The Concerts In China
An exclusive interview with this most popular French electronic music composer that traces his background history from his early influences to his latest epic performances in China.
I started studying music in the early 60's at the Paris Conservatoire. At that time I was studying harmony, fuge and counterpoint and at the same time I played in some local rock bands. It was not so usual, of course, for every style of music was in its 'own' world, or 'ghetto'. I felt that the world of classical music, the world of rock and other forms of music were a bit narrow and living in their own planet. I had the feeling it was the right time to explore other fields to perhaps see if a combination of different styles were possible.
Then I went to the Music Research Centre in Paris created by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. I studied there for three years and became involved in various areas of research, during which I confronted one of the first synthesisers. Obviously, it was not called that — it was just a 'wooden' synthesiser with a bank of oscillators that could be synchronised and so on. There were also tape recorders for building up a montage.
For me, Pierre Schaeffer was one of the most brilliant guys of the century in terms of what he brought to the music world. He created the notion of 'Musique Concrete' and influenced me a lot in this direction.
It's very interesting because it was the first time that it had occurred to me that I was not thinking in terms of notes but in terms of sound. That was quite a shock for me and a very important start for what I wanted to do — a new concept absolutely for most musicians then.
At the same time I studied there because you could research a lot of different things — all the non-European music, including African, Indian, Chinese and other oriental/folk traditions. I discovered, like others, the fact that we used to be very presumptuous in Europe, thinking that the music we have done over the last four centuries forms the only significant contribution, and you learnt to be very humble when you were studying music of these cultures.
The structure and the form of the latter music is so different — it gives a breath of air too, from the very tight structure and harmonic restrictions which European Western music imposes.
Then I decided to quit the Music Research centre because it was eventually not necessary for me to go on. A very intellectual attitude at the Centre of making much more of the philosophies, sociology and the mathematics of the music existed — but it was not really practical music any more.
Step by step, I began to build up a small studio and worked freelance, including some performing. Ironically, one of my first confrontations with the public was made in the Paris Opera House when I was twenty. It was the first time that an electronic music concert was given in this kind of traditional French environment. It's obviously a wonderful souvenir because most of the time it's at the peak of your career that you do this sort of performance.
Then I realised that the mainstream of electronic music development came from the influence of Stockhausen's music — very classical, contemporary music that was played at festivals. I felt that contemporary music had got a very elitist attitude — a bit too intellectual vis-à-vis the music and it created barriers between the audience and yourself. I wanted to be much more open to the audience.
I worked in many different fields of music before producing 'Oxygene'. It was for me just a time to make a lot of different experiences — making sound tracks for film and TV, incidental music for plays and ballet in the theatre, jingles for commercials (because that's something totally different in terms of approach), making songs and producing for some French rock singers. Having all these different experiences eventually helped me to find my own musical identity.
Do you think that to fully exploit electronic music a broad background of musical experience is required, not just knowledge of contemporary composing techniques?
I think you have to digest all the other music and think of electronic music as a different mode of expression almost. The problem is this extraordinary confusion, that people regard electronic music as something robotised and very cold — actually, that's not so. You see, it is not the instruments alone that make the music and that's the main confusion to avoid, because even with the most sophisticated equipment, the human intervention is necessary and the music is still the human organisation of sounds. If you take away the hands of the composer/performer, the instruments become just machines.
It's a very cultural attitude to think that the synthesiser, for instance, is something robotised and something like a TV, washing machine or typewriter. It's exactly the same thing as putting a piano in the middle of the Amazonian forest. I'm convinced that the people there wouldn't recognise the piano as a musical instrument, because their own references in terms of music are just very simple tom-toms and string instruments and the piano is not a shape and a style of instrument they have culturally digested.
So when did you first start your studio?
Because I've been interested in experimenting with music since the age of 14, I used to work on tapes and make montages by editing and so on in my 'home studio'. So I began with the tape recorders as the first step. It was very important because it gave me very early on the initiative to explore the use of electronics. But the real studio came during '67/'68.
I see you still use the Synthi AKS, which was one of the first compact VC systems at that time.
I really used one of the first VCS3's — my oldest VCS3 was made in '66 I think. I was recording in stereo using a Revox — four of them in fact, with no sync but nevertheless getting good results by using the same size reels on each machine. The same tension held them together well — it is quite amusing to think that I made all the music for my Opera House concert on this arrangement without proper synchronisation and used lots of home made black 'wooden' boxes (holding oscillators etc)!
I did other performances whilst at the music centre and I also did a lot of painting which enabled me to earn a living from sales of pictures. I really lived like an artist. My father, Maurice Jarre, used to be quite a famous composer in the U.S. making sound tracks like 'Dr Zhivago' and 'Lawrence of Arabia'. But my parents were divorced when I was 5 and I never grew up in his influence, so you can see why I had to support myself financially.
Was 'Oxygene' your first important LP?
Yes, but I did make one record distributed in France called 'The Cage' that was released about six years before 'Oxygene' (in 1970).
There was also a record with a French rock group called 'Triangle', and I contributed or produced a lot of different records for quite successful rock singers. So 'Oxygene' was the first international record and was all done in my studio. It was produced on 8 tracks using a Scully recorder and a home made mixing console. The instruments used were mainly the AKS and VCS3s. There was also one ARP 2600 and an Eminent String Ensemble, plus the RMI Harmonic and a Farfisa organ.
'Oxygene' was released at the end of '76 and was seen to be one of the first electronic records that received worldwide success, reaching No. 1 in the U.K. as an LP and single, and other countries as well.
How did you get a record company to accept something so different from the mainstream of popular music?
You see, the irony of that is everybody refused the record at the beginning (as usual!) and a small independent record company called Dreyfus (in Paris), took up the promotion of 'Oxygene', and has since been responsible for my records and music publishing also. They made a wonderful job trying to find new ways of reaching the media, not only radio and TV but through the hi-fi shops. Then Polydor became very interested and decided to take the record for the rest of the world.
Did you ever play it live?
No — at that time I couldn't, but now it's totally different and in the new 'China' album I played everything live.
The next step was 'Equinoxe'. This took a long time because I really wanted to use a different approach, with a 16 track recorder and other instruments, and it came out in 1978.
So the finance from the successful 'Oxygene' album enabled you to be self-supporting as a professional composer/performer?
Absolutely, and it was a logical progression for me, from my first little studio to the studio I have now. It would have been impossible for me to achieve this in one step — it has been built up over a long period.
I hear the same style of music on the 'Equinoxe' LP but with a tremendous improvement in sound quality. The drums' stereo field and sequencing is also interesting. Do you run two sequences together or employ split pan techniques?
Yes, split sounds mainly. It all depends. I have a special sequencer made for me by Michel Geiss which can allocate notes to right/centre/left in slapback fashion. I also use a strong single echo of the left hand channel note in the right channel. This method adds to the harmony by playing notes from the previous chord into the next chord, through the time delay. Incidentally, I think of the rhythm box not as a drum, but as a specific instrument itself.
The harmony appears to be more important than the melody, with small blocks of modulation that move the music up tonal steps.
It was a sort of reaction. I am very pleased to talk about that, because I really tried to use very simple chords. You see, we went into a very abstract world in terms of chords also — with all serious music — and after a while when you are changing parameters, you are losing the feeling. So I have been very interested in this fact that the harmony is more important than the melody, but I think the tone colours are even more important than the harmony. I mean, they can change the harmony.
For example, if you are starting on a simple triad chord you can work on the sound much more than if you have very complicated chords, because you are trapped by the harmony of the chords themselves. You cannot create other harmonies with timbres of colours because it's too mixed down. It's a totally different approach as we are working with very pure frequencies with quite poor sounds actually (not any more with digital instruments!) just basic waveforms so that you have to create harmonies using tricks like phasing, echo, reverb and other treatments.
How do you approach your composing?
Sometimes I have the idea of some chords, a melody, or just a sound. I think all the time of these sounds away from the instruments. For me, everything is useful — the sound of rain on the window pane, the talk we are having now, and natural or machine sounds and so on.
The problem is the time it takes — instead of writing just the notes you have to actually 'build' the sound. For me, the most important fact is that electronic music, for the first time in the history of music, lets a musician be like a sculptor. You are able to work with your hands on the musical material. Music has always been considered the most abstract art and with electronic music people are thinking that it is becoming increasingly so, but it's exactly the reverse! It's becoming much more pragmatic and tactile in a way. You have contact of the sounds with your hands just like the painter with his brush. It's much less abstract than ever playing the piano because the sound quality is part of the piano's construction.
Do you go out and collect the Musique Concrete extracts?
Oh no, most of the time I am using not just my experience of Musique Concrete, but making electronic sound samples on the Fairlight CMI. The train sound in 'Magnetic Fields' was made by sampling some printing press machinery which I looped continuously using the Fairlight controls.
In my opinion, the Fairlight is exactly like the VCS3 and the AKS, but in digital form. It has the same mistakes and attractive aspects. For me, the EMS VCS3 is one of the best synths ever made because of its matrix board. It allows you to make totally crazy combinations — and the Moog can't do that. But it has the mistakes, like the oscillators drifting. The Fairlight has different problems — being one of the first digital instruments, e.g. the digital sampling noise. Nevertheless, you can utilise this as part of the musical sound.
What kind of success did 'Equinoxe' have compared with 'Oxygene'?
In some countries, it has been even more successful. In terms of pure sales too.
I now have equipment by MCI with a 24 track and two 2 track recorders and an automated console JH636 having 36 inputs. It also has light meters which are very important for electronic sounds (percussion especially) because it gives you the instant real level of the dynamics. I do prefer these meters to analogue meters.
For monitoring the instruments, I use the American UREI speakers, not at too loud a level. Each year I try to monitor at lower level, because I think it's time to get away from the levels that were first attained in the 60's and to come back to the much more natural attitude to 'listen' to the music. It's interesting that engineers who went through the loud levels of performance are now not hearing very well. It's a terrible mistake not to respect your ears — like playing a piano with a hammer or a violin with a knife! And some people in studios have suffered hearing defects. The pure frequencies of electronic sounds can easily impair your hearing at high playback volumes. Every year I have an audiogram done to check my hearing.
I have quite a lot of different instruments now — for 'Magnetic Fields' the Fairlight was very important, along with the Geiss Matri Sequencer and also (since the last concerts in China) I have been using the Paris based company MDB's Polysequencer. It's a microcomputer that enables me to make any polysequences I want up to 8 tracks. I think it's much more developed than the Roland MC8 — you can interface and synchronise with any rhythm box and you can actually play in real time and go step by step. Like the Micro-Composer, you can write your own score, but you can improvise with it as well. I have just heard that MDB are making a 16 second delay unit with forward and backward playback like a tape recorder that sounds very interesting.
I use it with eight RSF French synthesisers which are rack mounted and sound rather like Oberheims. They are very good and very cheap. I did try the Publison (pitch-changing) instrument but I have been slightly deceived, I must say, although it's been commercially successful. I prefer the English AMS equivalent.
How do you manage with trigger interfacing?
It's a rather difficult situation as you know, but I have an engineer, Pierre Mourey, who is really in charge of the studio and modifies or links equipment as required to save me all this trouble — I am not really that experienced in electronics to do it all. What we intend to do is use the MCI mixing board as the main patch of the studio. The latter is laid out like a huge control room with the instruments all around. I think I have not yet found the ideal set-up, as the instruments are often changing roles and the Fairlight immediately changed the 'geography' of the studio, so you have to be quite flexible.
Sometimes I use classical notation although often the tape recorder becomes the 'score'. Most of the time I write the music when I am arranging something using chords and patterns. I don't bother to write the Fairlight's settings down as it takes too long and you can easily lose your ideas during the writing.
The next digital product we should be seeing is something that allows a much more direct way of composing. Even if you want to compose step by step it has to be much more direct.
I've mentioned special techniques like split echo with a sequencer and the Fairlight for manipulating samples in the Musique Concrete way, but the ARP 2600 is also used a lot for storm and other noise generated sounds. I have a special filter as well called the 'Little Leaper' by UREI that creates a very, very sharp notch (48dB slope). I use it to extract fine elements of sound and get the metallic effects in this way with white noise.
I like to use ring modulators frequently too — they're part of the game!
Tell me about the Geiss Sequencer.
It's a very special sequencer and as far as I know it's totally different from available sequencers. It has a matrix board which allows up to 100 notes to be programmed. Transposition is easily done and the patch pins set triggers and basic pitches for each event. By inserting pins you can stop the sequence wherever you want — I find that, interesting because I can think in terms of the sequence rather than just notes. In other sequencers which program from the keyboard, you have only your hands that make some cliché of chords. But with a matrix system you can change say just one note, one rhythm anywhere in its length as it's running. There are just two sequence layers that are nearly always placed left and right in the stereo field.
At this point, we digressed to the E&MM Hexadrum and then the Synclock, about which Jean-Michel commented:
That's really great, that! I am always looking for new instruments on stage and I've been using a very interesting instrument in China, the Laser Harp. It was really the first time that this instrument has been played like that. It was designed by a Frenchman, Bernard Szajner, and built by a company called Laser Graphics. The instrument uses laser beams instead of strings, which fan out from its base vertically upwards in one plane. I use my hands stretched out to interrupt the individual beams. They trigger the particular notes I require, so you have a direct interaction with the rainbow of laser beams to make your music. I can program the notes to be semitones, whole tones, pentatonic intervals or whatever I want. For the China concerts, I used the pentatonic scale (e.g. all the black notes on the normal keyboard) and two rays were allocated for transposition.
It's wonderful because it gives you a sort of very original attitude of a musician making something with his hands. It's good for the audience who can actually see me standing in front of the beams and physically interacting. Whether it will ever become a commercial proposition is undecided, because it requires an expensive laser system. This may be repeated on stage but certainly would be too costly and impractical elsewhere. The lasers employed are in fact not dangerous as they are low powered types.
'Equinoxe' was produced in 78 and that meant I was releasing a record almost every 2 years. I think it needs this time and I'm not interested in following the crazy rhythms of all show business developments.
I have been lucky because I haven't had to keep releasing new material — I've had to fight against this pressure though, for the record companies would like me to do that. I'm not given any lump sum, with a contract, to go away and make another LP, because I am producing my own LP's in my studio. This makes me free to do what I want and the record companies should at present be interested in anything new I produce.
In 1981, I made my third album, 'Magnetic Fields', which was conceived as a sort of journey through different sonic landscapes. (Two weeks after its release it was among the top 10 records of all the European charts and in the USA it appeared in three categories: pop, jazz and classical!) And now I have just completed 'The Concerts in China' double album. Half of it is new music so it's like a new LP actually. I've mixed a lot of sounds from China into the soundscore.
It all started with my strong interest in oriental music and my desire to get away from the very tight, static attitude of classical music in performance which is not adapted for electronic music. We must find other ways. It's not like the group 'moving on stage' approach either.
Certainly, the best rock bands I have worked with over the last twenty years have always presented themselves on stage with the audience in front. But now, with lasers and other audio-visual effects, you can imagine and think of a much better presentation in terms of what's going on in your performance.
I'd like to mention that after 'Equinoxe' I worked towards this end in a big concert at the Place de la Concorde given to an audience of a million people. It was really wonderful — the biggest concert ever made outdoors I think. I used a lot of projectors screened on to buildings and monuments over a 300 metre wide area and 30 metres high. I played 'Oxygene' and 'Equinoxe' and the visuals were completed with a lot of lasers, lights and fireworks also. I played my music by myself and because of the great difficulties in setting up the right sounds alone, I had to use backing tapes as well. But although the result was okay, I felt the next step would have to be playing entirely live.
So for China I decided to work with three other musicians: Frederic Rousseau, Dominique Perrier and Roger Rizzitelli, and to present all the music entirely live, with only sound effects on tape.
The electronic keyboard instruments were shared by myself, Frederic and Dominique, whilst Roger used no acoustic percussion at all — just Simmons drums with drum machines and triggered effects (e.g. hand claps).
Frederic is really responsible for all the sequences using the MDB polysequencer in conjunction with the RSF modules and then the Yamaha CS60 is used for chords and melodies. Dominique concentrates on the string sounds using the Eminent, Prophet, and the Korg PS-3300. Roger has some specially designed electronic drums from Simmons (with the first cymbal design that's an interesting sound).
Myself, I'm using the Fairlight CMI which has two keyboards that I use for programmed effects and special sound textures (like machines, voices and saxophone). Behind me is a bank of six EMS synths, with three AKS instruments above three VCS3s. I also use the Oberheim OBXa, an Eminent that has specially modified sounds, and the Moog Taurus Pedal Synth.
We had to do a lot of rehearsing together. It was a total challenge because it's actually the first time that so many different instruments have been on stage in this sophisticated set-up. Even more crazy was the challenge to play them in China, with all the problems of administration and actually entering the People's Republic.
After the success of the Place de la Concorde concert, I was asked to many countries, but I have always dreamt about China, which for a lot of artists was the last unexplored place — to play in front of a virgin public is the dream of any artist! It was a big responsibility also — it was almost like 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'! The film that was shown on U.K. television on May 3rd shows that very interesting aspect.
China for me was a fantastic country and when I went there for the first time I was totally seducted by the people — they are really very sensitive and musically aware. I brought the first synthesisers to China on my first visit (from '79). I had an EMS AKS in its suitcase and the Electro-Harmonics Mini-Synth, along with some effects boxes. The people I met were so impressed by them that I did some lectures at the Peking School of Music. These personal contacts over the two years certainly helped me to do the concerts.
Each of the concerts lasted two hours and I performed two concerts in Peking and three in Shanghai. We used a lot of laser writing in the large stadiums, projected on to transparent screens suspended around the stage area. These effects were synchronised to the music and the Chinese people were totally amazed by it all, obviously. That's a wonderful souvenir really, for groups like the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd tried to get in to China without success. I think that the reason they have chosen me rather than other groups is maybe because the music I am doing is all electronic and that represents the music of tomorrow, which is not linked in their way of thinking to a sort of 'decadent' musical tradition. They are certainly very interested in all that is new and using modern technology.
Electronic music has to get out from it's own ghetto also. Even the term 'electronic music' can be very dangerous, because for a lot of people it has a very narrow, unacceptable kind of meaning. You see, the fact that we are using electronic instruments must not be a sort of justification about the originality or value of what we are doing. We are just using these instruments because they can produce new sounds and some different feelings we want to express. It's not so important that we're using tom-toms, sitar, synthesiser or sequencer — it's the end result that counts!
We took an enormous amount of equipment to Peking from Paris on October 15th, 1981 — around 300 boxes with 15 tons of equipment, including 30 synthesisers, 35 amplifiers, 120 loudspeakers, 8 lighting towers and 3 laser tubes. With me were 60 musicians, a TV film crew and a host of technicians and journalists. The tour wasn't without its problems of course — the first Peking concert very nearly didn't take place as a missing cable carrying the main power supply wasn't located until just 2 hours before I was due on stage. But the Chinese Government were very helpful in their administration and support of the concert.
We recorded everything at the concerts for the new album and after my return to France I completed the final mixing. The music does not explore microtonal scales but is based on pentatonic and traditional major/minor scales. Nevertheless, I had to write the orchestral music in their style of notation so this alone represented a lot of work.
On the album the new material is 'Night in Shanghai', 'Laser Harp', 'Arpegiator', 'Orient Express', 'Souvenir of China' and 'Fishing Junks at Sunset'. The latter was played with a 34 piece Chinese orchestra — a confrontation of the oldest instruments with the newest!
Would you say the music is still in your style of strong harmonies and split channel sequencing, appealing to a very wide listening audience?
Absolutely yes, you see at the beginning of electronic music, so many people were just technicians who made the instruments. Although they were excellent engineers they weren't necessarily good musicians, so they made results that were 'technical' rather than being musically acceptable to many people. For a musician using electronics, if he doesn't know how to build a Fairlight, it's not important — but he must know how to use it and understand its processes.
Looking ahead, I shall be playing in Spain and maybe in Egypt. I certainly don't like to follow the same pattern of activities all the time. I also have plans for doing an outdoor concert in the U.K. at the end of August. [Jean-Michel's wife commented later that it would more likely be next year].
Performing is much more important for me now and I realise, of course, that there are a lot of problems in playing electronic music live. Groups using synthesisers in a rock way do not have the same problems and I am looking for a new kind of presentation.
I do prefer the 360 degree audience set-up and not just one central point of visual interest, although you can get problems with the bass response if you extend speakers right around you. I would also like to use video screens to show close-ups of performers' hands playing the instruments and manipulating controls.
With the thoughts of the visit to China very much in your mind, this was perhaps the most important cultural event from the West since the Moscow Circus of 1950, with over 150,000 people attending the concerts and millions seeing and hearing you on television and on the radio.
It was a dream of mine for ten years and I hope that our concerts have opened the door for other western artists to go and perform their music in China.
Interview by Mike Beecher
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue: