The Gal­lic le­gend is back to dis­cuss his lat­est al­bum, Planet Jarre

Computer Music - - Contents -

“I am pleased to be talk­ing to Com­puter

Mu­sic,” says a very-happy-look­ing JeanMichel Jarre. “You see, I have spent far more of my life with com­put­ers and ma­chines than I have with hu­man be­ings. I think that peo­ple read­ing this in­ter­view will un­der­stand my sit­u­a­tion. It’s a good sit­u­a­tion as far as I’m con­cerned. I al­ways feel com­fort­able with my ma­chines!”

The God­fa­ther of Elec­tronic Mu­sic is one of those phrases that al­ways sparks in­tense de­bate and, oc­ca­sion­ally, bit­ter ar­gu­ment. For some, it’s Kraftwerk. Oth­ers favour Pierre Scha­ef­fer and the Musique Con­crète move­ment. Per­haps you’d pre­fer Stock­hausen or Subot­nick. Or Delia Der­byshire – the God­mother? Then, of course, you have to throw Moroder, Nu­man, Detroit, Chicago and Krautrock into the ring. And King Tubby. And Bam­baataa. And Mor­gan Khan. And Eno. And… Jean-Michel Jarre.

What­ever your mu­si­cal pref­er­ences, there is no deny­ing that Jarre has had a huge and ground­break­ing im­pact on the de­vel­op­ment of elec­tronic mu­sic. His best-known al­bum,

Oxygène, was re­leased in 1976, a time when syn­the­sis­ers and drum ma­chines were seen as lit­tle more than mu­si­cal gim­micks.

“Back then, peo­ple bought syn­the­sis­ers to make some silly noises on their next al­bum,” laughs Jarre.

But Jarre was in­tent on prov­ing that ma­chines needed to be taken se­ri­ously by the mu­sic busi­ness. And, as we all know, the only way the mu­sic busi­ness will take some­thing se­ri­ously is if you shift units. So that’s what he did. Oxygène topped the French al­bum charts, made Num­ber Two in the UK and was Top Ten

“We are cu­ri­ous crea­tures, and elec­tronic mu­sic of­fers us an­other way to ex­plore the un­known”

across Europe. To date, it has sold 13 mil­lion copies, and is the best-sell­ing French al­bum of all time.

The al­bum’s sin­gle, Oxygène, Pt.4, went to Num­ber Four in the UK, which meant that, ex­cit­ingly for en­thu­si­asts, synths were all over

Top of the Pops and bur­bling out of break­fast ra­dios in Bil­ler­icay, Mans­field and Swin­don. Thanks to Jarre, the VCS 3, the ARP 2600 and the Korg Mini Pops were now part of the main­stream mu­si­cal land­scape.

Sip­ping wa­ter in his Lon­don PR’s of­fice, Jarre looks lu­di­crously healthy and could eas­ily pass for mid-50s – he’s 70! Over four decades af­ter that ini­tial suc­cess, he must have talked about mu­sic and tech­nol­ogy thou­sands of times be­fore, but the mere men­tion of Ar­turia’s Solina V string ma­chine, Able­ton Live or the lat­est MacBook Pro seems to light up his face and he’s off… ex­cit­edly ex­plain­ing a story about his grand­fa­ther’s home-made por­ta­ble turntable or the all-round ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Kon­takt.

Jarre is in the UK for the re­lease of his lat­est al­bum… well, that should be ‘al­bums’. First up is

Planet Jarre, a mam­moth project con­tain­ing 39 back-cat­a­logue tracks and a cou­ple of un­re­leased songs that have been gen­er­ously tweaked and sub-di­vided into Sound­scapes,

Themes, Se­quences and Ex­plo­rations & Early Works. Vince Clarke and Ar­min Van Bu­uren are on there, he re­vis­its his mys­te­ri­ous Musique

pour Su­per­marché al­bum, and has an­other crack at 5.1 pro­duc­tion. That will be fol­lowed in Novem­ber by Equinoxe In­fin­ity, the lon­gawaited fol­low-up to his 1978 al­bum, Equinoxe.

“Th­ese al­bums are help­ing me cel­e­brate 50 years of mak­ing elec­tronic mu­sic,” he adds. “Thank God I never lis­tened to my mother. She told me that mu­sic and ma­chines would never be a good part­ner­ship. She wanted me to learn the vi­o­lin!” Com­puter Mu­sic: You say that this al­bum marks half a cen­tury of elec­tronic mu­sic, but weren’t you, in re­al­ity, ac­tu­ally tin­ker­ing with noise even as a young kid in the late-50s and early-60s? J-MJ: “Yes, I was. My main in­spi­ra­tion was my grand­fa­ther, an en­gi­neer and fan­tas­tic in­ven­tor of strange things. He made one of the ear­li­est mix­ing con­soles that was used in France… and he also in­vented the iPod!”

: Hang on a minute… J-MJ:“OK, I’m not be­ing com­pletely se­ri­ous, but he made me a por­ta­ble turntable that ran on bat­ter­ies. I could sit in the gar­den and lis­ten to my favourite records. It was an ex­cit­ing mo­ment. Like a kid who’s get­ting his first Walk­man or iPod.

“I used to love vis­it­ing his work­shop be­cause it was so full of imag­i­na­tion and ideas. He would tell me about a new de­vice he was work­ing on or ex­plain how an am­pli­fier worked. This was the at­mos­phere I grew up in. Tech­nol­ogy was part of my ev­ery­day life.

“One day, he gave me his old Grundig reel-toreel tape ma­chine. It was very small and por­ta­ble, so I would record all sorts of strange sounds on there. By ac­ci­dent, I played one of the tapes back­wards and… wow! I heard a whole new uni­verse of sound. At the time, I was a mem­ber of a few lo­cal rock bands and I started to in­tro­duce this back­wards mu­sic into my gui­tar so­los. I tried to find melodies and fills that would sound bet­ter when they were be­ing played back­wards.

“This led me to other kinds of in­ves­ti­ga­tion. I was no longer just in­ter­ested in the notes… I was in­ter­ested in the sound it­self. Pro­cessed sound. My friends be­gan to no­tice this and one of them said, ‘My fa­ther knows a place where there are lots of peo­ple like you. You should go there’. It was 1968 and this place was the Groupe de Recherches Mu­si­cales in Paris, run by Pierre Scha­ef­fer.” [The GRM came into ex­is­tence in 1958, fol­low­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Con­crète, which it­self had been formed by Scha­ef­fer and fel­low pi­o­neers, Pierre Henry and Jac­ques Poullin. Dur­ing its short life, the GRMC at­tracted a long list of mu­si­cal in­no­va­tors in­clud­ing Stock­hausen, Mes­si­aen, Pierre Boulez, Edgard Varèse and Michel Philip­pot.]

: Ah, 1968. Hence we’re cel­e­brat­ing the 50-year an­niver­sary… J-MJ: “You have to re­mem­ber what was hap­pen­ing in 1968. There were ri­ots not only in Paris, but all over the world. Rev­o­lu­tion was in the air. For me, mak­ing elec­tronic mu­sic was part of the rev­o­lu­tion. It was re­bel­lion; it was punk rock. We were try­ing to fight with the tra­di­tional world of mu­sic… against clas­si­cal and main­stream rock.

“My big ar­gu­ment was that mu­sic does not al­ways have to be about the notes. There were peo­ple at the Groupe de Recherches Mu­si­cales who could not play a sin­gle in­stru­ment. Math­e­ma­ti­cians, philoso­phers and painters who had no tra­di­tional train­ing, but they were bril­liant mu­si­cians. They didn’t ap­proach mu­sic with notes – they ap­proached it with sound.”

: But you also stud­ied ‘tra­di­tional’ clas­si­cal mu­sic… wasn’t your tu­tor from the fa­mous Con­ser­va­toire de Paris? J-MJ: “Yes, yes. Of course. But I was al­ways in trou­ble with my tu­tor be­cause as soon as learned a new piece of mu­sic, I wanted to im­pro­vise. I heard new ideas and melodies in my head. I couldn’t un­der­stand why mu­sic had to be in this rigid frame­work. Why do I have to play this over and over in the same way? There were times when it was al­most de­stroy­ing my love of mu­sic. I could not just stay in the same place… I was al­ready keen to know more.

“And that is prob­a­bly the main rea­son why I had so much faith in elec­tronic mu­sic. At the time, peo­ple thought that we were just stupid kids play­ing with ma­chines, but I was ab­so­lutely con­vinced that elec­tronic mu­sic – the mix of tech­nol­ogy and mu­sic, work­ing to­gether as friends – would be­come the ma­jor genre of the 21st cen­tury. We are cu­ri­ous crea­tures, and elec­tronic mu­sic of­fers us an­other way to ex­plore the un­known.

“At first, there were only a few peo­ple who felt like this, but the prophecy has come true. Tech­nol­ogy and mu­sic have be­come a part­ner­ship. As tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops, it pulls mu­sic into the fu­ture. Be­cause we must never for­get that, through­out his­tory, it is the tech­nol­ogy that has dic­tated the mu­si­cal style. It

was the vi­o­lin that led Vi­valdi to his mu­sic. It was the 78 RPM record that dic­tated the length of a song. Elvis sang three-minute songs be­cause that’s all the in­for­ma­tion he could get on the record. It was the long-play­ing al­bum that al­lowed groups like Pink Floyd and my­self to cre­ate con­cept al­bums.

“And once we in­tro­duce the com­puter into the list of tech­nol­ogy, the doors are smashed open. The com­puter is as im­por­tant as Guten­berg and his print­ing press al­most 600 years ago. It has fun­da­men­tally changed our lives. And, for us mu­si­cians, it has changed the way we make mu­sic. Tech­nol­ogy gives us the im­pe­tus to make our ideas be­come real.”

: You’ve also ar­gued in the past that there are in­her­ent prob­lems that come along with new tech­nol­ogy…

J-MJ: “Hmm… yes, yes. Def­i­nitely! How can I ex­plain this? OK, so I come from Lyon in France, which is one of the great cen­tres of French cui­sine. Th­ese days, we know that cook­ing is a real art, be­cause you’re mix­ing dif­fer­ent flavours and in­gre­di­ents… you are adding your emo­tions in there too. You are cook­ing with your soul.

“There are some peo­ple who are in the kitchen and they say, ‘I must get this book be­cause it will help me be a bet­ter chef. It will solve all my prob­lems’. Thanks to Guten­berg, the book­shops are full of cook books, so that per­son will have plenty of choice. Un­for­tu­nately, even though the book shops have many books, not all of them will be use­ful. Some of them will never be opened and go straight to the re­cy­cling plant.

“But even when you find a use­ful book, it will not solve all your prob­lems. That book alone will not make you a bril­liant chef. At­tempt­ing to make some crazy recipes will not make you a bril­liant chef.

“It is the same with mu­sic. Like cook­ing, it is an art. In­stead of veg­eta­bles and spices, you have sam­ples and re­verbs. In cook­ing, you have cook­books, and in mu­sic you have plug­ins. There are lots of them. There are some that will be up­loaded at the time you start read­ing this in­ter­view and they will be al­ready ob­so­lete by the time you fin­ish. If you fall into the trap of think­ing that one hun­dred new plug­ins will get you a ca­reer in mu­sic, you are fin­ished. You run the risk of mur­der­ing your cre­ativ­ity.

“My ad­vice is – and this is the same for hard­ware or soft­ware – choose care­fully. Take three or four in­stru­ments and use noth­ing else for six months. Get to know them. That is the best way of nur­tur­ing your cre­ativ­ity. That is

“Tech­nol­ogy gives us the im­pe­tus to make our ideas be­come real”

how you will learn to ex­press your­self… the mu­sic will be guided by the tech­nol­ogy, but it will come from in­side you. It will be filled with your emo­tions.”

: You were an early ad­vo­cate of Pro Tools, but your last few projects have all been cre­ated us­ing Able­ton Live. Was there any par­tic­u­lar rea­son for that choice?

J-MJ:“Pro Tools went over the top. It all be­came too ex­pen­sive. Ev­ery year, they were mak­ing big changes and you have to sur­round your­self with all the ex­tra hard­ware, other­wise noth­ing would work. Then I tried Able­ton and… yes, it changed my life. Find­ing Able­ton Live was as im­por­tant for me as see­ing my first mul­ti­track or my first syn­the­siser. It has made my time in the stu­dio so much eas­ier.

“In fact, I no longer need to be in the stu­dio, or even on the ground. When I was fin­ish­ing off this new al­bum, I was lis­ten­ing to what I thought was the fi­nal mas­ter on a plane to the Mid­dle East. I heard two or three very tiny changes I wanted to make. With Able­ton Live and my lap­top, I made the changes, sent them to one of my pro­duc­tion team while I was chang­ing planes, and then had the new mas­ter ready by the time I ar­rived at my des­ti­na­tion. It’s crazy… crazy, but won­der­ful.

“I think Able­ton 8 was the first ver­sion that held my at­ten­tion, but it still felt a lit­tle bit too much like a DJ tool. The sound qual­ity wasn’t quite as I would like. But, from 9, it has been per­fect. Lots of peo­ple say that the sound qual­ity of Pro Tools is bet­ter, but I com­pared a bounce from Able­ton and Pro Tools, and Able­ton was more trans­par­ent. None of that ‘phas­ing’ ef­fect. One of the tracks on the new al­bum had 110 tracks, but Able­ton re­mained sta­ble and very flex­i­ble. Even when I was adding more plug­ins. With Pro Tools, you only need one bug and the whole thing crashes. Then it takes 20 min­utes to get ev­ery­thing set up again!

“I have been work­ing with the Able­ton team re­cently, try­ing to im­prove and con­tribute a lit­tle bit be­cause I think it’s a fan­tas­tic plat­form. Pro Tools started to feel like you must pay to play. Ev­ery year, you must give more money… a bit like Dolby used to be in the early days. Pay a yearly rental or it won’t work. You are mak­ing a Faus­tian pact and I don’t like that.”

: And third-party plug­ins?

J-MJ: Dune, the Korg Legacy Col­lec­tion. Na­tive In­stru­ments Reak­tor and Kon­takt – if I could only use one plugin, it would be Kon­takt be­cause it of­fers you so many pos­si­bil­i­ties. The Ar­turia set, of course. Their lat­est ver­sion of the ARP 2600 is so close to the real thing. I am a big fan of the ARP… and, you should re­mem­ber, I have been us­ing one for a long time, so I do know what I’m talk­ing about!”

: Pre­sum­ably there’s still some hard­ware in the setup?

J-MJ: “Al­ways! The ARP, VCS 3, Moog 37, Dave Smith OB-6, the new Mel­lotron M4000D. I like to keep my old string ma­chine, too, the Em­i­nent 310. That is maybe the one area where dig­i­tal tech has not been able to match the sound of ana­logue. The Ar­turia Solina V is pretty good, but then again, there is some­thing that hap­pens in­side the hard­ware… some­thing with the cho­rus that can­not be re­pro­duced. Yet it will hap­pen even­tu­ally. In five or ten years, we will see the tech­nol­ogy.

“We have to ac­cept that, some­times, there are de­lays with tech­nol­ogy. Look at 3D in the cinema. I don’t think it will be ac­cepted un­til peo­ple can ac­cess it with­out those ter­ri­ble glasses. And 5.1. I have re-recorded some of the tracks on the new al­bum in 5.1 be­cause I think it is fun, but I know that not every­one has the lux­ury of be­ing able to sit in the mid­dle of all those speak­ers. I’ll say it once again, tech­nol­ogy is de­layed in this re­gard, but it will catch up one day. It will evolve nat­u­rally for your mo­bile and your head­phones.

“What an ex­cit­ing pe­riod in his­tory, eh? And, more than that, what an ex­cit­ing time to make mu­sic. In the past, we were lim­ited by the tech­nol­ogy we had, but now… the only limit is your imag­i­na­tion.” The al­bum, Planet Jarre, is out now

J-MJ on a re­cent US tour

Jean-Michel splits his time be­tween his stu­dio in LA and this one in Paris

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