Saturday, 21 November 2020

A restlessness with the present: soprano Katharine Dain chats about her new recital disc 'Regards sur l'infini'

Sam Armstrong and Katharine Dain (Photo Hilde Verweij)
Sam Armstrong and Katharine Dain (Photo Hilde Verweij)

The Dutch-American soprano Katharine Dain has a new album out with British pianist Sam Armstrong, Regards sur l'infini on 7 Mountain Records (released on 27 November 2020). The album, containing a century of French song from Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Claire Delbos (1906-1959), Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and Kaija Saariaho (born 1952), is a direct result of lock-down. The  songs, which have physical or emotional links (for instance Delbos was Messiaen's first wife), all have music or text which was written at times of pivotal change, and more than that the album would not have come about in its present form without the space that lockdown gave for Katharine and her pianist friend Sam Armstrong to work extensively on the music, particularly Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi. I spoke to Katharine via Zoom to find out more.

So how did a Dutch-based, American-born soprano and a British pianist end up recording a disc of French song?  In fact, Katharine and Sam are long-time friends and first met in a French art song class at Mannes College, New York, when they worked on one of Debussy's Baudelaire settings. They have been good friends since then, performing a lot of French music and other music besides.

Claire Delbos and Olivier Messiaen in 1933
Claire Delbos and Olivier Messiaen in 1933
Katharine had long wanted to do Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, his 1936/37 song cycle dedicated to his wife Claire Delbos, however Katharine describes it as a vast work which takes dedication from the performers. To perform it would need a lot of rehearsal, and the pandemic in fact gave them time. Sam and Katharine had performances planned when lockdown happened, these were cancelled but it was decided that Sam would still travel to the Netherlands and spend lockdown staying with Katharine and her husband, though the duration was longer than expected. Katharine describes the time as rather meditative, day after day exploring repertoire and practising.

Whilst she had had an idea for the programme, in fact she and Sam developed it during their time in lockdown and it became a recital of French song, all related thematically, something that had not originally been envisioned.  It made sense to perform the programme before committing to disc, and Katharine and Sam have now performed it four times, albeit sometimes to small audiences, with the first one being to Katharine's husband and her fourth housemate during lockdown. She and Sam were able to give a public recital in the Summer, two weeks before recording the programme.

Alongside Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, the programme includes two of Delbos' songs from her song-cycle L'âme en bourgeon. Not only was Delbos Messiaen's wife but her song cycle sets poems written by Messiaen's mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage (1883-1927) when she was pregnant with Olivier. Messiaen's cycle was written in the first flush of his marriage to Delbos (and dedicated to her, Mi was his nickname for her). Katharine sees Messiaen as being flushed with the idea of marriage as heaven, as something sacramental. They are not love songs, and few are tender, most look forward to their future life in heaven, which Katharine sees as a bizarre perspective for a newly-wed husband, as if at the beginning of marriage his eyes were fixed on death. The cycle incorporates much both musically and in terms of philosophical ideas which represents his work later - birdsong, the existential connection between birth, death, marriage, and heaven.

Claire Delbos was a real discovery, though Katharine found it difficult to get information about her and only a few songs exist, and most are settings of Cécile Sauvage (Messiaen's mother). Delbos' cycle, L'âme en bourgeon was written when she was pregnant with their son Pascal, the only one of her ten pregnancies not to end in miscarriage, and many of the songs are ambivalent about motherhood. So that the first song, Dors, though a cradle song ends with the line 'Tomorrow you will know what burdens your wing / And your heart will tremble to sense death' (Katharine's translation). Whilst the last song in the cycle, Ai-je pu t'appeler l'ombre Katharine describes as existentially bleak. 

Judging by these songs, Delbos was not happy, yet her cycle and Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi were written at the same time and premiered in the same concert. Yet the two seem to reflect two completely different inner lives, two people in different places, and Katharine finds the tension between the two very interesting. Subsequent to the project, Katharine has found more songs by Claire Delbos and wants to look into the composer further.

She sees all the other pieces in the programme as sharing this restlessness with the present. For Katharine, Debussy's Proses lyriques from 1892/3 are all full of sadness, angst and nostalgia with three of the four being backward looking, contemplating things being better in the past. Debussy wrote the songs after recently being heartbroken, perhaps by the sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943), and it was the only time that he set his own lyrics, and Katharine feels the songs are very personal to him.

Katharine Dain, Sam Armstrong - Regards sur l'infini - 7 Mountain Records

The two songs by Henri Dutilleux on the programme, Chanson de la déportée and Regards sur l'infini (from Quatre melodies) are early songs and he only acknowledged them late in life. Both written during World War Two, Katharine finds them heartbreaking in their grief. Regards suf l'infini, the album's title track, is a song looking forward to death, whilst Chanson de la déportée is about the displacement caused by war. Katharine gets chills just thinking about the song, she finds it powerful.

Of the composers on the disc Kaija Saariaho is in some ways the odd one out, she is younger and not French, yet can be seen as spiritually connected to Messiaen. Katharine sees similarities in their cosmic treatment of sound and time. Parfum de l'instant (from Quatre instants written for the soprano Karita Mattila in 2004) spoke to Katharine instantly, 'You are alongside me / But I close my eyes / To imagine you' (Katharine's translation of the original French by Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf (born 1949)), and she saw in it the ideas that humans cannot be content, their minds cannot settle, which made the song ideal to open the disc. Similarly, Saariaho's Il pleut closes the disc, and here Katharine sees the song zooming out. It is a setting of a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) and he wrote it just before he died in the 1918 flu epidemic. 

Whilst all these songs have musical connections, it took Katharine quite a long time to be able to articulate the philosophical connections between them as well. And because they were working on the programme at home, in isolation, inevitably they drew on their own experiences.

Whilst Katharine has performed with Sam, the two have never recorded together before. She sees them both as being very curious, and both quite like to give the music time. So for their first recording together, they wanted to do a programme which had had time to be as thought out, as assimilated as possible, and also to do something unusual. Throwing something together did not appeal. She would not have wished lockdown to happen, but it has enabled Katharine and Sam to do something that would have been hard to do in a normal year.

Katharine grew up in North Carolina, sang in choirs and had good local voice and piano teachers, her parents were encouraging but not musicians and she had no example of someone who made a career as a singer work. She went to Harvard to study music, but not on the performance track and did not think about being a performer, instead she thought of going into academia or being a conductor. Singing became more important, and she gained in confidence till she sang in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in her final year. It was so much more fun and more engaging than her academic work, and at university she had met a lot of professional singers who did have careers. It made her understand that not all singers were crazy divas! In the end, after Harvard she went on to study singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

She has always sung a lot of Mozart, alongside lyrical late 19th and early 20th century repertory as well as contemporary music, but she also loves the intimacy of chamber music, the way everyone takes individual responsibility. Katharine has quite a wide repertoire, singing both classical and contemporary, in recital, opera and oratorio and for a long time she has resisted the idea of specialising, the idea that you need to make your mark in a certain repertoire when she likes all equally. Specialising was not why she became a singer, she likes many things and her interests cross-pollinate. She comments that for her final year recital at the Guildhall School she sang a diverse programme which included Berio's Sequenza, and music by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Debussy, William Bolcom (born 1938) and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

She started singing contemporary music, partly because she found a lot of composers' work easy to understand on the page, what the intentions behind it were. But alongside this she sang Mozart, Handel, and Bach. But more recently, as her voice has grown, an element of specialisation has crept in, and she has to acknowledge that you cannot sing everything well at the same time, you have to focus on different areas. With opera, she finds performing as immersive as it gets, and she enjoys embodying the physicality of a character. But it has also taught her about recitals, by doing opera she has learned a lot about embodying a character in song.

Regards sur l'infini is being issued on 7 Mountain Records, a company which was started five years ago as a passion project by a young producer, who had trained as a pianist. It is a project-led company, with the projects coming from the artists. Katharine has already done a project with the company, of music with her vocal quartet and when, two months into the pandemic, Katharine had the idea of recording the programme, 7 Mountain Records was the obvious company for it and they loved the idea.

Katharine feels that the industry is changing in the way it views the viability of a project, and people are finding ways to break the forms that they were taught were indispensable, then the current crisis has only added to this.

Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong
Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong


Regarding new projects, Katharine admits that she and Sam have endless amounts of music that they want to do together, and they enjoy finding new music. They have a concert planned for 27 November, which many not be cancelled!

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