Jean-Michel Jarre is undeniably a legend. In the ’70s he made the synthesiser sexy with Oxygene and Equinoxe. In the ’80s he took the concert spectacle to new degrees of extravagance with shows in China and NASA, and in the ’90s he performed live in a single Paris gig to two and a half million people (yes, really).
We caught up with the French electronic pioneer on a recent trip to London to learn about his latest groundbreaking audio venture…
Jean-Michel Jarre is feeling the cold, which is bizarre given that the temperature outside in London is comfortably in the 80s (fahrenheit). The reason, it transpires, is that he’s been stuck in a freezing cinema applying the finishing touches to AERO for a press hearing. AERO, you see, is Jarre’s new opus and it might just take recorded music on to a new level. Unsurprisingly these are not the first difficulties Jarre has experienced.
“When I started on this it quickly turned into a very special portrait – the first project conceived in 5.1 (Dolby Digital 5.1 Sound). When you think about it the stuff you hear over 5.1 has its origins in stereo and is processed through 5.1. Here the five speakers have more interaction. So I’ve been converting some of the old tracks into the format – I would have liked them in 3D initially but technology wasn’t ready.”
Jarre’s imagery for this difficulty is apt. “I had to pioneer a different technique because to start with it was like putting your head in an impressionist painting, surrounded by specks of colour. And of course the only people who have experience in 5.1 are cinema people, who are used to having their spoken dialogue in the centre and music in the background.”
“I always thought stereo was mono on two speakers.”
– Jean-Michel Jarre on the need for a new audio experience. AERO anyone?
Jarre is confident the new AERO sound has massive potential. “I always thought stereo was mono on two speakers, like a flat land, and CD is to me the 78 of digital, the VHS of visual. I think this could be a solution to the industry’s problems – it can be played on home theatre for maximum effect, and now it’s, like, 30 million homes have the basic equipment. You can get a home entertainment system for £200-300 these days.”
Jarre has of course always been famed for his outdoor events, with concerts in China, Houston and Paris attracting millions. Next up is a house event in Beijing, which Jarre says will be “something quite new. It’s unusual for a Western artist to do an outdoor concert there, and I’ll be involving lots of young Chinese artists – video artists, painters and musicians. It will be the first type of concert to be performed in 5.1,with HDTV screens in Tiananmen Square, and it will also be broadcast on the internet around the world.”
“I’ll be involving lots of young Chinese artists – video artists, painters and musicians.”
– Jean-Michel Jarre on his forthcoming concert in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Despite Jarre’s pioneering project he remains faithful to the analogue quality of Oxygene, an album now approaching 30 years of age. With the new tracks he admits he tried to keep the same feel and he enjoys the immediacy of laptop composing, with him having written one of the new tracks on a plane to Asia. However he still holds the old approach close to his heart. “All DJs would agree with me – the analogue equipment and quality is the best. Look at turntables and synthesizers.”
Jarre agrees that his music still holds elements of the early classical training he received, but feels that his electronic music is a “… bridge between both classical and pop. In the Chinese concert, for example, I’m going to use a 50-strong orchestra but will also use traditional instruments, as well as the keyboards.”
As if to reflect this crossover, Jarre professes to a current love of New York hip-hop, The Kills, Britney Spears‘ Toxic, Usher‘s Yeah and contemporary Chinese music. “I also like the sound of Orbital and Underworld but the performance is always a problem with electronic acts. We used to say we are going to “hear” somebody, but now we say we are going to “see” somebody – the emphasis has changed. What we need to ensure is the visual element is there.”
“All DJs would agree with me – the analogue equipment and quality is the best.”
– For all his techno-wizardry, Jean-Michel Jarre is still a nostalgist.
Whilst AERO is very much an audio project, Jarre is releasing a visual to accompany it. “It’s a pair of eyes,” he explains enthusiastically. “What we wanted was 75 minutes of a person’s reaction to the music. Eyes are like gates for the mind, so when you see someone’s reaction it’s a mirror for the music. We took Anne Parillaud and filmed her in one take, and it’s quite something to watch. Rather than lots of half-minute interjections, it’s one shot.”
Indeed the results are powerful but “not too intense” according to Jarre. With AERO effectively a greatest hits remastered to a higher sonic level, it will be very interesting to chart the progress of the new format. From the showcase that we saw, there’s little doubt it’s a step up in audio perception, and could offer a whole new angle for soundscapes such as those pioneered by the enigmatic Frenchman. Who, by the way, is 55 and doesn’t look a day over 40. Must be the oxygene.