Sound And Vision
The maestro himself on rave, analogue classics, lasers, mice and Fellini
Jean Michel Jarre is back. Only this time the king of keyboards and the master of multimedia has a new goal: to stage his own kind of raves all over Europe. With a new album Chronologie under his belt, and deep in preparation for his first ever 'tour', Jarre has plenty to say about bad old-fashioned rock'n'roll. Excuse me, Elvis, but here comes the French Revolution...
"MT is really close to my preoccupations at the moment. I've been very involved in the rave scene, and I really like the way dance and rave acts are using technology the moment. It's a mixture of the old analogue synthesisers with '90s technology and that's exactly what has inspired me for the new album, Chronologie. It combines what I have used before - like on Oxygene and Equinoxe - which are synths that create strong melodies and harmonies with a very warm character and plenty of colour, mixed with samples and scratches.
"If there are rave acts who consider me like a 'Godfather', well... it's because of the combination of analogue synths and sampling with multimedia, but also, I guess, the idea of pirating through virgin areas - like the skyline of Houston, or Docklands - an outdoor area where you can improvise a party. For Bastille Day in Paris three years ago, that's exactly what I did - and two million people came! So I really like this idea of putting on my own equivalent of a rave, all over Europe, with the musicians I want to convey my music in my own style."
"After having explored ethnic and world music during the '80s, with Zoolook and things like that, using a lot of digital equipment, I really consider a lot of old analogue synthesisers to be a kind of Stradivarius of electronic music. Nowadays, no one can match the sound of a Minimoog, for instance. That's why everybody is chasing the old gear. It's not just fashion. The first Linndrum, or the 808 or 909, these have a quality of sound, yes, but also of having been made as musical instruments - not just as Japanese marketing products.
"And also, for me, having always worked with and been excited by synthesisers, I really think an analogue synthesiser is the most evocative instrument - one with which you can most evoke, not reproduce, a real sound. I've worked a lot with samplers, too, of course, and I do think there is a risk in taking a fragment of 'reality' which becomes instantly dead. It's like severing an arm from the body; I'm sorry to be morbid, but there is a morbid approach to soundscapes with sampling. It can be interesting, but it has limitations. What I love about analogue synths is that you can 'invent' the sound of an orchestra, or the sea, or a train... just as Fellini hated location shooting, and felt that evoking the sea in a film studio was much more powerful. It gives you the idea of the sea. And an analogue synth can give the idea of a violin, or the idea of a drum. The TR808 is a long way from the sound of a real drum, and that's what makes it interesting...
"But the synthesiser also has intrinsic sounds of its own, which don't emulate or even evoke sounds in nature... which is why it's one of the most important instruments in the history of music. Firstly, you can create your own timbres - you can be your own craftsman. Secondly, you have access to many sounds which have never been heard before."
"It's a nightmare. We are regressing. Unfortunately, I don't think manufacturers will change course because when Bob Moog was developing the Minimoog, for instance, or when the ARP 2600 was made, or the EMS, people were creating prototypes, for musical reasons - not commercial reasons. They weren't businessmen, they were engineers, inventors, musicians. Today the synth market is a multinational, corporate concern, so the sales of a Minimoog are not going to match the sales of a DX7 or an M1. They've tried, and the JD800 is a good example - I like it very much, the combination of access and memory - but after a while you realise that the basic sound is much thinner than a true analogue synth. You have everything built in, all the effects which are very catchy, but when you start to incorporate them in the studio you find that it's almost impossible to mix them. They're already full of frequencies, reverb, delay... and if you switch them all off you're left with a very poor sound, usually.
"The best way to build a good sound is to start from a mono source, rather than starting with a stereo sound which is mostly delay, or a phase difference between right and left which can create problems in the mix later on. And it's so frustrating to have to take those effects off first, before you can start working.
"Everything in the '80s was done the wrong way round. Instead of using technology to ease the process of programming, we've made it more complex. I saw a reverb/delay unit recently and the manual had 89 pages! This is a joke. Who cares if the unit can recreate stone, leather or wood surfaces?! No one has experienced the difference in real life, it's an absurd situation. This is why I've decided to be much more direct, as in the rave scene, and just use technology for what I need and nothing else. I don't want to learn Japanese any more...
"I like the K2000 very much, and I'm working with Kurzweil on improvements to the sampling card and other details. It's probably the best synth on the market just now; it can be as complex as you like, but you can change sounds very quickly."
"When I started out I worked in a French music research centre with Pierre Schaeffer, who created the concept of Musique Concrete just after the Second World War. So that takes us back to before you and I were born. And this guy was the first in the history of music to talk about music in terms of sound, instead of notes and harmonies, and to take a microphone into the street and record cars, doors, people. In 1950 he did a kind of concerto for one door, splicing up the tape recordings and making something which might be done with an Akai S3000 today. So in a sense, this guy is the Grandfather of dance music - or sampling, at least. And having worked with tapes in this way, I just had to get a Fairlight - I think Peter Gabriel and myself were the first to get one from Australia - which, of course, enabled you to do this so much easier.
"But then sampling was developed in so many different ways through the '80s. You have the Art Of Noise approach, which is to take fragments of reality and make fun with it - a very interesting artistic proposal. And then you have the use of sampling as a kind of universal way of making music which in my opinion is wrong. Because if you sample a trumpet, it still doesn't sound quite like a trumpet. You should use sampling to create, to invent new sounds, not just to imitate sounds. It's OK for advertising, for soundtracks, it's very practical - and as a songwriting and arranging tool, of course. But, to me, the most interesting use of sampling is to transform and process sounds - then it becomes a real instrument. Otherwise it's just a library.
"The problem with the Akais is that they're for the Japanese brain. Take looping: if you want to edit the beginning of the sample, you have to start at the end. Its mad, like somebody who reads right-to-left trying to read left-to-right."
On Croissy Studio
"I like to have a variety of recording methods. Some parts are sequencers, straight onto 24-track. When sequences are required, I use the MPC60 - because I'm used to it! - in conjunction with timecode on the multitrack. Those sequences are then recorded onto tape as well as in the MPC60, or Notator on the Atari. But I'm not a big fan of the mouse! It's a real pity that no one has found an alternative. The JL Cooper console - where you can be in front of your Mac or Atari like a 24-track - is interesting. I still think that if you have 10 fingers, using one mouse is like being a cripple.
"I'm not questioning the opportunity to make music with a joystick, a wheel, or whatever interface. But from my personal point of view I like a variety. So I have keyboards, and a multitrack which is the timecoded master, and the MPC60 or C-Lab which are the slaves. And I'm constantly developing new gear. Well before MIDI, Michel Geiss - an engineer/musician with me since Oxygene - developed the Matrisequencer, where you can have real-time sequences triggered by pins; it has a matrix of 100 lines and 12 notes, and you can change octaves for any note, too, and using the pins you can play in real-time sequences, loop them, and it used a single frequency to link different synths. That was in 1978, and I used it on all my early stuff. The technique was very close to MIDI.
"And in the last year we've conceived a version for the '90s - the Digisequencer - using the technique of touching LEDs. It has a matrix of LEDs, and you can instantly program any kind of sequence, loop any section, make polyphonic sequences or use it as an arpeggiator, and it all works with SMPTE or MIDI timecode. It's very much the brain of the studio, now. I also want to develop new types of instruments for the projects I'm working on now, such as a synth based on the ARP 2600 but represented on a 1-page LCD, and incorporating old and new filters from the Minimoog to the JD800. It has audio inputs for acoustic sound, like a sampler; it has memory; and beside the LCD you have virtual faders and knobs which you can touch to instantly access and alter the parameters. There's also a sampler I'm working on with two technicians, which uses a card from the new Macintosh to try to improve sampling and programming together."
"I wanted to create a new format for concerts to escape from the routine of the rock concert, and the keyboard player trapped behind - in the old days, keyboards - and now a screen, watching TV all the time. Also playing and listening to music outdoors is a unique experience; you're not a victim of the reflections of ceilings and walls. So I've always been keen for the music to be performed outside. Furthermore, I've been frustrated for several years by the sight of the 'stadium machine', huge concerts presenting a formula which hasn't essentially changed since the days of Elvis Presley: one singer and a band. There may be more PA, but between Elvis and Michael Jackson there is no change in terms of concept and visuals. It's great in a theatre, but to pay so much to watch an ant on a stage so far away... it's frustrating. It's such an old-fashioned concept to maintain the focal point on one singer, in a huge outdoor concert. Now, in the '90s, the stage is no longer the focal point - just as at a rave.
"I never considered myself the Mick Jagger of electronic music. I'm much more interested in how to visualise the music, how to convey to the audience the emotions I try to put into the music. And I believe the grander the scale you give, the more you receive from an audience. In a way, despite the scale of concerts I've given before, the conviviality and complicity with the audience was much more powerful than it would have been in a theatre with just one stage, one synth and a band. Somehow you match the scale of the audience. And to do this I've had to develop a lot of special techniques, linking visuals and sounds.
"We've developed MIDI interfaces, but also other types of interface to connect lasers, lights and images to the music. And a lot of tricks like, all the musicians are fed information about lights and visuals through headphones, and I'm able to control a lot of things at the same time. I'm a conductor of vision, not only of sound."
"The laser harp is a very good example of an instrument developed for this purpose. Instead of strings, it has beams which you touch to sound a note. And the beams are like keys, because you have velocity and aftertouch. What I like about this idea is that you can involve yourself physically, which is missing at the moment from performing with keyboards. Also you can be seen from a distance, so you are sharing more with the audience, through technology."
"I'm amazed by how conformist we've been in the '80s. We think we're free because we can receive satellite and cable TV, but we have exactly the same images in New York, Tokyo, Madrid or London. We think because we can travel right round the world in 24 ours, we are liberated - but we have never lived in such conformist ways. Including performance, obviously. I'm sure that in 30 years' time this period will be seen as dominated by a copycat attitude. People claim a whole new concept, yet it's just that a light is red instead of blue... or there are three dancers instead of one. We should be like kids with technology, not afraid of it.
"There have been some silly articles recently claiming that kids are not as creative now as they were in the '60s and 70s - it reminds me of my parents talking about their 'day'. It's amazing how people from the '60s are becoming as 'square' as those they criticized then. It's ridiculous. What's different is that there were no references then. It's true that a new form - rock and roll, if you like - was being created, but now the many references - the access to greater technology and music - means there is probably more creativity. All we need is a more provocative and subversive attitude towards technology and the system."
"That's exactly what I like about the rave scene: it challenges the formats of 'the business', and the performer is not the most important thing any more. I'm trying to do the same with my tour starting at the end of July. But you encounter such resistance. As long as you're playing Hammersmith, with a band and Varilights, that's fine, but if you move away from that you're treated like a martian.
"At a time when everybody is talking about communication, we can scarcely communicate with our neighbours. For m example, sometimes I can't get hold of MT in Paris, which I regret because we must always be looking forward, and yet Paris is closer to London than Glasgow. We're not using technology to our advantage, so it's complicating the process instead of easing it. So in performance, and in the recording studio, we must be technological 'pirates', and use it as kids use toys, with a fresh attitude, and unfettered by Japanese manuals..."
"Chronologie is closer to Oxygene and Equinoxe than anything inbetween, and it completes a kind of cycle, in the way the music is constructed and in the use of old analogue gear. There is '90s technology, too - digital loops done on the DJ70 - mixed with the melodies and harmonies from the JP8 or the Oberheim, for example. I'm happier with this album than with any other for a long time."
Interview by Phil Ward
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