france for blog

In May of 1974 I played Debussy’s Prélude, à l’apres-midi d’un faune for the first time, with the New Orleans Civic Symphony. This was also the first time I had heard the work, and, as anyone who plays or sings on more than a passing basis will attest, there is nothing like encountering a piece for the first time by performing it. The experience of hearing it take shape around you while at the same time contributing to the overall sound, feeling the vibrations under your fingers coalesce into something tangible and whole, a real presence, is an unmatched sensory and cognitive thrill. Ça donne de la chair de poule. Goosebumps (well, literally “chicken flesh”, but one always seeks some degree of poetry in translation…).

What strikes me now, comes over me in waves as I recall the afternoon, is the vital conjunction of the near-inexpressible joy of Debussy’s score and the wonder of New Orleans in the spring. The performance was at the Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue, in the area known as Uptown, resplendent in its bougainvillaea, magnolia, canopies of live oaks, and Spanish moss. The constellation of the music and the setting made possible for me a unique and numinous experience of beauty, one that seared my heart and has stayed with me ever since. Without lapsing into the confessional, let’s also just say that this was not the best time for me, emblematic of an adolescence marked by fear and anxiety, of dangers both virtual and actual. Uptown represented for me a safe haven, a place of dreams instead of nightmares, where the concerns of the quotidian seemed remote and inconsequential, where Debussy awaited me; it was as if I were encased in a force-field that extended from Lee Circle to the east, the Mississippi to the south, Carrollton avenue to the west, and Claiborne avenue to the north. This, as I see it now, was my France.

My what? Why France? And why not the French Quarter? Odd, it’s all mixed up, but I realized, in a crystalline moment the first time I was actually in France, in 1996, that I felt immediately at home, and I knew that somehow my Debussy Spring was the reason. Yes, the French Quarter is more explicitly French, in history and architecture, but its hordes of drunken tourists and gimcrack “boutiques” keep it at least at arm’s length from any genuine emotional connection for me. To see it for real you have to be there at dawn, as far from Bourbon street as you can get, or on one of the St. Bernard buses as they pass St. Louis Cathedral, as perhaps dozens of elderly Irish, Italian and Creole women spontaneously perform a seated genuflect and cross themselves. And in this, the place is distinctly American: there’s no public chest-crossing in today’s France. So the French Quarter is, counter-intuitively, not terribly French. The rest of New Orleans, however, retains the spirit, the feel, the daily rhythm of its southern European roots. It is a place apart, and growing up there made me susceptible to an eventual love of France itself that is deep, unshakable, and slightly daffy.

Thus, when the College of Visual and Performing Arts in my university established (thanks to the visionary work of one faculty member to whom everyone owes a huge debt of gratitude) an exchange with the Conservatoire de musique in Strasbourg, and someone from the music faculty was sought to go over and inaugurate the program, Carrie and I jumped at the chance. Carrie, already a seasoned expat by virtue of being Canadian, and a European veteran who had studied in Cologne and whose French was surpassed only by her German, was already well-acquainted with the rewards and the stresses of life abroad. And I, coming off almost a decade of stints as director of my program, was ready for a new challenge, a new way of life, one that would allow me to find out what the 13-year-old who had played Afternoon of a Faun so many years ago was up to. We came first in 2004 and have come five times since, throwing ourselves each time into a life almost unimaginable in the States, fighting to preserve and maintain that life in subtle but significant ways upon our return. This year marks our tenth anniversary in France.

What we do here, first and foremost, is teach, primarily music students from Syracuse University and other American schools that take part in the program (in English), and, a few times per semester, at the Conservatoire (in French). We also perform with, write music for, and hang out with other musicians here, colleagues who have become friends over the years, trusted and beloved musical partners. And this year for the first time, we’re sharing the experience with our son, Henry, who is going to school and speaking French on a daily basis. The exchange has inestimably enriched our lives, and those of our students. We can’t wait to see what it will mean for Henry.

I think that, apart from the beauty, the relative slowness of life, the food (bien sûr!), the quality and centrality of music and art to the culture (very disorienting, then intoxicating for an American musician), what I value most here is what I’ve learned of relationships, both mine to Carrie, and to the rest of the world. I was surprised, then deeply moved, to find that there are no casual friendships in France. What for me as an American was a habitual process of quickly making friends and then keeping them at arm’s length (“let’s have lunch……………………”) was here seen for what it is: a strangely passive-aggressive form of rudeness. Carrie first pointed this out to me: we had just been chatting with colleagues with whom we were becoming friendly, and I proffered an offhand invitation to dinner “sometime”. She took me aside and said, quite simply, “Don’t do that. If you want them to come to dinner then set a time.” I did, and the friendship has blossomed. People are not open books here, and they tend not to lead with effusive displays of unmotivated affection. But friends once, and they are friends for life. There is nothing in the States that quite prepares one for this, and in my own case life here has revealed to me my capacity simply to watch those close to me come and go into and from my life like changes of clothing. What’s amazing to me is that I didn’t recognize it until I came to France.

Of course there is much here that militates for this kind of connectedness: people are more geographically concentrated here, the urban architecture almost ensures that they will run into each other regularly, and that when they do they will have beautiful places to hang out; the divisions between work and leisure time are clearer, with the latter valued as highly as the former; and, perhaps most importantly, people tend to be defined less by what they do than who they are. A meeting of musicians in North America will almost inevitably descend into a fevered discussion of the ephemera of work; of conductors played under; prestigious halls played in; awards won and lost; of marketing, profile, and self-promotion; du business. Here it tends more toward favorite pieces; how one wants to play, to compose; with whom one loves to play most (and least); what one is listening to, reading, watching; and where one will eat after the concert. We call this joie de vivre.

Of course, I idealize. Were this an extended study and not a blog we’d recount the numerous challenges facing France, and all of Europe, today: economic stagnation; creeping racism and nationalism; an at times cripplingly traditional approach to the most basic social challenges, to name only a few. Just the process of registering Henry for school, a kind of bureaucratic olympiad, akin to being forced to recite the periodic table while undergoing root canal, was exhausting and at times utterly baffling. But the school itself, bright, open, welcoming and free!, (meaning, public and well-funded) is a marvel; it feels an extraordinary privilege to drop him there each morning, and to know that he is being both loved and educated by professionals who themselves are the product of a country that gives more than lip-service to education.

Still, this is not Eldorado. The French mania for process and hierarchy can be stupefying. In one of the great ironies of contemporary life, the best French musicians wistfully admire their German colleagues for their far-greater expressive freedom and imagination! The German system is producing artists free of adherence to hide-bound norms, while the French tends toward the creation of automatons (this is matter of long-standing tradition: it was in part in reaction to this sense of paralysis that Debussy produced L’après-midi d’un faune). But in any context the best artists rise above their immediate limitations, and this is no less true of musicians in France. And the support they receive, from both the State and the public, means that when they do they can make wonderful things happen, indelibly marked by their passion and shared convictions as artists.

It is in this spirit of love, loyalty, and deeply-held musical values that WCM was formed, and this seems to me no accident: it is exactly this less business-driven, less egocentric vision of music-making that Judith and Ekkehart, themselves expats in the States (“…an English-woman in Newwwww York!”) brought to the table in the first place, and with which they built the organization, and it is this spirit that we most want to preserve and quicken in our time as artistic directors. And this is a challenge. As both an American, and (maybe more to the point) as a composer), I tend almost ineluctably toward the solitary and the self-directed. My time in France constantly reminds me of this, and, in ways that are wonderful and continually transformative, pulls me out of it.

So, from now until early July, just before next summer’s festival (what a wonderful homecoming that will be!), we’re in Strasbourg, teaching, playing, watching Henry grow, sharing this beautiful life both strange and familiar. The boy who was changed by Debussy and the girl who grew up learning her times tables in French by day and practicing the cello by night are alive and well, still finding their place in the world. We’ll keep you posted…