Jean-Michel Jarre

Space is the Place:
On Planet Jarre, the Future is the Past is the Future is Now

A towering figure in music, Jean-Michel Jarre pioneered styles of music that didn’t even have names when he started making them. Musicians working in EDM, ambient and electronica all owe a debt to the French multi-instrumentalist who started making recordings in the late 1960s. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jarre remains vital and musically engaged today, mounting ambitious world tours and recording futuristic new music that builds on the past without being slavishly bound to it.

A new compilation called Planet Jarre is a survey of the man’s half century of music, but in typical Jarre fashion, it’s not a by-the-number, traditional best-of collection. On the same day that he announced an upcoming album of new material (Equinoxe Infinity, out Nov. 16) he took time for this interview in which he discusses the compilation, some of his more outré projects, the origins of electroacoustic music, and the difference between his music and that of other synth pioneers.

Planet Jarre is deliberately not sequenced chronologically. Instead, you’ve grouped the works thematically into playlists. Could you tell me a little bit about each of the four categories?

“To tell you the truth, Bill, I’m not really a fan of compilation albums. Because, most of the time, I think they are just marketing or commercial items from record companies. And frankly speaking, one song from different albums, [with each] song having its own world and complex and story, sometimes creates an artificial result.

“So, for this project, I tried to make a relevant creation. I said, ‘Okay. I’m going to do something totally different.’ Planet Jarre is starting from the idea that each of us has our own planet, our inner world. And this inner world would be structured from an equal point of view … not necessarily with my favorite track, but tracks which could match with each other. And then, I said, ‘This planet has, actually, four different territories based on my four different approaches I have when I’m composing music.’

“The first one, Soundscape is coming from my influence from classical music and my love for soundtracks and movies, and these kind of long ambient type of tracks, like the beginning of ‘Oxygène,’ for instance. So, I went to the different albums to find this kind of category of music which could match to each other.”

“The second one, Scenes, I did the same thing, but with the pieces of music I did something with a simple melody playing on the keyboard, and then doing the electronic arrangement along with it.

“The third one is called Sequences. It started with the idea that one of the main ingredients of electronic music is this kind of hypnotic, repetitive pattern that we are playing with during the sequences and before we are doing the sequences by hand. And again, I tried to find in different albums at different times the tracks which could match this idea.

“And the fourth one, Explorations and Early Works, is based on the way I started electroacoustic music by recording sounds – raw sounds – with a microphone and tape recorder. I used these techniques with samplers, of course. And I use these techniques still today; I used them on Zoolook [1984] and even the next studio album. I always also try to conceive tracks starting with raw sound, and then create the music and the arrangement around that.”

Even though you are drawing from different albums, the individual Planet Jarre discs hold together. Removed from the context of the original albums, they sound like new albums themselves.

“Thank you for saying this, because it’s precisely what I wanted to achieve. With Planet Jarre, it’s actually proposing to the audience the new album made of existing tracks, and this is exactly what I had in mind. I’m glad that you’re saying this because it’s exactly that. So, suddenly, because each track is within the different contexts, I was hoping that it would offer to the audience something different, like a new album.”

Planet Jarre also includes both sides of your very first single, “La Cage” and the flip side. Those were recorded in 1969, but not released until 1971. From what I’ve read, that’s because no label was interested. To them, it didn’t seem commercial. In retrospect, obviously, it was ahead of its time. Do you think that if you had approached labels in Germany or England that you might have been able to release it sooner?

“Not necessarily. Because Oxygène, was [initially] rejected by record companies, even years later after “La Cage.” I think lots of people in these days were more interested in having kind of pop albums. I discussed this with [Tangerine Dream founder] Edgard Froese when we collaborated together for Electronica. I said, ‘We started more or less at the same time,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no. You started before us because we were prog rock in the late ’60s. We became involved as an electronic act or band in ’73, ’74; before, we were more prog rock.’ So, their relationship with record companies was more to the rock field than a pure electronic band.

“So, I think that in ‘67, ‘68, many people were much more interested into the prog rock than pure electronic music because then it wasn’t even considered as music: doing musically strange oscillators and filters and all that. It took time for the music industry to recognize that as a potential genre.”

This may be a difficult question to answer. What do you see as uniquely French characteristics in your work?

“I think it’s maybe not that difficult.

“We should not forget that electronic music had nothing to do with the U.S. at the beginning. It has nothing to do with jazz, blues, or rock. It’s more coming from the continental Europe and classical music. It all started in the beginning of the 20th century with Luigi Rossolo writing the manifesto The Art of Noises in 1913, Léon Theremin inventing the Theremin in the ’20s, and then Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. So, there’s tradition of avant garde and experimental electroacoustic music in France and Germany, mainly. And that was really, for me, the foundation of electronic music. And then later in the U.S. and in the UK, of course, you had major artists.

“And what makes the specificity of my music as a Frenchman, as a French artist? I’ll tell you what makes [something] French: artforms specific in the movies, in paintings, in music, an impressionistic approach to any kind of art form. I think that, in that sense, people later on like Air – and even Daft Punk – all have a kind of more impressionistic approach to sound.

“Where the Germans, for instance, such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, take more a kind of robotic, cold approach to electronic sound. And for me, I remember that when I did Oxygène, I was obsessed that no sounds would be repeated, all sequences should evolve constantly, every sound I would use should not be a copy of the previous one. And I think it’s this tradition from Ravel to Debussy. It’s all, I think, a very French style on that.

“The reason why, probably, you never had really relevant or interesting French rock artists is because rock and roll or jazz is coming from something else, which is not naturally linked to France or Continental Europe. Where with electronic music, we have much more of an identity in those things. [That is] the reason why today the French and German scenes are so important and so predominant in the world in DJ and EDM. It’s a major genre for the continent.”

I’m interested in the relationship, as you see it, between your studio recordings and live performance. Are concerts an opportunity to expand upon the original concept as recorded? Or are they a means to deliver the music the way it sounds on the record?

“As I told you, when I’m starting a studio album, I never think about the performance of stage. [There was] only one case for an album of mine I wrote called Rendezvous where I really thought about the Houston concert and the stage. But otherwise, I’m not thinking about that.

“For my next album, I really did it without thinking at all about how it could be onstage. But having said that, after, I always start thinking how I could do it onstage. And this is probably the reason why I went to find out different ways of performing electronic music in such a specific way by heavily involving visual and visual techniques. I always consider that. Electronic instruments are so different than rock instruments or classical instruments; [the latter are] especially designed for stage, where electronic instruments have been designed in laboratories and studios. And then we want to put them onstage, and that’s a total different story. So, to make the electronic music performance more sensual, more tactile, more understandable, more exciting, I need to use some visuals.

“And also, I always thought electronic music — when I started, and even now, in a sense – is made for outdoors. I always thought rock and roll and jazz are made for cellars and darkness, and that way you can plug your body with electricity to feel the power of the energy. And for me, electronic music has been always mixed with environment. This is the reason why I call my albums [things like] Oxygène. Because it has that outer space, but also the space around us.”

You have always embraced new technology, but more than many other artists, you seem to mix things up. You use old analog gear along with modern digital machines, sampling, plugins and so forth. Do you prefer analog over digital – or vice versa – or do you view them merely as different tools to achieve different goals?

“To cut the long story short, for me, the difference you have [between the] analog world and digital world is the difference you have between the clarinet and the cello. It depends on what you want to do. Lots of times, it’s great to mix the cello and the clarinet.

“So, these days, we have the luxury to be able to mix analog sounds, analog gear with digital and plugins. So, by the end of the day, it makes less and less difference, depending on the project. And I must say that I really love to mix analog and digital because they are very complementary, in a sense. It has not always been the case, but these days it is.”

Do you still own some old vintage machines, like an Elka Synthex, or a VCS3 or a Mellotron?

“Of course; I’ve got them all. I have a huge collection of synthesizers. I mean, probably one of the [largest collections]; I’m seriously competing with Moby, and Hans Zimmer and all these.”

In all of your years working with synthesizers, have you ever found yourself frustrated by their limitations?

“No. It’s a resource. I think the rudimentary frustration is having no limitations, and that’s not a paradox. It’s because limits and limitations force you to push the limits in yourself and your inspiration in yourself. And we know, after a while, that the only way of being different, having any kind of specificity is by who you are. It’s not the instrument you use; it’s the way you use instruments.

“I remember when I was starting Oxygène, I had very, very limited equipment because it was too expensive for me, and not that many instruments existed at that time. So, I had this one string ensemble, one VCS3, one ARP 2600 and one broken Mellotron, and that’s it. And one Revox for making the delay and two guitar pedals for flanger and phasing, and that’s all. And you know, with this, I did something with literally only eight tracks. And a lot of people, when it had been released, considered it as SurroundSound, [even though] I did it with very limited equipment.

“I see that if I would have had more equipment at that time, probably the results would not have been so extreme. I’m absolutely confident that limitations are very, very important.”

Photo by Peter Lindberg.