That Time I Decided to Quarantine With a Pianist
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Katharine Dain reflects on one positive consequence of life in lockdown: 'Our best work needs slowness, space to ask questions and wait for answers, and patience with our brains and bodies as they adapt to new information'
If you had appeared on New Year's Eve 2019 as I was making resolutions (to be more creative and less concerned with what people think, to rest and exercise more, to smash the patriarchy – the usual) and had told me that life was about to change dramatically, that all my carefully-laid plans for the year would evaporate, and that instead I would be recording 19 fiendishly difficult songs in an empty concert hall with a malfunctioning air-conditioning system during a record-breaking heat wave five months into a global pandemic after going from zero to 60 on a deeply quirky French recital program while meanwhile the world went nuts in all respects, I'd have laughed in your face.
... Yet here, somehow, we are.
In mid-March, the pianist Sam Armstrong and I held a hasty confab on the phone. An imminent recital together had just fallen to the first wave of Covid-19 cancellations. I invited him to board his booked flight anyway and ride out the lockdown restrictions in Rotterdam with my husband and me. He accepted, bringing a small suitcase of clothes and scores, a rather nice bottle of gin from duty free, and a concert suit (because you never know); we figured he might stay for a few weeks.
He stayed for half a year.
Sam and I met in a French art-song class during our student days in New York. Our first assignment together was Debussy's fevered, sprawling setting of Baudelaire's 'Le Balcon', which we spent weeks discovering together in dusty practice rooms, considering every marking and dynamic shape. Afterwards, we would linger over cheap glasses of wine in Upper West Side cafes, feeling terribly grown-up, talking about the future and music we loved.
We've remained close friends since, despite living in different countries. We've toasted each other's triumphs and commiserated over disappointments, shared meals and swapped useful contacts, and enjoyed the occasional project together. But we've never had the kind of open-ended time to explore music together that we had during those first years of friendship and collaboration.
By late March and April, the scope of the pandemic's destruction was becoming distressingly apparent. At home, we settled in to our new quarantine arrangement as best we could, grappling with the loss and disorientation by making music together every day. We revisited favourite songs and started chipping away at ambitious pieces we had long wanted to try, including Messiaen's magisterial Poèmes pour Mi. For once, we worked without a deadline, letting the music reveal itself over days or weeks. Sometimes I propped up my phone on a nearby bookshelf to record our sessions; we released the occasional successful take on social media.
By May, our schedules were emptier than ever, but our work was beginning to take shape as an unusual hour-long program spinning out from Messiaen and incorporating related pieces by Dutilleux, Saariaho, Debussy, and Delbos (Messiaen's first wife, whose compositions are nearly forgotten today). Friends noticed what we were doing and began to offer help: my piano technician, who welcomed us into his shop to rehearse; a record producer I know and love; a programmer at the glorious Concertgebouw in Nijmegen, which like most venues then was standing dark; a chamber music presenter who offered us a date on his newly-formed, socially-distanced summer series.
The work took on new purpose and urgency, and our rehearsal days lengthened with the daylight. The idea of recording the program, at first hardly conceivable, became definite. My to-do list was suddenly miles long. We discussed music and text on video calls with friends, including a joyful virtual reunion with Cristina Stanescu, the teacher who had first paired us together in New York. We eventually worked the entire programme with her over a series of virtual coachings, and her feedback was just as specific and insightful as it had been a decade previous. In July, we got a sudden chance to go to Berlin (our first trip out of the country in months) and work the Messiaen songs with Pierre-Laurent Aimard over two unforgettable days.
In August, we recorded 'Regards sur l'Infini', our first album together after more than a decade of friendship and collaboration.
We could never have spent so many uninterrupted months on a single project in 'normal' life. We live in a very fast age; even in the music industry, quickness is often prized over true assimilation. But what Sam and I discovered (or re-learned) this year, however, is that there really is no substitute for time and trust. Our best work needs slowness, space to ask questions and wait for answers, and patience with our brains and bodies as they adapt to new information. We needed every bit of the time we spent tracing and re-tracing Messiaen's rhythms and voicings and rhetorical gestures before the music spoke clearly. I spent months singing the same phrases before prosody, breath, physicality, shadings of vowels, and imagination aligned.
As I write this in November 2020, our CD is nearing its release date as Europe's Covid cases are spiking again. We are all – performers, venues, managers, audiences – feeling re-traumatized, trying to manage the new wave of regulation and risk while continuing to make and enjoy art.
I'm grieving and uncertain like everyone else. I'm impatient for a time when we can again be elbow-to-elbow in a concert hall or opera house, messily and joyfully breathing together into the music. But whatever happens, this year has forced upon me (and many performers, I think) a critical reminder: that the best music is made with time, genuine personal and artistic chemistry, and the occasional emptying of the head and schedule. The album Sam and I made is a testament to this that Covid cannot take away. Even if professional life eventually returns to its pre-pandemic hectic pace, we are determined to build this kind of work back into future projects, for the sake of the music, the text, and the level we now know we can reach with enough time.
Next up: smashing the patriarchy.
Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong’s new disc of French songs, 'Regards sur l'Infini', is out on November 27 on 7 Mountain Records: katharinedain.com