Record Review: Jean-Michel Jarre
An analysis of The Concerts in China double album on Polydor PODV3 | Jean-Michel Jarre
The album was recorded during five concerts presented by Jean-Michel in Peking's Capital Stadium and Shanghai Stadium in October 1981. The concerts were the first performances of rock or contemporary music ever given in the People's Republic of China. The recording was made by Rene Ameline and Patrick Auffour on the Flight Mobile with the SAJE console. Later mixed at the Ferber studio on MCI equipment by Rene and Jean-Michel, assisted by Pierre Mourey.
Overture. Over a sustained synth low note, the Chinese female compere introduces Jean-Michel. Through applause and audience atmosphere the familiar alternating sequencer sounds left and right stereo octaves, following the sustained chord harmony as it slowly changes. A move up a tone suggests it is 'Oxygene' derived, until drums break in with some voices mixed too (the hiss tells you they're there). Polysynth slides move left and right, whilst drums keep the pulse moving. A synth solo with plenty of pitch-bending improvises on top and the music creeps up the next tone. Drums get busier and the final synth note ends with fast LFO sine modulation.
Arpegiator. This new piece once again receives an announcement before the appearance of a centrally placed bass sequencer pattern (based on root, octave and minor 3rd). Out of this comes a melodic sequence right, with left echo. Percussion 'castanet' clicks sound left, with reverb placed deep right, and then mellotron style 'aah' voices sweep in majestically at centre twice. Electronic drums add accents and eventually provide a flourish which leads to a new 4-beat sequence on 'flute' synth sound. This is based on the early bass sequence which itself returns.
Another sweeping sound, this time from a brass synth preset, glides across the stereo field and drops the tonal base. The alternating left to right melody continues and develops over sustained 'voices'. These echo away rapidly to another percussion break, leading to a repeat of the flute riff. Polysynth glides right down the frequencies as bass line punches in and out, and the 'Arpegiator' rolls on like some magic musical machine. Central polychords punctuate and then the brass glides across to announce first a tonal drop and, soon after, a tonal rise (up a whole tone). Vocoder-like jazz style interrupts add interest over sustained voice sounds. The bass and flute riffs fade over applause and Chinese traffic/children sounds in rich stereo.
Equinoxe IV. A white noise swirl brings in percussive taps and sustained strings. Bass line and drums form a dialogue over the familiar Equinoxe chord structure. Suddenly a bubbling pattern from the VCS3s and AKSs enters, with short brassy motives based on the chords over strong drums.
A more tranquil mood takes over whilst electronic cymbals pan continuously from side to side (with rest of percussion remaining at centre stereo). An outburst of a chordal theme follows, using a triplet rhythm to start, and strings accompany as drums drive on. To the right and left appear strong images of high pitched synth 'bubbling' patterns plus metallic taps, and synths with glide and vibrato make the music almost run on endlessly until the penultimate fade. Noise swirls back and high pitched sequence runs are filtered into the applause.
Side 1 ends with voices of Chinese people gradually fading out.
Fishing Junks at Sunset. [With the Peking Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, Conductor Huang Feili] This piece was specially written by Jean-Michel to allow a unique marriage of the traditional instruments of oriental China with the Western electronic music instruments. It begins with a Chinese 2-string instrument melody set against an atmospheric background of boats and harbour sounds. Basses and other instruments are added from the orchestra until a typically oriental flavour is created for the flute melodies to peacefully play over. There's plenty of repeated note playing from the orchestral strings (in plucked mandolin/banjo fashion) and this first section is followed by electronic bass and Elka organ, plus synth flutes and 'tremolo' strings from the Eminent. Then the theme is played again, with a distinctly Western bass accompaniment, on 'guitar' sounding synth at centre. The Peking orchestra blends in again, whilst split synth notes are faded in and out at right/left channels. There is a brief but virtuoso style performance from an orchestral player (using a horizontal multi-stringed instrument rather like the Hungarian Cymbalom) and the flutes (and slightly out of tune timpani!) dominate the fascinating Chinese melody.
More harmonies are added to the orchestral repeat with a final speeded up flourish to end — note the harp-like arpeggios.
Synthesiser enters boldly with a 'harpsichord/voice' melody using plenty of echo at right. There's a high sustained string note whilst synth patterns play at both sides and chords interject.
Back comes the orchestra, now with a strong oboe/trumpet quality (the instruments responsible use a double reed similar to the oboe's reed and have a trumpet shaped body about a foot long). A rather hasty climax is reached (it reminds me of the Mikado!) and whilst some old cymbals crash, the synthesiser runs creep back in. More synth 'voice' sounds add to the harmony, plus string and brass synth. All merge very successfully together — quite an achievement! (Even the synth runs seem to fit). Reserved applause follows.
Band in the Rain. A background of rain and distant thunder rolls sets the mood for a melancholy 'clarinet' synth theme on this short track which is accompanied by simple chords from a tuba-like sound and swing rhythms on a hi-hat cymbal. Definitely a Parisian flavour to this piece, with the synth melody at times almost becoming a solo accordion. A meandering legato synth entry marks a change, and strings counterpoint a similar melody accompanied by occasional electronic drum 'slaps'. As the melody reaches down to the bass notes, we quickly pick up a strong bass sequence that gets the audience clapping (almost in time!). The bass drum sound punctuates a quaver/dotted crotchet rhythm, whilst the sustained string harmony let's you know we've reached Equinoxe VII. Around the bass sequence and strings are oscillator notes dabbed in. Then a different string sound (with top cut and more resonance) moves the music on and the beat is decidedly catchy. Even the simple harmonic structure is attractive against the forceful beat.
Upward scales pour out of the right channel to be echoed in the left, and the drums' 'white noise' filtered cymbals add interest. A vibrato-like voice 'ooh' sound leads to a change of chord and 'piano' notes play on octave jumps as the music becomes quieter. Atmospheric sounds wash across the stereo field — listen for the Fairlight's sample of a saxophone, a favourite preset of Jean-Michel's, and enjoy the rich bubbling effects and swirling filtered notes. There's not really any real melody but the bass sequence binds it all together. Over the sustained strings we hear voices, sax, bubbling, percussive and other sounds that fade to leave the final sax note.
The side ends with audience applause and the immediate background music filtering through for the concert interval.
Orient Express. The opening marks Jean-Michel's arrival (on the film) at an airport in China and the title has little relevance except to a possible train clip at the end of this track. Bass and drums (with strong off-beat high pitched noise taps) start off and a simple chord passage is taken through Jean-Michel's now recognisable harmony, laced with left and right thin, resonant bubbling (from the EMS synths) and distant portamentos.
A drum break and effective bass fills bring about further repeats. Brass synth notes at centre add to the general activity and the drum beats rallentando to end.
The next snippet will no doubt become the hi-fi salesman's stereo demo example for months to come, as applause is followed by table tennis (!) and suggestions of a train from the Fairlight. These herald a 'flute' synth reminiscent of the glass harmonica.
Magnetic Fields I. Away go the noises leaving the gentle flute and CMI looped sound that suggests a continuously turning wooden implement in water. Distant voices, wandering melody, silky strings and tinkling metallic sounds all create a tranquil feel as the loop continues and fades. A deep bass note leads the ensuing faster sequence (slightly out of tune with the bass) which begins the Magnetic Fields III theme.
Metallic taps right and filtered cymbal left accompany the central drum accents and sustained strings in stereo. The theme repeats a little stronger while thin synth notes pick up melody notes. Octave syncopated notes with glide are added right and echo left. The harmony repeats and the minor section with sustained strings brings more short synth note glides. It's a nice mix that floats along despite the persistent drums. A few more chords in this one too! A synth theme tries to break through but is almost swallowed up. Metallic clicks fade into the applause.
After another Chinese announcement, a low sustained synth note is set against the background audience atmosphere. CMI bell sounds and other effects blend with strings (with noticeable octave jumps on sampled effects from the Fairlight keyboard). It's an interesting montage that spreads the stereo image in typical J-MJ fashion. This track is titled 'Laser Harp' but I'm not so sure — there's certainly no pentatonic flavour that was set for the Laser instrument. (In the film, the opening of 'Equinoxe VII' shows the Laser Harp!)
There's applause as the music fades and in comes Chinese radio clips that include part of Jean-Michel's music broadcast.
Night in Shanghai is another richly atmospheric piece, with a definitely Oriental feel as the flute improvises against a CMI intermittent drone sample and bright percussive ad libs. Strings enter sustained and a looped 'turning wheel' is heard. There are drum taps centre, a gong and white noise as the bass holds and a sequencer enters (the left/right image) quite high using bright short attack/decay shapes. All this blends together in an impressionistic manner.
The continuously panned hi-hat cymbal from Korg KR55 drum machine becomes more apparent as the Fairlight melody ominously digs in like a rough cello. At centre drums accent heavily and a high synth plays single notes, reverberating around the stadium. The piece is based on one chord but is not at all monotonous, because the xylophone-like sequence seems to take the music up and down, whilst the drums certainly do their job of giving rhythmic variety. A final flourish from the Liberation (or Oberheim) takes the piece to its close on quiet strings, deep CMI notes and melodic percussion ad libs.
Through applause, the Elka X705 organ twangy guitar note is sounded, to burst forth into The Last Rumba. There's drum machine, string chords, countermelody poked in on a synth plus a Rumba bass line (root, 3rd, 5th/minim, crotchet, crotchet) from the auto accompaniment.
This very typical Latin American music brought some audience clapping to the beat, but is not exciting or innovative to Western ears. Nevertheless, the Chinese cheered! Amazing!
A powerful rhythmic beat launches us enthusiastically into Magnetic Fields II, which has the strongest melodic line on the album that's played centre with left and right echoes, synth glides and 8-notes sequenced bass lines. I like the countermelody that adds downward arpeggio-like interest. A short drum break brings a repeat. Some extra harmony lines have been added, compared with the original version on the Magnetic Fields LP but the chords do not bite as much. Nevertheless, the rhythm is precise and effective. A solo synth improvises with plenty of echo over tonic minor and dominant 7th (plus flattened 9th) harmony. Some good polyphonic pans left to right (with harmonised treatment) add excitement and although the bass could have been stronger, it's altogether an exciting live performance. An amusing 'nasal' bass ends with tumultuous cheering and applause.
Street noises fade in with camera clicks (that sync TV film shots) and Chinese everyday sounds — talking, street, harbour and school. Then a sudden crescendo dramatically projects a sustained voice sound. This is picked up by strings and mellotron style chords, then sustained plucked bass synth and left/right drums (semiquaver/dotted quaver x2, crotchet, and crotchet 'clap') with filtered resonant echoes. It's almost like a hymn for East and West, with the rich European musical texture interspersed with Oriental sounds. Children's voices penetrate the strings, bass and drums to give a melancholy quality full of reminiscence that finishes the album well. The camera clicks synchronise the music to the film shots. Brass polysynth chords add strength to the harmonies which form a continuous gentle modulation that never seems to end. Over a sustained 'aah', a voice is heard at right and a sudden percussion 'clap' ends this memorable live album.
This 1½ hour film, The China Concerts, was shown on British Television on May 3rd 1981. Directed by Andrew Piddington, it is a captivating insight into the live performances in China, but at the same time forms a creditable documentary of The People's Republic of China. The film is edited so that we are continually switching from the stage performance to typical Chinese clips. The scenes of politicians, uniformed soldiers (who are well represented in the audience), industrial scenes, harbour, school and ghetto shots and in particular, peasants working in the fields have a moving and poignant quality that blends with the emotion of the music, and are underlined by the image of Chairman Mao.
There are some unique pictures of the audience reactions before and during the concerts, and the lasers and lighting provide a spectacle that many people in Western countries will not have experienced. There's no virtuoso playing by Jean-Michel, just an overall unity of performance between the players on stage. The fact that this film received 1½ hours on a National Holiday in the U.K. is tribute enough to Jean-Michel and represents yet another major advance in the general public's acceptance and appreciation of electronic music.
Music Review by Mike Beecher