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On Tour with Jean-Michel Jarre

April 3, 2017

When you hear the word synthesist, what are some of the names that come to mind? If your list includes Jean-Michel Jarre, you’re not alone.

Heidie Moreno Castelli

Jarre’s third album, Oxygène, was released in 1976 and went on to become one of the bestselling synthesizer albums of all time. In Paris on Bastille Day 1979, he became the first performer ever to attract a live audience of 1 million people. Seven years later, he exceeded that number during a spectacular outdoor show in Houston, with the city skyline as a backdrop for his gargantuan projections, lasers, and fireworks. He holds the Guinness World Record for the largest paid audience in history, half a million out of an estimated 3.5 million attendees, for a 1997 performance in Moscow.

In 2015, Jarre released the Grammy Award-nominated Electronica 1: The Time Machine, on which he collaborated with musicians ranging from Little Boots and Gesaffelstein to Pete Townsend and Tangerine Dream. He followed that up last year with Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise in May and with his second sequel to Oxygène in December, entitled Oxygène 3.

In the midst of his Electronica World Tour that began in October, this year Jarre will be playing a series of venues in North America for the first time ever. In the United States beginning on May 16, he’ll play shows in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with three additional stops in the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco areas.

At January’s NAMM Show, EM editor Gino Robair and I had an opportunity to meet briefly with the French synthesist. We asked if he’d be willing to do an interview by phone the following week, and he graciously agreed. A few days later, he called me from Paris, and we spoke for about half an hour.

After eight years with no new music, you've released three albums since September 2015. What has made you so productive after the long break?

Electronica 1 and 2 took me almost five years. I decided to gather around me people who were linked to the electronic music scene and who have been a source of inspiration to me, from different genres and different generations. Everybody said yes, so I ended up with almost two-and-a-half hours of music that I liked. I decided to divide this project into two separate albums.

Heidie Moreno Castelli

During this recording process, I did a piece of music that was not fitting the Electronica project. I thought if I had to do Oxygène today, maybe I would start with a track like this. I kept that in the back of my mind, and then the record company said last year, “You know, we have this anniversary going on. Maybe you could do a special box set.” I thought it could be fun to use this anniversary as a deadline, as a pretext for me to continue the sequel process I had in mind when I did the first Oxygène.

The first Oxygène was made in different parts, no names; Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, like chapters of a book. I’ve always been interested by sequels in movies, in literature, in TV. It doesn’t exist that much in music. I always thought it could be interesting to do some sequels from the first album. The first one was done in vinyl days, and I did that in six weeks with very limited equipment on an 8-track tape recorder. I thought it could be fun, after the massive production that Electronica had been, to lock myself up in the studio for six weeks and say, “Okay, I’m going to do a piece of music like in vinyl days, to think about side one, side two—side one being dark and side two being more sunny or melodic—and also using never more than eight elements at the same time.

I know your studio techniques have changed a lot since the first Oxygène. Do you ever use synth presets, or do you program everything yourself?

These days, I think it’s great you can use whatever you want if you are lucky enough, like me, to have the original analog instruments. It’s like when you are writing a piece for symphonic orchestra or jazz. If you want clarinet, use a clarinet. If you want saxophone or double bass, use a saxophone or double bass. It’s the same thing in electronic music these days. If I want a warm analog sound, I would use the Memorymoog or the ARP 2600 or the VCS3. If I want something more edgy or more crispy, I would use a Native Instruments plug-in or some kind of digital hardware. It’s all depending on what kind of sound you want.

Do you use sample libraries?

Yes, absolutely. I like all kinds of sounds I can find. You know, my first contact with electronic music has been with Pierre Schaffer and musique concrète and electroacoustic music. That was the first guy who taught me, and he actually invented the idea that music could be made with noise and sound, that you can go out with a microphone and sampling—it was not called sampling at that time—recording the sound of the wind, the sound of an engine or the street or a car or the tube station or whatever, and then doing music with it. And that little idea changed the way we are doing music these days. So, of course, I’m doing sampling, and I’m using synthesizers to generate frequencies with oscillators and so on and so forth, and also using raw material. It could be a library. It could be a sound I recorded on my own—old school kinds of things.

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