The Synthetic Realism Of Jean-Michel Jarre
Since heralding in a new musical era in 1976 with the release of his innovative synthesizer-based opus, 'Oxygene', Jean-Michel Jarre has gone on to sell almost 34 million records worldwide. Currently embarking on a new album project, as well as planning a series of concerts to welcome in the new decade, Richard Buskin visited Jarre in his home studio to talk about the technology behind his music.
Since heralding in a new musical era in 1976 with the release of his innovative synthesizer-based opus, Oxygene, Jean-Michel Jarre has gone on to sell almost 34 million records worldwide, further advancing his creative interaction between machines, moods, and melodies with albums such as Equinoxe, Magnetic Fields, Zoolook, Rendez-Vous, and Revolutions.
At the same time he has also transformed the whole concept of rock concerts that centre on keyboard playing, by performing his own unique brand of audio-visual spectaculars to people around the globe, ranging from the first western rock shows in China to a concert before a staggering 1.3 million people in Houston, Texas in 1986.
The latter was the ultimate multi-media event, Jarre's flamboyant musical performance being augmented by huge screens and even huger skyscrapers, which were used as backdrops for the lasers and projectors, alongside a dazzling display of lights and fireworks.
Currently embarking on a new album project, as well as planning a series of concerts to welcome in the new decade, Jarre's home studio is an interesting technological amalgam of the old with the new, situated in a picturesque suburb of western Paris.
When you embark on a new album, where do you get the inspiration from to start composing?
Well, each time I'm trying to place myself in a different situation from the previous album. My recording studio is at home, and sometimes this can be an advantage or a handicap, because firstly you have to learn how to cut yourself off from day to day life. You need discipline when you are organising your own schedule.
Before, I was always locking myself away in the studio for three months in order to concentrate on a project. Now what I am trying to do is to have the discipline to spend at least six hours a day in the studio, whatever else happens. So at present I'm spending half of my time in the studio and the other half taking care of the stage work for my concerts.
Most of the time I'm in a hurry because I'm working to deadlines, but for the next project I'm really trying to take my time to explore various kinds of instruments and programs, in order to define the setup that I shall be working with during the coming months.
How do you arrive at those decisions?
Both from the difficulties that I encountered on the previous record, and also through talks that I have with the various people who I'm working with. I have been working for 14 years with Michel Geiss, who is both a musician and an engineer, and he has designed some of my instruments and transformed others. He is the one who is always aware of what is going on in terms of studio and concert technology. So starting from the general concept of where I would like to go for the next project, we decide on what would be best suited to it.
So what are you looking to achieve, in terms of the sound, on your next project?
In order to answer this question, I have to explain a little bit about the progression of my previous work. With Oxygene, and also with an unkown record that I released earlier [The Cage], I was probably one of the first musicians to consider synthesizers as the basis of my work, at a time when most other people considered synthesizers to be little more than gadgets. The rock scene was made up mainly of electric guitars, drums, bass and amplifiers, whereas today synthesizers are probably the most popular instruments around in all areas of the music scene.
So my first LPs, like Oxygene, Equinoxe and Magnetic Fields, were made using analogue synthesizers, and after that I became involved with samplers and with the Fairlight; Peter Gabriel and I were the first two users of the Fairlight. For me, this instrument was the realisation of an old dream that I had when I studied with the Musical Research Group in Paris [during the late 1960s]. The concept there was to capture natural sounds with a microphone and a tape recorder, and then edit all of this and process the sounds...
Exactly. It was actually manual sampling! The concept of sampling, but just using scissors. So when I first encountered real sampling, it really was for me the way of doing something in one hour that would usually have taken three days.
I became more and more involved with sampling, up to the stage where the Zoolook album consisted of almost 100% sampling. Even the work of Laurie Anderson and Marcus Miller was resampled afterwards on that record. At that point I became aware of the limits and dangers of sampling. I was - and still am - interested in trying not to use natural sounds in their raw form, but instead recreating them via technology. A little bit like Fellini recreating the sea in the studio, and saying that this is more realistic than the real sea. That's exactly how I think in terms of synthesizer sounds and my work.
But how do you define that? In what way is a synthetic sound more realistic than a live one?
For the simple reason that if, for instance, you sample the sound of a train and put this in some music, in my opinion it gives you the reverse effect from that which I would like to project. I want to give you the idea of how a train sounds, without giving the actual thing. Samplers deal with realistic sounds that come from your day to day life, whereas if you are using samplers to create the sound of a train or the sound of the sea, or whatever, suddenly you're into the field of analogy rather than illustration. A lot of people started to use sampling and this gave a lot of very realistic sounds, but I'm now interested in taking a more poetic attitude towards sounds.
On the album Rendez-Vous, I wanted to escape much of the realistic world of sampling and concentrate more on capturing the analogue or digital sounds of synthesizers. Then with Revolutions, I wanted to link the record to specific projects: one was the Destination Docklands concert in London, and the other one should have been the concert that was planned - but abandoned due to political reasons - for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Because of the stage concept I wanted to involve a lot of guest artists in this project, and so that is why I worked with a variety of people such as Hank Marvin [guitarist with The Shadows], a Japanese trumpet player, African choirs, opera singers, and numerous other elements from different cultures.
Now what I'm planning to do is continue experimenting with the current technology. Today we are probably into the fourth generation of synthesizers and electronics; this is our culture and our heritage, and so it would be silly to think that analogue synthesizers or the DX7, or whatever, are now old-fashioned and you have to use new things. As you can see in my studio, I have a combination of very old instruments and very new ones.
I want to continue using sampling, but only to create sounds, and to get away, generally speaking, from all manufactured sounds. These are traps, because the music industry - and the Japanese manufacturers in particular - has replaced the organ with new products that are not, in my opinion, so much synthesizers as just preset electronic instruments. They were manufactured in factories, and the result of this is that we are listening to the same sounds almost everywhere in the world. I would like to escape from this, and so for my next project I'm being really careful in my selection of the instruments that I want to work with: instruments like the Elka Synthex synthesizers, the old Memory Moog, the Akai S1000, the Roland D50, an old matrix sequencer that Michel Geiss manufactured, and the Akai MPC60, which I like a lot as a drum machine.
I also want to get back to the situation in the studio where all of the synthesizers are near the mixing desk. I always worked in this way up until 1985, but then at the same time as the trend grew for people to do their recordings in the control room, I suddenly decided to do the reverse, and that was probably a mistake. I was a bit fed up of always being in the same room, and not being able to tell the difference between a recording session and a business meeting. I wanted my studio to look like a 'real' studio, but that was not a good idea, because with my kind of work I am always having to consider all aspects of the recording process at the same time. I look upon peripherals such as reverbs, noise gates, filters, equalisers and all that, as instruments in themselves, and if I'm not able to access all of these when I am recording then I cannot achieve my aim properly. For me, it is very important to consider all of the recording processes as part of the composition process.
So you are still deciding on what instruments to employ for the new album. Do you already have in mind the overall sound that you wish to achieve, enabling you to select the instruments that will accomplish this, or is it a gradual process of building up the sound in the studio and deciding as you go along?
I would say it's a mixture of both. Most of the time I have ideas as to what I want, and sometimes the fact that I am working with one instrument or another will change my original ideas.
It is difficult to say where all of my musical ideas come from. They could come from the discussion that we are having today, from the sound of the rain against the window, from the film that I saw on TV last night or the book that I read last week. All of these various elements are mixed together in my mind, and in a day, a week, or a month, they will give birth to a musical idea.
I often start off wanting a piece of music to go in a particular direction, with particular kinds of sounds, but then I will be using instruments that are able to present me with various different options and I will choose from these. What is interesting for me is to try to get a harmonic structure or a musical theme on a piano, and then arranging this with the synthesizers. At other times it will be the sounds that give me the idea - so it works both ways.
Looking around your studio, it is evident that you prefer to record analogue as opposed to digital. Why?
Lots of reasons. I was involved in using digital recorders at one stage - we had a 32-track digital machine in the studio - and I suddenly felt like a video engineer! For me it was a step backwards as opposed to a progression forwards. I love editing and, as you know, with digital you cannot really edit without a second machine. So financially it becomes absolutely crazy when, instead of using a pair of scissors that cost $1, you need to use a pair of scissors that cost $200,000! Getting a second machine is just ridiculous!
So you have to make a copy in order to do an edit, and then also you can't make use of all of the tricks that are possible with analogue machines - like reversing the tape or using varispeed. These tricks are, for me, part of the composition process.
There is also a more direct technical reason why I don't record digitally. When you are using more and more digital instruments you are slicing the sounds, and these slices then go through a digital reverb that also slices the sounds, except that now the slices are not necessarily in phase. So the power of your original sound is changed. Then you go through an analogue desk which transforms the digital origins into analogue, before going back into a digital machine which will slice the sounds once again but in a different way. All of this produces phase problems, and I am absolutely convinced that the more you work with digital instruments such as keyboards when making electronic music, the more dangerous it is to make digital multitrack recordings.
What is interesting about the analogue recording process is that it uses the whole sound instead of slicing it up. The entire sound is processed instead of only sections of information. I'm really convinced that digital recording is ideal for acoustic instruments that are DI'd [direct injected] - that's fantastic - but when you are working 90% of the time with electronic and digital instruments, it's not as powerful as analogue.
Having said that, I don't just prefer any analogue sounds. I exchanged the Otari for what in my opinion is the best tape recorder so far: the new Studer A820 with Dolby SR. In terms of dynamics and almost everything else, the Dolby SR is better than digital. It has a superior range.
So you see, it is the old question of whether you prefer a girl in make-up or cut in slices. I think I prefer a girl in make-up!
That's certainly one way of putting it! Do you prefer working with machines as opposed to live musicians?
Well, that depends on what you want to achieve. I mean, I wouldn't make any comparisons between machines and live musicians, because when you are working with electronic machines they are instruments played live by musicians. For instance, when you are working with a drum machine you can give whatever interpretation you want, in terms of velocity or style or any other variations. So there is no need these days to make comparisons between electronic machines and live musicians.
But don't you think that the sound of machines is more clinical, whereas the playing of live musicians may contain certain desirable imperfections, such as the drummer moving out of time?
Yes, but then it is exactly the same with a drum machine when you are programming it without quantising the sounds. You can achieve just the same effect. You can programme the sounds of a live drummer into the drum machine, and not being a drummer yourself, you can make even more mistakes which are then used in a positive way. I would say that the question of whether or not the music is robotic does not arise from the instruments, but really from the musicians behind them. There is a choice of styles, and with a synthesizer you can play music that is not at all repetitive. I remember when I first released Oxygene, for example, a lot of people did not think it was electronic!
The main aim is not to be trapped by technology. For example, last week I saw a lot of new software for the Atari, and various people were explaining to me how these would enable me to do this, that, and everything. But the problem here is to define what you want, not what the machine can do. This is the main difficulty for musicians these days. It's very difficult to be disciplined enough to say "Okay, I want to do this. I don't want to lose my soul trying to compete with a computer that can do anything."
For a lot of people, if they have software that can do everything, they have to make use of all of the possibilities. But this is a very wrong approach towards today's technology. You should only make use of the things that are really necessary and save you time. Because the more you are limited, the easier it is. On a flute you can attain relevant results far easier than by using a computer!
What appeals to you about the old instruments that you are employing for the new album, and how do you aim to use them? For instance, you've got the Geiss sequencer; why are you sticking with that? What do you like about it and how do you use it?
With the Geiss instrument, I like the fact that you can transform sequences in real time. It is made up of a matrix board, and on this each pin corresponds to a particular note and a separate octave. You can loop any segment of music, and change the sequence whilst it is playing in real time. You can also do that with some software sequencers, but the main difference with this is that you don't use the mouse. You use your hands, and for me this is the major step that technology has to make in the next few years. I think that we should never forget that music is made not only with our heads, but also with our hands. These days, there is a tendency to forget the importance of this. Music is a matter of contact; the shape of a violin, the shape of a piano, even the shape of a computer - each instrument gives you a certain feedback in terms of its shape and look.
For me, the software on any microcomputer is fine, but the mouse doesn't allow you to work on more than one parameter at a time, in real time. You can do one after the other, but not six at the same time as you can do with a keyboard, for instance. We have 10 fingers, and we can very nearly do 10 different things at once.
One of the big advantages of analogue synthesizers, such as the old ARP 2600, was that you could actually adjust in real time the attack vis-a-vis the decay. I like changing the timbre of sounds in real time, but you can't do that on a DX7. I know that a lot of people will say that with software you can programme everything, but when you are doing an improvisation on a saxophone, are you programming the keys?
This is where the technology has to improve. It isn't a question of fashion or taste, but of reality. You have a fixed time, and you have the physiological characteristics of the human body. So this is why I like to use the Geiss sequencer.
How do you utilise the new Technos Acxel resynthesizer that is presently situated in the recording area of your studio?
The Technos is a very interesting instrument from Canada. The one that I have is still the prototype. It is able to resynthesize natural sounds in real time, and you can then play the sound of a bell, for instance, over the whole keyboard without the pitch-shifting problems of sampling. You can retain the same length and quality, and it also has a very direct human touch to it. The user interface is like a matrix made out of lead, and when you touch the screen with your finger you are able to draw any curves, for the envelope, for filtering, for anything. So you are actually drawing your sound, but in real time with your finger, just like a graphic board.
Which are your favourite keyboards at the moment?
As a master keyboard I very much like the Elka MK88, partly because once again it has a matrix setup; it is very clear and very quick. Also, because I already have a keyboard with a piano touch - the Fairlight Series III - I asked Elka to give me a master keyboard with a synthesizer touch. Everybody says that a piano keyboard is really the best, and that is true if you want the sound of a piano, but not if you want the sound of a choir or strings! You sometimes need much softer keys. So with the MK88, Elka produced a keyboard for me which actually has the same kind of feel as a D50 or DX7.
I also like the old OSCar synthesizer [from the Oxford Synthesizer Company], which has a fat sound a little bit like the Mini Moog had in the old days. What is very interesting about this mono analogue synthesizer is that you can memorise all the parameters, including all types of waveforms, and it has MIDI. It's a very nice instrument.
Another instrument that I like very much is the Akai S1000, because I think it's probably the most direct sampler at present. You just plug your microphone into the front panel and you can instantly start recording your sounds.
I also like the Fairlight Series II, as well as the Series III, because having worked with it for so long I have a large library of sounds. I like the Series III for other things, such as to organise the work, and I think this will come to be regarded as a classic during the next few years. It's a really up-market synthesizer.
The Microwave [from Waldorf], which is a rack version of the old PPG, has quite a good MIDI implementation and it's fairly interesting for an instrument that has analogue filters with digital sounds. The big problem with digital synthesizers at the moment is that it is still so 'heavy' if you want to change the sound. I mean, it you want to change the filter you have to change so many parameters. The Microwave is one of the first instruments that has understood this problem, and it is on the way to offering all of the advantages of a digital instrument together with immediate processing of filters and envelopes.
You own two Fairlights, but what about the Synclavier?
I've never been very familiar with the Synclavier. You see, at one stage you had to choose between the Fairlight and the Synclavier, and in the beginning the Synclavier seemed to me to be very good but very expensive for what it was. It then became more and more of a kind of workstation concept, and even a recording studio in itself, but it didn't appeal to me because I was working with a different kind of system. It depends on what you want it for. It would be ridiculous to use a Synclavier just for sampling, when you have machines around such as the S1000.
So what do you hope to achieve with the new album? Do you aim to set new trends?
Yes, I would like to once again do something purely electronic, without any acoustic instruments or even electric guitars. I would like to use the electronic stuff almost as a basis for the album, employing drum machines and synthesizers - analogue or digital - as the majority of, or perhaps all of, the equipment.
Whenever you finish an album are you usually satisfied with it yourself?
Never, for various reasons. It's always difficult to be trapped in a situation where you're not necessarily writing songs to be played on the radio, but at the same time you are following the record industry system that asks you to deliver a commercial product when required, because this enables you to do other things. So you are always in the middle of the system - which is how I like it - in between two worlds. And in my opinion this is the only place to be for a musician these days.
The record company is behind you as long as the record is selling, and as soon as the record is not selling as much they are thinking about the next product. It's the same old story, and it's getting worse and worse. It's more difficult for young artists these days than it was even five years ago.
So for all of these reasons you can't be satisfied with any project, because you have to overcome all of these different obstacles: the record being released at the right moment and promoted in the way you would like, and so on.
You can always improve, and as long as I think that I can improve on something I will continue to do what I want to do. At present, I don't think I've done even 25% of what I would like to do, both in terms of records and also in terms of concerts.
What is your favourite piece of your own work? Do you listen to any of your own records?
No, not in a conscious way. I mean, sometimes I will hear one of my records because somebody is playing it. I don't have a favourite record, just certain parts on each one. For instance, I think Oxygene was interesting, not necessarily for the piece that is always played on the radio, but for its whole concept. Whenever you do something new it has a spontaneous quality, and that album was different in that it had this vertical musical structure, which was more melodic and not as repetitive as the German instrumental music of that time.
On The Concerts In China album I like the piece 'Souvenir Of China', with the use of the Nikon camera sound as part of the rhythm section, and I would say that Zoolook in itself is, in fact, an entire project that I still like to this day. It was really something totally different. The way of processing all of the vocals - not in the Brian Eno or Peter Gabriel style - from different contexts, such as Hungary or Africa or South America, and mixing them for their phonetic qualities, was actually something that has been imitated a lot since.
The album Rendez-Vous was linked to the Houston project, and one or two songs on it were really conceived for stage work, and in that sense I think it worked. Then on the Revolutions album, I particularly like a song called 'Industrial Revolution', which is a long 10-minute piece with lots of variations of mood and tempo, yet using only synthesizers.
On the subject of composing and recording music with concerts in mind, something that you really have achieved through your concerts is to make the playing of keyboards exciting for people to watch. With the music that you are now working on, how do you see your live shows developing? Do you have any ideas for changing the format?
Yes. The concerts are not like the usual rock shows, but more like movie projects. Because of the way that they are thought out in terms of concept and production, they are much the same as working on a movie script. I'm probably doing a rock tour, but it will take my whole life to achieve my tour. In other words, each time it is a specific project - I worked on the Docklands project, for instance, for two years. The next concert that I am planning to do will be in Paris in 1990, before probably taking this show to various countries throughout the world. This will mean about seven or eight countries, including possibly the UK again, as well as Germany and Scandinavia.
I'm more and more interested in involving architecture and the environment in the concept of my shows, especially these days when everyone is talking so much about the environment. Some of the large stadiums give me a feeling of claustrophobia, but when you are outdoors you can involve the environment as an element of the show, and I'm convinced that with the technology we have, we can do more than just featuring a stage with the audience in front of it. I am sure that a lot of other elements can be introduced to give a different kind of impact.
Interview by Richard Buskin