musical exercise for myself – it’s nerdy, whacky, French, non-marketable!  I didn’t want to explore music that was unapproachable, but I was thinking what material I could go deeply into.”  The programme is symmetrically arranged and at its heart is Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, the composer’s first song-cycle which he composed in 1936-37 and dedicated to his first wife, Claire Delbos.  Katharine explains that, while Messiaen’s cycle is well-known, it is not very frequently performed in its entirety.  Learning the whole programme was a journey of discovery.  “Messiaen’s songs are tricky, and it took a long time, but I gained a sense of the whole cycle, and an understanding of what the music can say.  It’s very intense, though it only lasts about 25 minutes.”  Poèmes pour Mi existsin two forms, one for voice and piano, and in an orchestrated version.  “Messiaen conceived them simultaneously,” explains Katharine.  “The orchestral cycle received its premiere only a month after the voice/piano version, and the latter doesn’t at all feel like an orchestral reduction.  If it did, Sam wouldn’t have agreed to perform it!  The whole programme is very much an equal partnership and contribution.”

Katharine Dain

In Poèmes pour Mi, Messiaen celebrates conjugal love as an embodiment of the marriage of Christ and His Church.  Human love is thus a foretaste of celestial bliss.  The composer wrote his own texts, which are formed from dynamic chains of disconnected, quasi-surreal images, linking the human beloved and the Divine.  I’m struck by how Katharine and Sam capture the ‘innocence’ of the opening song, ‘Action de grâces’ (Giving of thanks), in which the gift of the beloved is likened to Christ’s sacrifice.  The vocal line flows softly, almost an incantation, then gains in vigour, rising ecstatically as the piano’s gentle, celestial sparkling grows in force and span.  The tensions between husband and wife feel quite disturbing in ‘Épouvante’ (Terror) which is dark, explosive and unpredictable, while ‘Ta voix’ (Your voice) sparkles like a jewel, delicate and uplifting.  The final song, ‘Priere exaucee’ (Prayer granted) is exuberant, driving forward to fulfilment and bliss.

Messiaen’s cycle is ‘framed’ by two songs from L’âme en bourgeon by Claire Delbos. Better known as a violinist than as a composer, Delbos composed three sets of songs for voice and piano.  Captivated by Delbos’ songs, which were paired with Poèmes pour Mi on a disc by the soprano Liv Elise Nordskog and the pianist, Signe Bakke, Katharine ordered the score.  “I decided to ‘hang’ the two songs by Delbos around Poèmes pour Mi and the idea of a symmetrical structure with the programme working outwards from the Messiaen cycle became clear.  L’âme en bourgeon sets poems by Cécile Sauvage, Messiaen’s mother, which had been written when Sauvage was pregnant with Messiaen.  “Delbos was herself pregnant at the time, with their son, Pascal, and L’âme en bourgeon was premiered [by Marcelle Bunlet, accompanied by Messiaen, in 1937] in the same concert that Poèmes pour Mi received its first performance.  So, the songs are connected, though very different.”   Indeed, I’m struck by the sparseness of ‘Ai-je pu t’appeler de l’ombre’ (How could I have called you forth from the shadow) with its unaccompanied chant-like opening.  When the voice is silenced, the low, slowly roving single-line piano line creates a sense of unease.  ‘Dors’ (Sleep) is less austere but similarly mystical.  It may eschew the coloristic richness of Messiaen, but Delbos’ music is equally refined and transcendental.

In January 2019, Katharine performed Henri Dutilleux’s Le temps l’horloge with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ryan Bancroft.  “I ordered all Dutilleux’s scores – I didn’t know what I would do, but I wanted to have them.  It’s really good to do that, especially if you can’t buy the scores online, because then you have them, on the shelf.  His early songs are not very valued; in fact, it was only very late in his life that he permitted them to be entered into his catalogue, and the ‘Chanson de la déportée’ (Song of the deported) was only included five years before Dutilleux’s death.”  Was this because he was conscious that they represented his very early ‘musical voice’?  “Perhaps he was aware of a certain stylistic immaturity.  But, that’s a shame as the songs are very beautiful.”  ‘Regards sur l’infini’ (Gaze on the infinite) which gives the recording its title, is exquisite.  The gentleness of the idiom reminds me of Poulenc.  The poet asks that, when death grants deliverance, the window may be opened onto that glimpse of sky that has brought comfort during pain. Katharine captures both the lyricism and the fervour of this plea, while the quietude of the piano postlude brings peace.

Katharine’s programme includes the four songs which comprise Debussy’s Proses lyrique (1892).  “I’d never sung or approached them before, but they are wonderful.  Debussy wrote his own texts, even though his previous custom had been to seek out high quality texts by the French symbolist poets for his art songs.  So, this is connection with Messiaen, who also wrote his own texts and who was inspired by Pelléas et Mélisande.”  Was it that these texts enabled Debussy to do specific things in music?  “I feel these songs were a sort of ‘preparation’ for Pelléas et Mélisande,” Katharine replies.  “As he finished work on Proses lyrique,he was beginning to compose the opera.  The texts are free verses and while the phrase lengths are regular, they are very adaptable.  It’s as if Debussy was looking for new ways of treating texts and these songs serve as a bridge to Pelléas.  He was very proud of these texts; we know that he showed them to a friend who ran a literary journal.” 

Bringing considerable musical intelligence to their performance, Katharine and Sam capture the suggestiveness of Debussy’s idiom, often erotic, ever restless.  The clarity of the vocal line accommodates lovely nuances, and the piano is pliant and responsive.  ‘De grève’ (Of the shore) is particularly beautiful, at times expansive, then delicate, always elegant.

Kaija Saariaho provides both the final song, ‘Il pleut’ (It rains), and the first on the disc.  The latter, ‘Parfum de l’instant’ (from Quatres Instants), was in fact the last song that Katharine selected.  “Both the text and the music are wonderful.  It made the rest of the programme make sense.  The theme of Regards sur l’Infini emerged after all the music had been planned.  I sent the programme to friends and we discussed it during long zoom sessions, drinking wine and reading poetry – one benefit of Covid!”  During the erotic encounter of ‘Parfum de l’instant’, the poet is both ‘in’ time and slipping out of it – in a suspended moment.  “And, there is a time when that moment will become a memory, perhaps an idealised one.  This is the connecting thread between the songs.  It’s a ‘corona programme’! – as we are in the middle of one such suspended moment, and it’s intense as it is unknown.  We are trying to figure out what to do.  Past memories are intense, and we are longing for the future, for the ‘normal’ to return, without knowing if it ever will.”

Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong’s new disc of French songs –  Regards sur l’Infini  – is out on 27 November on 7 Mountain Records:

Claire Seymour

Above: Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong