Jean-Michel Jarre has been pushing the boundaries of electronic music and reimagining what live concerts can be since the 1970s.
The French composer and producer’s one-off spectaculars – for example Place de la Concorde in Paris in 1979; Beijing and Shanghai in 1981; Houston in 1986; and London’s Docklands in 1988 – broke attendance records and changed the visual architecture of live music.
Jarre is also a genuine DIY artist, literally building the studio he used to record the blockbusting ‘Oxygène’ album in 1976 (total sales: 12m), and bringing experimental music and new sounds to a truly global audience, having studied under Pierre Schaeffer – the key figure in the development of musique concrète – at the end of the 1960s.
He may not get the same level of critical plaudits as, say, Kraftwerk, but Jarre’s impact and influence are just as important. He has just released his twentieth studio album, ‘Equinoxe Infinity‘.
Born in Lyon in 1948, he was raised by his mother (a survivor of Ravensbrück concentration camp and a member of the French Resistance) after his father left when he was five to live and work in the US. Jarre’s grandfather was an engineer and inventor who also played the oboe, starting him off on his lifelong obsession with music and technology.
“The father figure was my grandfather in my family,” he tells Music Ally. “He created one of the first mixing desks for radio stations before WWII in France. In France he also created the first portable turntable – so you could go for a picnic and listen to Édith Piaf singles. It was the ancestor of the iPod!”
The pivotal moment in Jarre’s life – the single event that shaped his career – was when he was nine and his grandfather gave him a tape recorder. He used it to capture found sounds before he even knew what that was, dangling a microphone from the balcony of his grandparents’ house opposite Lyon train station to record the noise of the street below.
“In front of the railway station you have a lot of very interesting sounds,” he recalls of his first journeys into recording. “There were two cafés with soldiers and hookers who were making lots of noise. There was also a dairy shop where there was lots of sounds happening. In between this building and the railway station was a square where there was a circus going on. You had a really interesting maelstrom of sounds. I was recording all this just for fun.”
(The circus, as we will see later, was to prove a huge and enduring influence on his live work.)
An accident with the tape recording, playing it backwards, kicked open the doors for Jarre (“Suddenly I got the feeling some aliens were arriving!”) and he tried to apply some of these accidental audio techniques to his early forays into music in rock bands – for example, speeding guitar sounds up and down.
It came properly to fruition when he moved from rock to electronic music, however, selling his electric guitar (and the electric train set he had as a child) to buy his first synthesizer on a trip to London. The symbolism – abandoning both rock and the past – was ripe.
“At a very early stage I realised that technology is dictating styles – and not the reverse. The reason why Elvis did songs that were three minutes was because you could only cut songs of three minutes on a 78. That became the format for singles, for radio and on jukeboxes,” says Jarre of why music hardware fascinated him so much.
“With synthesizers and computers you can do things that you couldn’t do even 10 years ago because of technology. Artists are really depending on technology and not the reverse.”
Jarre had worked in studios in Paris, producing pop and rock singers, but wanted total autonomy for his own music.
“In the professional studio with the window, you are in the aquarium and God is the engineer,” he says of his frustration with the old ways of making music. “For electronic music, you have to be your own god! You have to be in charge. You can’t work with this two-room situation.”
The loft he had in Paris in the mid-1970s had an architectural quirk – two kitchens, creating a very different two-room situation. He turned one into his first home studio, where he wrote and recorded ‘Oxygène’ – his third studio album, but the first to go outside of the niche electronic world.
“I built it very roughly and did basic soundproofing. I had a small console and an eight-track recorder. In those days you were very limited by technology as there weren’t that many synthesizers around. And they were very expensive,” he says.
“I was using guitar pedals like phasers and flangers to adapt them for keyboards. I had a broken mellotron that I took from a studio. It was half broken and I remember I did ‘Oxygène’ with just the notes that were working. I built ‘Oxygène Part II’ around the notes I could play on this broken mellotron.”
These limitations were to become Jarre’s guiding creative principles: to set tight boundaries around himself and his music, forcing him to subvert the norm and create new sounds.
“That is what is interesting in any art form. Technological and technical limits are so important and this is probably the difficulty for young musicians today. Technology today makes you believe that there are no limitations,” he says.
“Today the problem is that if you want to be specific you have to be yourself. You have to create your own limitations. But when you have no choice and you are limited by extreme situations [that is different].”
Even though he was firmly in the world of experimental and (mostly) vocal-free music and cutting-edge technologies, Jarre believes he was still operating within the principles of pop music.
“I have always considered melodies the most important thing in music,” he says. “To create the bridge between both worlds was something I really wanted to experiment with.”
The problem was – and this goes back to the point about him not getting the credit he is due – that in trying to combine two disparate worlds, Jarre found himself ostracised by both.
“[My music] was rejected by the avant-garde musicians because they always had this contemptuous attitude and were rejecting pop music,” he says. “And in the world of rock music [there was a] narrow-minded attitude to synthesizers as they believed the real instruments were guitar, bass and drums.”
‘Oxygène’ came after a decade of trying to make it in music under his own name and was rejected by a long string of record labels who could not wrap their heads around the absence of a singer and a drummer as well as tracks that crossed the 10-minute mark.
Did he feel validation when the album went on to sell in its millions – as did the follow up ‘Équinoxe’ in 1978 – and make him a very particular kind of star outside of France?
“Of course it was good news,” he says. “But I never did anything to please an audience. To have a long life as an artist, they are really following their own way. They have no other choice. It was an obsession to achieve what I had in my mind.”
Rather than follow the rock model of touring for a year to promote an album, Jarre stuck to his principles of setting limitations on himself. He would play live – but the shows (certainly until the 1990s) would be spectacular one-off events in unique locations.
Pink Floyd were the only major act in the 1970s to try and play shows outside of the traditional venues, but their 1972 show in the Roman amphitheatre in Pompeii was done in front of only film cameras, as they could not have an audience inside the ancient structure.
Jarre’s first major show as an international act was on 14 July 1979 at the Place de la Concorde to celebrate Bastille Day. It was no small affair. An estimated one million people were in attendance.
Keyboards and synthesizers are ostensibly studio instruments and were not designed for the concert environment, but the contrariness of doing a large-scale concert using just them is what appealed to Jarre.
“Even these days standing behind your laptop or your synthesizer is not the sexiest thing or the most convincing thing from a live performance point of view,” he says.
“From a very early stage I was convinced I should create my own grammar and vocabulary of what an electronic music performance should be by using videos, lights and giant projections on buildings as well as lasers. From a very early stage I was convinced that should be the vocabulary or the DNA of electronic music in live performance.”
As part of the Paris performance, Jarre used German army searchlights, taking the filters out and using slides made of glass (so they would not melt under the heat of the lights) to control projections on the surrounding buildings.
“I remember after the concert, one guy who looked like Fidel Castro came up to me and said, ‘Man, I have never seen anything like that in my life!’ he recalls. “I said thank you and someone asked me if I knew who it was. It was Mick Jagger!”
It clearly had an influence, although it was to be years later than Jagger attempted anything similar on stage. “Even the Rolling Stones and U2 are using lots of visuals and visual techniques,” says Jarre. “But in those days big rock bands were just playing with some lights and that was all.”
All his shows until 1993 were to be outdoors – in part to use the location as part of the show; but also because he did not want to play in indoor venues as they had “awful acoustics and were designed for sports or political meetings”.
Despite the instruments Jarre was using being intended for studio work, he felt it was in the open air that they worked best when played live.
“I always believed that electronic music was made to be performed outdoors. Electronic music was linked for me, especially when I started, with science fiction and space and the idea of being outdoors where there is no reverb,” he says.
“It means you can deal with sounds in a much better way. You can have the wind, but apart from that you get rid of all the reverberations and the feedback you have in a hall that is not made for this kind of music and these kinds of instruments where you need very precise acoustics.”
The peripatetic nature of Jarre’s shows – enormous one-off events – also harked back to his youth in Lyon.
“I also liked this nomad approach – like the circus,” he says. “I think this is coming from my childhood. For me the ultimate performance has been that you arrive on one side of the road, you put up your tents in the middle of the square and you disappear the following morning. I was really interested in that.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Jarre was out on a limb with his live shows. When he played Beijing in 1981, they had to switch off the electricity in one district of the city to give him the power he needed to stage the concert. (He says he only found out about the switch-off after the fact.)
But as with all pioneers, the mainstream eventually comes round to their way of thinking.
“When I see lots of [electronic music] festivals these days, it reminds me of what I was doing 25 years ago. I played Coachella this year [in April] and it was technologically quite interesting. I always did the stage design by myself. This time I did something quite interesting – it was 3D without glasses,” he says.
“There were different layers of low-res screens that were transparent. You could create very immersive visuals. It was quite new and quite exciting. It is a matter of playing with technology. Being in electronic music for me has always been a challenge technologically speaking as well.”
Does he feel that technology – in terms of falling costs as much as what it can do – has finally caught up with his vision of live concerts from 40 years ago?
“In 1990 [at La Défense in Paris, where 2.5 million people attended] I had a pyramid that was 40m high. It became obvious for a lot of the younger generation in electronic music that this was the way to perform electronic music,” he says.
“Today you can do lots of exciting things with a laptop. It is democratising music and visuals. But the challenge is also how to be different and specific using the tools that everyone can use. This is what makes an artist specific.”
(The pyramid mention could be taken as a clear reference to Daft Punk’s Alive tour in 2006 and 2007, hailed as the pivotal event in ushering in the explosion of dance music in the US.)
Even with all the potential of technology in 2018, Jarre feels artists – as he did four decades ago – need to work within self-imposed parameters as creativity will come from restrictions not total liberation.
“Technology these days wants to make you believe that it is giving you all the solutions. In one day a few hundred software solutions could come to the market, but 90% of them will probably be obsolete by tomorrow,” he says.
“So if you start to fall into this trap you are dead. My advice for a young musician would be to choose one piece of software or hardware precisely and with care and then to be stuck with it for six months or one year. That is the only way to be different.”
It is no surprise that an artist like Jarre would be fascinated by what is happening with virtual and augmented reality technologies. But rather than just work with the most cutting-edge technologies, he says a melding of the past and the future delivers the best results.
“You can have VR and AR but at the same time you can hijack the old processes by sometimes using very old technology mixed together [with the new]. On my last tour, at a time when everyone was using very sophisticated LED screens, I did the reverse,” he explains.
“The complexity was in the processing of the visuals – but what I did what to use a very old trick from theatre [with gauze screens]. I had low-res LED screens so you have the transparency like in the theatre as if it was cloth but with fairly sophisticated 3D software to create an image using the depth of the different layers.”
He adds, “This is a very good example of having new technology, but also using the old tricks from this stage. This is the luxury of our times. We don’t have ghettoes anymore. Everything is mixed together [in music]. And in technology it is the same.”
Jarre’s next album will see him experiment more with VR, but he is not so keen on 3D. “I hate 3D with glasses,” he says. “I am ready to pay more to watch a movie in 2D if I can […] VR Is great and you can actually visualise and make visual how the music travels through space. That is something very interesting, particularly for electronic music.”
(Read Music Ally’s recent Most Wanted: Music white paper on smart and immersive music-marketing trends)
Jarre is equally fascinated by artificial intelligence (AI) and the potential it has to change the language of creativity.
“In 10 years or 15 years from now, AI algorithms and robots will be able to conceive original music, original movies and original stories,” he says.
“Of course it is going to change our relationship with the creative process as human beings. At the same time we know we are only using 10% of our brain so AI may help us to use the other 90%. That will open the door to extraordinary new territories in terms of the creative process.”
(Read Music Ally’s recent primer rounding up the startups working on AI-music creation technologies)
Jarre sees himself as a technological utopian and believes that people’s paranoia about the future is down to them feeling out of touch and an underlying fear that they are going to become anachronistic and left behind by technologies they are too scared of or resistant to embrace.
“Generation after generation, you have this pessimistic vision – an apocalyptic vision of the future,” he says. “There is a philosophical reason for that. Every human being knows that sooner or later he or she won’t be part of the future because of the limitations of our lifetime. That is the reason why we always have a dark image of the future.”
That, however, could be about to change.
“Maybe AI for the first time could create an empathetical link with a future. When you look at the sky, as we know, you look at the past; you see stars that are no longer existing. When you go on the internet, you look at the past as well. Everything on the internet is part of the past,” he says.
“The only link with the future can be, in my opinion, AI. I am not talking about trans-humanism; that is something else. Just the fact that you can have entities helping us and a technological system helping us to use our brains on a totally different level.”
As a campaigner for copyright protection and artists’ rights – and also as president of global collecting-societies body CISAC – Jarre is steadfast in his belief that technology is more blessing than curse for musicians.
“What is great about the internet is that it is democratising creation,” he says. “You can have one guy in the middle of Africa or India having no way to communicate with the outside world; and with a small laptop he can write, conceive, produce and distribute his music. That is fantastic.”
Sticking with his techno-utopian thesis, Jarre does not agree that technology has made making music easier but has made making money from music harder.
“I see all of this as the same old story,” he says. “Why Mozart died on the street with no money and why Verdi died in a castle is because one had author’s rights and the other did not. It is the old story of the relationship between art and money and economics and finance.”
“I don’t think it is going to be more difficult for authors to have fair remuneration and a decent business model for the 21st century. But we have to do it. I am fighting a lot for this – not for me and my generation, but for the musicians of the future. Technology is going faster and faster so we have to be faster and faster in reacting and adapting ourselves and adapting society.”
Music Ally asks him if he was starting out today, with all the possibilities and problems of technology swirling around him, how he would do it.
“I think by first of all fighting to recognise that an author should be paid like everybody else – that is point number one,” he says. “On YouTube it is much worse because they don’t pay anything.”
YouTube might not pay much – but they do pay something.
“It is ridiculous. You have to have a few million clicks [streams] a day to get a minimum wage. For all of that we just need simple regulation,” he counters.
“Then there is no reason why a musician today [can’t make a living]. If I was starting out today, I would like to do exactly what I’ve done. Doing the music that I want to do and then touring that music that I have done. If you talk to lots of young artists these days, they more or less want what we are talking about. They don’t want anything else.”
Technology and music’s intersection will be one of the key topics at the NY:LON Connect conference in London in January. Find out more details here