Jean Michel Jarre is about to stage the world's biggest ever concert in the London Docklands. David Bradwell finds out about the technological dark age and the art of showmanship.
On the eve of his record-breaking, technology-intensive Destination Docklands concert Jean Michel Jarre explains why computer technology represents the dark age of music.
ON SEPTEMBER 24th, the otherwise quiet, remote East London Docklands will, for one night only, become the focus of the international media gaze. The occasion is the biggest concert the world has ever seen - and the next logical step in the spectacular career of Jean Michel Jarre.
Coming in the wake of similar extravaganzas in Houston and Lyon, the scale of Destination Docklands is unlikely to surprise followers of the enigmatic Frenchman. It's estimated that four million people will witness the event live in London and millions more will hear the simultaneous stereo radio broadcast both in the United Kingdom and abroad - statistics which will put Jarre in the record books.
It's three years since E&MM last interviewed Jarre (February '85). At the time, Zoolook had just been released and such live performances were just a dream. Today, however. I'm sitting in the back seat of a blue Mercedes, on a journey from BBC Broadcasting House to the location of the concert - on my left is the man himself...
Born in Lyon in 1948, Jean Michel Jarre first saw international success in 1976 with his second album, Oxygene (the first being 1970's The Cage). This was an eight-track production, recorded in Jarre's own studio with sounds primarily provided by an AKS and VCS3, but with the addition of an ARP 2600, Eminent String Ensemble, RMI Keyboard Computer and a Farfisa Organ where appropriate. Two years later, with Equinoxe, the sound quality had improved, and increasingly prominent was a Geiss Matrisequencer, an updated version of which he still uses today. The Fairlight arrived in 1981 just in time for Magnetic Fields - which subsequently earned him the honour of being the first Western musician to have his music broadcast on Chinese radio. During October of the same year he made his epic trip to perform in Peking and Shanghai, culminating in the release of The Concerts In China in May '82.
With the exception of the privately pressed Music For Supermarkets, Jarre released nothing more until 1985's Zoolook project. To this day Zoolook stands apart from the rest of Jarre's work as an experimental sampling record, less successful in terms of record sales, but marking a significant change in his approach. At the time he claimed to be tired of synthesiser music, and began using the Fairlight to construct samples of voices from different cultures around the world.
The open-air concerts in Houston and Lyon were documented by two albums - Rendezvous, which saw a return to conventional synthesis, and a live album containing the best moments from both events. The next release is to be an album of new music written for Destination Docklands, scheduled to become available immediately prior to the event itself.
I had arranged to meet Jean Michel in his London press office, a stone's throw from Marble Arch, but a flat tyre at TV AM has changed all that. He is already running late, and with a live appearance on Simon Bates' Radio One programme scheduled for 11.30, I am driven to Broadcasting House to meet him. By now the chaos is complete and I find myself in a Mercedes with an hour to find out all there is to know about Jean Michel Jarre.
At the time of his first E&MM interview (June '82), Jarre claimed to have plans for an outdoor concert in the UK at the end of August that year. "It's an old dream to be able to put together this kind of production in London", he agrees. "London is really one of the European centres for music and technology. I think there is not only a challenge, but that there is an opportunity to try to create a link of different techniques and talents, trying to keep the certain specificity of what we can do in France, but also using all of the local ability of this country."
PUTTING THE FORTHCOMING concert to one side for the time being, we discuss a subject of mutual fascination: Technology. For one of the leading figures in electronic music, Jean Michel Jarre has controversial views on the subject; in particular, he is unsure of the merits of computer-based sequencer systems.
"I think I was one of the first musicians to be involved with sequencers and even audio signals to sync a few machines together, at a time when MIDI was not there. I worked with an engineer at that time called Michael Geiss, and we were able to build a kind of sequencer - the Matrisequencer - which had a matrix board enabling up to 100 notes to be programmed. The 1978 version of this featured the ability to allocate notes to right/centre/left in slapback fashion, and add harmony by playing notes from the previous chord into the next one, through the time delay. In 1988 it features MIDI and SMPTE interfaces, and has developed into a sophisticated performance instrument.
"Transposing and adapting the sequence in any way was easy, which is better than sequencers which are programmed from the keyboard, whereby your hands make some cliched chord pattern. You have almost no computer sequencers allowing you to transpose and play all of the sequence in real time. In front of a computer screen you are not involved in the same way physically - your mind is involved more than your body, and that's the reason computer systems are the dark age of music technology. I think our children will laugh at this, because to make music at the moment you are still having to type characters on a keyboard. The fact that you can't do actually much more than one event at a time or change one parameter at a time is not progress. It is a necessary stage, but I think the next step will be to put hands-on control back in. In the future I will be looking for a sequencer that can be played in real time and transposed in real time, so that you can change several parameters at once."
Jarre seems dissatisfied with most areas of technology, including digital recording and sampling, despite being seen by many as a technical innovator. The problem is one of limitations, although not, as you might expect, having too many of them. How can this be?
"I have this funny feeling at the moment, through talking to various musicians, that they are partly paralysed by the fact that for the first time we have less and less limitations", Jarre explains. "For each project I do I choose what instruments I'm going to work with, and try not to be trapped by technology and by the huge variety of instruments and sounds you can have. I try to keep a feeling of limits - these days a lot of manufacturers say having no limits is an advantage, but I would disagree."
For the recording process itself, Jarre remains a big fan of analogue technology, despite a previous digital flirtation on Rendezvous. His own studio once boasted an Otari 32-track digital machine, but this has been replaced by a Studer analogue machine with Dolby SR noise reduction.
"It's so musical", he comments. "It is much warmer, which is particularly important for synthesisers. With acoustic instruments you can get fantastic results on digital tape, but with all the new digital synthesisers, the sounds are being cut into very thin slices. When it goes into some processing machines, like digital reverb, it reslices the sounds in a different way. And then you go to the digital tape machine, and again it slices once more. It's like whether you prefer to live with the girl cut in thin slices or the girl with make-up - I think it is better to live with the girl even with heavy make-up, than the girl cut in thin slices. With the Studer the sound dynamics are better, the noise ratio is better - everything is better."
JARRE'S ZOOLOOK WAS a milestone for his music in that it was primarily an album of voices sampled on the Fairlight, and remains the composer's most innovative work to date. It involved a lot of things he had been studying, like the ethnic music he studied at the Musique Concrete centre in Paris, and combining these with the art of sampling, which at that time was still a comparatively new concept. Now, however, Jarre is tired of sampling for its own sake, and is returning to more conventional synthesis.
"In the beginning, sampling was fascinating because it was possible to use natural sounds in a different way. But the big trap with sampling sounds is that everything sounds so realistic, and so it has to be handled with a lot of care. What used to fascinate me with electronic music was that the sounds made by synthesisers were like the difference between cinema and real life - you can build your own sounds to create moods and to convey emotions and feelings. The communication with the audience is totally different, because you are using language and sounds that do not exist in your day-to-day environment - with samplers it was taking your day-to-day sound environment and making music with it. Suddenly in all the records and all the music everywhere you have sampled sounds. Rendezvous was a reaction against that - now I am not going to use samplers just for fun, more for specific uses."
Not all aspects of new technology are necessarily disadvantageous, however. What Jarre finds fascinating, and the direction he is currently taking, is the integration of sound, light and colour. To do this he is using and developing new instruments such as the laser harp, the first prototype of which was made in 1979 by Bernard Sajner.
"I'm more and more interested in getting instruments with which you can actually have actions via lighting effects as well as audio effects - real audio-visual instruments. What is fascinating about the laser harp is that it enables you to play music with light and also get, keep and recreate the physical attitude and the physical feel of acoustic instruments." On stage, Jarre also uses two other remote controllers.
"The sounds made by synthesisers are like the difference between cinema and real life - you can build your own sounds to convey emotions and feelings."
"The remote keyboard was actually a transformation of the Yamaha KX5, but customised for my own needs - the visual, and the ability to send program change data to the Fairlight and the Emulator. The other one - the big round one - was actually a prototype of what I'm developing now. It's a kind of audio visual instrument that can interface between the musician, synthesisers and lighting effects. In other words, when you are pressing keys you are not actually playing music like on a chromatic keyboard, but you can actually switch on musical effects and synchronise them with the lighting. At each key you have a MIDI signal, along with other digital and analogue signals, to control other things."
Jarre is currently collaborating with a French company, Lag, on two new instruments for the Destination Docklands concert, but was reluctant to divulge any further details.
Along with Peter Gabriel, Jarre was one of the first Fairlight owners, and he has followed the company's philosophy ever since. He will derive musical inspiration from watching a film, from the sound of a Docklands crane, or even the conversation in the back seat of a car...
"When you go into the studio you are going in with all that you have experienced and that gives you a different approach to the keyboard every day. I like to change the way I work, change the chair or the light or change the instruments, always to get a new approach."
He continues, on a studio theme, "Sometimes I like to use noise gates to key sounds and sequences, to transform a sound through a noise gate by keying the gate to the sequencer or a drum machine. This gives a human touch to a sequence because of the shape of the envelope of the noise gate. Also, there are analogue processes you can use which are impossible with digital systems, like reversing tapes or slowing them down."
For the concert in September Jarre is promising new music and new approaches.
"In terms of music", he predicts, "the next step will be to get rid of all cables and have proper remote controllers. At the moment I am very interested in the music of the Aborigines and Pygmies - the polyphony of vocals where each singer is doing one note, and then achieving polyphony through grouping together. What I am doing currently is working very simply with two or three tracks, without any reverb and leaving all of that for the mix. That is a different approach for me, but if it doesn't work with two or three tracks I try something else."
We have only briefly touched upon the Destination Docklands concert itself. But as this is the main reason for Jarre's visit to London it would seem appropriate to delve further.
"What is so exciting on stage for me is the fact that I am going to conduct music and lighting and the visuals, and this is changing the whole thing in your mind. It means that you can actually deal on two different levels.
"What is also interesting is that you arrive at a location and for one night you change it entirely until the following morning when you disappear. There is a magical quality to such a one-off event. Also, the audience know that if they are not there they will miss it forever - and it's the same for the technicians and musicians. It creates a very special tension which is difficult to handle, but so very positive to go through." Jarre will be accompanied on stage by a 120-strong choir, a bass player and guitarist (who are new to the line-up), a drummer, percussionist (classical and ethnic), three keyboard players, a soprano singer, a Japanese trumpeter, and string and horn sections. One problem of staging such an event is the transmission of the sound in sync with the light over a large radius. To overcome this, there has been a link-up with the BBC, so that the stereo FM Radio 1 signal, which will carry the concert around the country, will also be picked up directly by the PA stacks. This solves the problem of trailing wires, and as it coincides with Radio 1's 21st anniversary, it will generate some nice publicity...
AS WE PASS Buckingham Palace the conversation moves on to the all-important subject of equipment.
"I'll be using various keyboards, because I don't like one kind of instrument. I mean, synthesisers are like acoustic instruments - in an orchestra you have violins with the cellos... And it's the same with synthesisers - the sound of a Roland D50, which I like very much, is totally different from a sampler or from analogue instruments and I think they are all complimentary. So, I'm going to use some Yamaha instruments - maybe the new MIDI piano, and also some Roland D50s or the D550 rack version. I like the Akai MPC60 - I use it in favour of a Macintosh for sequencing and so on, and I'm using one for the next LP and for this project. It's a brilliant machine and very musical. In terms of rhythm, I like the Dynacord ADDone - the MPC60 and ADDone take care of all of the drum sounds along with a Simmons SDX. I also have a Fairlight II and III and the Emulator II. I like some of the old English instruments very much like the OSCar, so I have two Oscars MIDI'd together. I'm in contact with the guy who designed it, and he has the prototype of a polyphonic OSCar, with a computer and 16 voices; he has a remote control for programming it, linked to a computer."
SMPTE code is used to synchronise the video, lights, fireworks, projectors, lasers, film and music. Quite an impressive list, but what are the limitations?
"There are a few", concedes the musician. "My wish would be total automation for the show - not to be robotised, but to get ultimate precision on stage. Exact sync with what is going on 800 metres from the stage is a problem, and was expensive to overcome. The main problem, though, is to get equipment which can be automated. If you are dealing with big, heavy projectors you have to manufacture engines to synchronise the whole system."
The main problem with talking about the concert seems to be Jarre's inability to find words to sum it up. "The whole idea is to try and put the ultimate diversity into this kind of experience", he says. "It's like an adventure to me. I mean, suddenly it's not a concert or a tour, it's much more than that.
"I have the feeling that I am still starting, and that I have not done so many things. The concept of Houston, or what I have done in China or Lyon for example, is really almost a demo of what I have in mind, in terms of the visual link with music. The spectacular aspect of it is interesting, but it's not my only concern. Obviously the media are conveying this image of the biggest show on earth, but I hate all of that. I'm not doing this concert, working day and night just to break a record, it's much more than that to me."
By now the car has arrived at the City Airport in the centre of the Docklands, and the scene of the concert itself. It's hard to imagine how this desolate area of East London will be transformed on September 24th. It's harder still to appreciate the magnitude of the event. I, for one, am going for a front row ticket.
Interview by David Bradwell
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