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Interview via Financial Times - 07/06/2019
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Posted: Fri Jun 07, 2019 3:58 pm   Interview via Financial Times - 07/06/2019

Via Financial Times

Jean-Michel Jarre: ‘I probably spend more time with machines’

The electronic music pioneer shares his enthusiasm and concerns about tech’s potential

More than four decades ago, a slightly built 28-year-old French musician called Jean-Michel Jarre recorded Oxygène, using an eight-track tape machine and some capricious analogue synthesisers. To say machines have advanced since that breakthrough 1976 album is vastly to understate the state of the electronic art. But Jarre, now a youthful 70, manages to be simultaneously enthusiastic and concerned about technology’s potential.

Two vinyl versions of Equinoxe Infinity, one of two albums the prolific composer and performer brought out last year, sit on the coffee table in his Paris apartment, near the Champs-Élysées. Their covers project alternative destinies for the otherworldly binocular-toting “watchers” from the sleeve of the original Equinoxe (1978), which secured Jarre’s fame as a pioneer of electronic music. On one version, the watchers confront a headless human figure surrounded by tech detritus, bathed in an apocalyptic red-and-orange glow. From the other, they stare out like Easter Island statues from a barren but peaceful, sun-dappled landscape.

The future “could be quite dystopian, or we can succeed to create a kind of balance between the demography, the ecology and our relationship with technology,” Jarre explains.

He conceived Equinoxe Infinity as a soundtrack to an imagined film about the evolution of machines, thinking at first he would be able to use artificial intelligence in its composition. What he discovered was that we are still in the AI “dark age”, with very limited options. “It was quite frustrating,” he says.

Jarre, ageless in dark glasses, brown suit and black T-shirt, tends towards a positive view of the future. The past 200 years’ advances in human wellbeing show that our worst fears for the human race are never realised, he points out. “Technology is neutral. It all depends on what we do . . . If we can improve our capacities and possibilities because of AI, I think we have quite a good time ahead of us in terms of creation.”

The musician is now looking back as well as forward. Last year’s other release was Planet Jarre, a retrospective anthology compiled from 50 years of work, including his appearance at 2018’s Coachella festival at the end of his 250-date Electronica world tour. He has just finished a “kind of autobiography”, due out next spring, which he describes as a “heavy and long process”.

Even between musical projects, Jarre likes to work for at least part of his day with his electronic instruments. “I probably spend more time with machines than with human beings,” he says. “I feel sometimes like these people who have spent their lives with elephants or dolphins and then after a while they create a kind of para-language . . . and it takes time to tame them, to create a kind of real feeling with them.”

If anyone can be classified as a successful tech-tamer, it is Jarre. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, but he also learnt from less traditional musical influences. They included composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, the acoustician who developed musique concrète. Schaeffer taught the young Jarre that music could be created from noises, as in his own early Étude aux chemins de fer, created from the rhythms and sounds of steam trains.

Once Jarre had achieved lift-off with Oxygène, he developed a reputation for record-breaking open-air concerts. His Moscow performance in 1997 attracted an audience of 3.5m. Critics attacked his supercharged son et lumière performances, complete with laser harps and fireworks, for their bombast. Security issues also make such gigs harder to stage these days. But Jarre, undeterred, is still attracted by scale. He says he is now thinking about creating “two different kinds of productions: the big one for stadiums, arenas or outdoor venues, and a smaller one for small theatres, because it’s a totally different language”.

He is also experimenting with the idea of a virtual reality “studio of the future”, which could evolve into a concert with tens or hundreds of millions of virtual “spectators”. Limitless possibility can be a curse, though. Perfection is both Jarre’s goal — he has often talked about the impossible aim of writing the “ideal” piece of music — and his enemy.

On tour, Jarre feels he has to create additional friction to mitigate what he calls the “sine wave” effect: “After a good gig, everybody is confident, so then the following day, everybody will be much less focused and then the result will be average.” He injects creative tension by deliberately creating problems on the night, changing the sound, or altering the visual set-up, doubtless to the distress of his road crew.

"I probably spend more time with machines than with human beings, and it takes time to tame them"

“The real ideal state of mind to do music,” he says, “is to get this kind of teenage approach . . . it’s, where all the options are still open in front of you.”

Jarre’s father Maurice, the celebrated composer of movie soundtracks, split up with his mother when Jean-Michel was only five and father and son remained estranged. Jarre says it was his mother who imbued him with campaigning zeal. He channels it into his work and into roles such as president of Cisac, the Paris-based confederation that champions authors’ and composers’ rights, where he lobbies for a piece of “the digital cake” for “the kid dreaming about becoming a photographer, musician, film-maker, writer”.

Jarre also attributes to his mother his urge to take his music to new places, from China in 1981, where Mao-suited spectators watched in perplexed, polite silence, to a concert last year in Riyadh, where he played to an unsegregated audience of more than 50,000 Saudis, mostly under 30, from an “unplugged” set powered only by solar energy.

His mother taught him to distinguish between ideologies and people, Jarre says. It is the reason he ignores calls to boycott unsavoury governments and has set his sights on the next frontier of performing a live show in North Korea. “I’ve always been convinced that communication is the main thing,” he says. “People say ‘if you do this, you are going to help the regime in terms of image’. But it’s not true. What is much more important is to create the link with the people. It’s the only way for people to evolve and to get a bit of oxygen.”

Jarregirl YouTube
Concerts attended:
Théâtre Marigny, Paris - 2007
Symphony Hall, Birmingham - 2008
RAH, London - 2008
Wembley Arena, London - 2009
NIA, Birmingham - 2009
POP Bercy, Paris - 2010
NIA, Birmingham - 2010
O2 Arena, London - 2010
Zénith Aréna, Lille - 2010
Port Hercule, Monaco - 2011
TUI Arena, Hannover - 2011
Festival International de Carthage - 2013
Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham - 2016
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