When I tell a U.S. colleague about several concerts I’m playing in France he says: “You’re Jerry Lewis!” The French, it’s true, have a long tradition of appreciating U.S culture, and yes, that silly American comedian/auteur was highly venerated in France, perhaps more so than in the U.S. The French public have had a great love of jazz from America, and American movies. Earlier, there was a taste for ragtime, and minstrelsy. Today, American-style hamburgers are prized!
After the sandbox was removed from behind my childhood home in Des Moines (even the name of my hometown shows the influence of the French) — a habit or pursuit or obsession descended in the far corner of our backyard. I started digging a hole. It wasn’t a very big hole. At age eight or so, I could sit on the edge of the excavation with my feet touching the bottom. It never got much deeper, though I kept digging, changing the slope, the contours, shaping miniature hillside roads where I could drive my metal toy trucks and cars.
In the United States, when someone digs a big hole it’s common to say “I’m digging to China.” (China is on the other side of the planet, at least.) When I was asked about my destination, I always answered: “I’m digging to France.”
France seemed unbelievably and desirably sophisticated. In the biggest department store in downtown Des Moines, the fanciest women’s clothing was found on the top floor in “The French Room.” A good dry cleaners in town was called “French Way Cleaners.” Around the time of the digging, I recall seeing a television program about Brie, a cheese unavailable in Des Moines. The Sunday newspaper carried ads for trips to Paris, a city to which no one I knew had ever been.
In the last five years, I have played many concerts in France, in classical music festivals (La Roque d’Anthéron, Folle Journée in Nantes), and nightclubs (Café de la Danse), in large concert halls, and theaters in small towns (at the Theater of Glass near the Brie region, for example). Often I have played music by Philip Glass and other American music. Frequently, I am overwhelmed by the intense reactions of French audiences — by the palpable physicality of interaction between public and performer. Very fortunately, I made the acquaintance of the team at InFiné Music in Paris. This label has released a lot of new electronic music and they had the idea of doing remixes of piano pieces by Glass played by me. (Further projects are underway.) I continue to play many performances in France.
I know that many American musicians discovered their America — their American sound or character — while studying and working in France. Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Mr. Glass. I’m leaving for Paris again next week…