Regards sur l’Infini: Back Story (part 1)

It’s been a rocky few months for the performing arts, which makes it all the more strange and wonderful to announce my own news: Sam Armstrong and I are making an album.

Sam and I been close friends and collaborators for a long time, but we’ve never recorded together. Now, finally, we’re planning a disc of French songs, titled “Regards sur l’Infini” after a gorgeous early song by Dutilleux. The program is a compact, symmetrical meditation on restlessness and longing, including two complete cycles (Messiaen Poèmes pour Mi, Debussy Proses lyriques) and songs by Claire Delbos, Dutilleux, and Saariaho. We will record in the second week of August in Nijmegen’s stunning Concertgebouw de Vereeniging. Frerik de Jong will be at the helm, and the disc will be released on 7 Mountain Records in November of 2020.

But wait! How did this project evade the jaws of the pandemic?

It didn’t. “Regards sur l’Infini” will be a direct result of the Covid-19 lockdown. Like most performers, I’ve been virtually unemployed since mid-March; although some work is flickering back to life, the industry is still in major trouble. But meanwhile, I’ve been quarantining with a pianist. We’ve been making music together at home all along—at first just to cope with the uncertainty and loss, and later with a defined goal. I’m so glad that the album will serve as a permanent record of this work: a document of deep thought and assimilation and trust, a personal silver lining to a global catastrophe.

I’ve wanted to sing a program like this for ages, and Sam and I had a date booked to try a version of it this summer. That concert was cancelled, but in spite of everything Covid has taken away, it’s given us one very precious thing: time … time to explore, time to let this beautiful and strange music reveal itself slowly, time to build our understanding and mastery of it together. Living together for four months, working every day? This would be impossible in the context of “normal” professional life. The program is intensely challenging: very high and very low, very Romantic and very pointillistic, very mystical and very orchestral and very taxing. As the months have gone by, as the program has evolved and my understanding has deepened, I’ve come to believe that it’s exactly the right program for this bizarre moment.

Why? What makes “Regards sur l’Infini” relevant to the shit-storm of 2020?

All the songs are very personal, even intimate, in their subject matter and their response to text. All are written from the point of view of someone looking restlessly outward from the present moment: backward into memory, or forward into an imagined future. This discomfort is a universal tendency, as T. S. Eliot noted in his Four Quartets: “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality”—in other words, we find it difficult to be calmly present in our actual lived experience, preferring instead to compare it to the known outcomes of the past or to see it as a plot point in a future redemptive narrative we’ll tell of our lives.

Covid has disrupted our normal patterns. It has forced us to be more radically present than ever: present in our homes, in the food we make, in our sleep or lack of it, in our fears and our desires, in our awkward housebound physicalities, in our paranoid masked movements through the outside world. It has brought a new intensity to our relationships with our screens, with just a few physically present bodies, with ourselves. We are adrift on a raft of the moment. The past is meaningless, the future entirely unknown.

Everyone is reacting differently to this disruption. Many don’t have the luxury of doing anything but prioritizing survival or caring for others. I am grateful for the privileges of health, space, enough security, and time to think; I’m grateful to be able to reflect on the meaning of this strange moment and try to beautify it in my own way. This is our reaction: to call up stories from the past that illuminate universal human responses to moments of heightened experience (joyful or fearful), and to make an album out of them. Each song is inextricably bound to its moment of creation; the whole program both gazes longingly outward from our current crisis point and also crystallizes it into something that can be shared and re-experienced later.

“Regards sur l’Infini” is 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. I hope and believe that the music and texts will speak for themselves when the disc is finished. I hope anyone will be able to enjoy this beautiful music whether or not they care about the album’s careful programmatic construction or its genesis during a global crisis. But for anyone like me who nerds out to concept albums, who thirsts for more information to enrich the experience of listening and being present, I’d like to share some of the stories behind “Regards sur l’Infini.”

 

 

New York, winter 2007

 

This story began in Cristina Stanescu’s French art song class at Mannes.

I was assigned Debussy’s first Baudelaire setting with a pianist whose playing I loved. He was tall, British, a bit aloof, slightly intimidating. I remember the first hour we worked on the piece together: the dustiness of the light slanting into the fifth-floor practice room window, the gouge marks and greasy fingerprints in the battered piano’s aging varnish. I remember chasing after quickly-shifting harmonies, searching for words to use with each other; there were stumbles and smiles and furrowed brows. I remember a slow, dawning sense of discovery of the song’s vastness and depth. We would stop to really examine a marking, where exactly in the bar it was placed, what that might indicate about the shape of the phrase, what our dynamic range actually was in our own bodies and relative to each other.

At the end of the hour, Sam decided we needed more time before presenting the song in class. For me, that felt like not completing an assignment. I must have visibly quaked, because he reassured me that he would explain and that Cristina would understand.

We spent weeks on “Le Balcon.” In retrospect, it’s clear that our work on that massive song introduced me to a new, more serious level of musical thought. It expanded my ability to listen with my whole self; it challenged my instinct to lead reflexively with my voice. It helped teach me patience in uncovering gestures or waiting for them to emerge. It changed the rigor with which I approach a score—starting me on the path to being an independent, curious professional instead of a student trying to meet a deadline. When we finally performed the song in class, it was with the assured sweep and contour that can only come with time.

Cristina sensed a rich partnership in the making. She assigned us other songs together, and we found short hours in practice rooms to read yet more. We began spending afternoons over coffees or glasses of wine at Max Cafe on Amsterdam Ave. and 123rd, learning about each others’ lives, discovering we shared an irreverent sense of humor. I asked Sam to play my master’s recital, a beast of a program including Schubert, Fauré, Rachmaninoff, Harbison, and Britten. We listened to each other perform in Carnegie Hall—Brahms (me), Schubert (him).

School ended. Sam moved back to the UK, and I moved to the Netherlands. We did occasional concerts together, never as many as we wanted. We texted, we visited, we shared vacations; we celebrated each others’ triumphs and pulled each other out of slumps. In the winter of 2019, we performed a little bit of Messiaen together, and afterwards, I began to draft the program that would become “Regards sur l’Infini.”

 

 

Rotterdam, spring 2020

 

A pandemic overturned the world, our industry, our sense of purpose and self.

Sam had a flight to the Netherlands booked for a concert in late March. It was cancelled, but in a hasty confab on the phone, we decided he should take the flight anyway—it would likely be a few weeks’ disruption, we thought. Why not enjoy some good company and bonus rehearsal time while we waited for things to return to normal? He settled into an attic bedroom at my house in Rotterdam. Anna, another close friend, took the other, and we were a full house, a quarantine family of four. Sam and I read Messiaen and Debussy and Korngold and Barber and Strauss at my little Schimmel upright. (Sam christened the piano Shirley: a little cranky, some sharp edges, but with a warm heart.) We made elaborate dinners; we watched old films; we speculated about the arts industry; we obsessively washed our hands. Sam stayed in touch with students remotely, and he taught Anna piano lessons in the evenings—Singin’ in the Rain, I Feel Pretty, the Star-Spangled Banner. Anna led Zoom meetings with colleagues all over the world from my desk. My husband Ton continued to cycle to work, now with newly-taped floors showing 1.5 meters distance. Our anticipated first few weeks went by, our performance calendars emptied, and we began to worry about the longer term.

What did I do during those weeks? I sang and read and cried and cooked. I went on long walks and took punishingly hot baths. I reached out to friends to make sure they were OK—some were managing fine, and some were as overwhelmed and afraid as they’d ever been in their lives. I tried to make sense of my suddenly stilled professional momentum. I spent hours mumbling poetry to myself, reading about composers and writers, inexpertly capturing still-lifes around the house with my phone. The days lengthened; the crocuses bloomed in the Zuiderpark, then all the flowering cherry trees, then the rose we planted in front of our door. Slowly, over many weeks, the Poèmes pour Mi and Proses lyriques began to assume form in our hands and voices. Flashes of insight and color punched through long days of uncertainty and isolation.

We published occasional successful takes of single songs on social media. Friends who reacted to our posts were quick to comment on how lucky we were—a singer and pianist quarantined together? Fabulous!

Our work began to seem more purposeful, and Shirley Schimmel’s limitations became more frustrating. Our first train trips out of Rotterdam, masked and cautious, were to Gouda—my trusty piano tuner, Rik Cox, welcomed us into his shop to rehearse on nicer instruments. We got a sudden invitation to perform a live-streamed concert in Amsterdam’s Bethlehemkerk, which was a thrill after working at home for so long. We began to talk cautiously but seriously about using the period of latency to record. I sent some exploratory texts. Frerik de Jong, the producer and founder of 7 Mountain Records, was on board almost before I could get “Messiaen” out of my mouth; we sketched out a production schedule on our first phone call. Kenne Peters, dear friend and programmer at the Concertgebouw de Vereeniging in Nijmegen, invited us there to try the instruments. We were the first people to sing or play in the hall for several months, and everyone was delirious with joy that day at hearing and making music live in a space so beautifully built for it. In the end, we arranged session dates for August on the main stage, working with their stunning Steinway. After that, our rehearsals (especially of Messiaen, whose sound world is so specific and mystical) felt easier, because we knew that the little rectangular box of living-room sound would eventually give way to the shimmering alchemy of voice, piano, and the grand, generous acoustic of the hall.

We threw ourselves into the songs deeply and probingly. Time that in April had seemed infinitely open-ended suddenly felt short and precious. I began to realize that I really, really needed a better instrument at home, not only for this project but for any repertoire I’d want to rehearse seriously in the future, so I began cruising Marktplaats for grand pianos. In late May, I plowed some savings into a particularly lovely Yamaha C3 previously owned by a jazz pianist. (Shirley Schimmel, meanwhile, got both the ride of her life and a happy new chapter of use: she was hoisted up by crane through the first-floor apartment window of a friend in the Hague, who has since been able to start a song series at home.) Sam and I re-connected with Cristina Stanescu over several virtual coachings, and the meeting of minds was just as vivid and trusting and helpful as it had been at Mannes twelve years before. I spent hours on the phone with Marine Fribourg, Damask mezzo and beloved friend, talking about mouth position and prosody of sung French.

In June, we reached out to Pierrre-Laurent Aimard, renowned pianist and Messiaen guru. By a massive stroke of luck, he had a little time to meet with us just as some travel restrictions were lifted and we were ready with Poèmes pour Mi. We spent two magical days in Berlin in early July, our first trip outside of the Netherlands in months, coaching the songs with him. I won’t ever forget how challenging, stimulating, exciting, and deeply tiring that work was: it truly pointed the way forward to our next level of discipline and mastery, a level we’re both still feverishly practicing to try to meet.

Meanwhile, I refined the program. I swapped a few songs out for others as I weighed balance and dramaturgy and practical considerations. The final song chosen was Kaija Saariaho’s “Parfum de l’instant.”

You are alongside me
But I close my eyes
To imagine you

Our lips play
Our fingers mingle
Our bodies discover each other
But I close my eyes
To dream of you

You are the perfume of a moment
You are the skin of a dream
And already the material of memory

—Amin Maalouf, translation mine

It is a song about an encounter with a lover, a sensual moment simultaneously experienced and turned into memory and story. It’s a song about being both aware and unaware of what the present offers. It’s a song about restlessness, a song about the human desire both to eternally suspend a moment in time and also to move beyond it. As soon as I listened and read the text, I knew this song was the key to everything else—the piece that suddenly made the rest of the program cohere.

Later, I discussed the program’s dramaturgical arc with my friend Veronica Alfano, a scholar of 19th-century poetry. She helped me trace a clear line through my emerging thoughts about the pieces and find words for them. She explained that Amin Maalouf’s text is part of a long tradition of poems that try both to pin down a specific temporal point and to slip out of it—as she said, it’s either “ugh, things were so much better before,” or “wow, I can’t wait to remember this later!” I burst out laughing at her summary. Then I realized that those were exactly the words I needed to understand my program—and the extremity of my feelings about life during Covid.

 

 

Velp, summer 2020

 

It’s nearly August. I’m writing this post from a house on the edge of a national park, where my husband and I are taking a little vacation before the album work cranks back into gear. Of course, there’s still a huge amount to organize, so it’s a working holiday—half a day cycling or walking in the heath, half a day practicing and writing emails (and crowdfunding! feel free to chip in if you’d like to help us pay for all the stuff I’ve described above). We have our first truly public performance of the program on August 2nd in Oegstgeest (please come!), and a week later, we record.

I couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to sink so deeply into this project with a friend and musical partner like Sam. It has given shape to these bizarre and awful months, and it has afforded us a depth of work we might never have had during normal life. I can’t wait for our recording sessions—for the experimentation and magic that can only happen in a safe environment at the highest possible level of preparation.

“Regards sur l’Infini” is a crystallization of this insane global moment into a small, shareable, re-live-able document. It’s a distillation of many years of friendship and collaboration and stories. It’s a complement to our lockdown Negronis, which have gotten better and better as the months have gone on—a musical cocktail of concentrated light and complexes of color—a proprietary, entirely personal blend of prismatic sunlight from many eras and places: the dusty ray filtering into that practice room on Mannes’s fifth floor, an early-evening shaft making a throbbing jewel out of a cheap wine glass in an Upper West Side cafe, watery morning light tumbling through mottled London glass, and vivid rectangular columns traveling across the walls of my Rotterdam living room, lengthening dramatically over months’ worth of afternoons filled with discussion and uncertainty and experimentation and slow-growing mastery and radically-expanded trust.

It’s also a bunch of beautiful music, by the way. We can’t wait for you to hear it.

 

 

I haven’t even gotten to the stories of the composers and poets yet! But that’ll have to wait for part 2.