If you think tabloid-fodder superstar electronic musicians are a recent phenomenon, you don’t know Jean-Michel Jarre. The French composer and performer trained at the legendary GRM, the crucible for a huge swathe of electroacoustic pioneers – including Pierre Boulez, Luc Ferrari, Bernard Parmegiani and Jarre’s mentor Pierre Schaeffer – and worked in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Cologne studio for a time. Jarre was an early adaptor of the Moog modular synthesizer, and in 1976 he utilized it to its fullest extent on Oxygène, an international smash that eventually moved over 15 million copies. It’s still one of electronic music’s all-time bestsellers, not to mention a crucial building block for everything from techno to ambient to new age.
But even beyond his popular catalog, Jarre is best known for his extravagant live events. Beginning in 1979, when he played on Paris’s Champs Élysées on Bastille Day and drew some one million people – a record-breaking crowd whose size he would equal or better several more times – Jarre’s lights-and-FX-heavy staging, often utilizing large buildings as screens for lasers and projections (notably in Houston in 1986, where his crew covered several towers in tarp), were like Technicolor versions of Metropolis, not to mention prototypes for rave culture’s audiovisual feasts.
“These concerts – I could write a book based on the story of each,” Jarre told us over Skype from his home in Lyon. “Not only the music, but what was acting around that. Even the amount of different people from a social point of view, cultural point of view, artistic point of view. It’s quite amazing.” Think of these recollections, then, as preliminary notes.
AOR, Paris Opera House (October 21, 1971)
Was AOR the first ballet you’d written?
That’s right. It was just after my studies with Pierre Schaffer, the Diogenes Rivas Music Center in Paris, studying electroacoustic music. I’d been asked to do music for ballet at the French opera house. It was the first time electronic music was allowed to be played in that temple of tradition. [laughs] I used to play in some local rock bands, so I’d performed before, but that was the [first] big performance I did of an electronic piece.
The symphony orchestra was thinking that, one day, electronic music and PA systems would replace them. It was quite fun – looking back. There were people there who unplugged the PA systems and tried to create trouble as a protest act. In the end, I wrote a classical part for it to make them happy, and the rest of it was an electronic piece with the intervention of the orchestra. So it went all right.
The head of the Paris Opera House said, “I’m OK for this project, but I would like to hear something first.” We went with a kind of built-in, in-house sound system in his office to play the first part. We had to install quite a [lot] of gear and synth. So that was obviously, compared to a MacBook, quite monumental.
The Place De La Concorde (July 14, 1979)
When you played the Place De La Concorde in Paris on Bastille Day in 1979, what were you expecting in terms of the audience size?
Funny enough, that was a pretty underground project – to get, for the first time, an outdoor event mixing electronic music and giant projections on buildings, things that had never been done before. It was just after the release of my second album, Equinoxe, and the music was quite popular. I remember the stage manager and I went onstage at sunset and saw some dark areas on the Champs Élysées and thought it was a funny effect. We didn’t realize that it was full of people, backed up to the avenue. We didn’t realize that one million people came along. That was unexpected. It took me one year to recover. These days you [can] have something on the Internet that reaches lots of people at the same time – an instant phenomenon. It was really like that.
We had permission from the police and city hall – because it was in the center of the city – to block part of the square to install all the equipment, I think three days before the concert. We rehearsed two nights before, and lots of people were out. It was maybe due to this that lots of people came along for the concert.
In order to perform the music live, you had to move around constantly, particularly during “Oxygene 4.” How much did you have to practice before that show?
You have to understand, in those days it was before MIDI. You had to play more or less everything live. So I had to play lots of tricks on some sequences I was triggering live, and having some strange synch system than I’d engineer in those days, pre-MIDI. I could trigger a few things at the same time.
Who were you talking to on that gigantic headset? Are you cueing the lights?
That’s right. Again, at that time, we had no synch between the lights and the projections. Everything was manual. We had a click track, and apart from that, I was making some cues live. It worked very well, actually.
Do you still have that silver jacket?
[laughs] Yes, probably somewhere. It was a visual trick, to be seen. You didn’t have big screens around the stage yet. You have to understand: We had this predictive vision of the future. We were thinking, after the year 2000, cars would fly. We were inventing, or trying to invent, the future, rather than revisiting the future, which we are doing lots [of] at the moment. It’s strange to see that after the year 2000, even sci-fi movies are based on novels and heroes from the ’30s and ’40s.
Beijing and Shanghai, China (October 1981)
When did you first hear from China? Who contacted you?
What happened was really strange. After Mao’s time, when no Western music was allowed for 25 years, someone from the British Embassy in Beijing gave some of my albums to the Chinese radio. The man in charge of China at that time, Deng Xiaoping, wanted to send a signal to the world that China was opening. They played my music on Chinese radio for the first time. It was actually the first Western music they were hearing. Teenagers had no idea what was going on in the West in terms of music and cinema, so obviously it came as a big shock.
I was invited to do a masterclass to introduce synthesizers and electronic music into China, and they decided to invite me for concerts in Beijing and Shanghai. To be honest with you, I never knew who took the decision. I’m sure people were thinking that maybe two years later they could be put in jail [for inviting me]. The whole thing was like playing on the moon.
Where there any points when you thought the shows might not happen?
Yes, all the time – from A to Z! [laughs] Playing China, even these days, is still quite difficult. I played again seven years ago in the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. It was very difficult there. But in those days, you never knew. They had to switch off part of the city to give us the power [we needed]. Which we didn’t know – we only found that on later on. They had to shut off one entire district of Beijing.
We [got] some power generators from a Western film crew. The Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci was filming a movie called The Last Emperor in the Forbidden City. We were constantly exchanging equipment. We had, for instance, a dolly for filming for the BBC, and they didn’t have that, so we exchanged it for one power generator. [laughs]
Rendez-vous Houston (April 5, 1986)
How were you approached to play for NASA in Houston?
The music director for the city of Houston [had] tried to convince me for almost three years to do a concert. And frankly, my view as a European was, this would be cool to do in New York or Los Angeles – why Texas? He really insisted, and I went there and fell in love with the city. When I saw the skyline, I said, “It’s amazing. Why not use the skyline as a backdrop and project visuals and images on the buildings?” That was quite crazy; it had never been done before, obviously. The city of Houston liked this idea very much.
Then NASA decided for the first time in history to participate in a cultural event; it was the 25th anniversary of NASA in Texas. We had this very surreal meeting with the astronauts. It was like a movie. [laughs] I remember John Glenn was shaving his face with an old Remington machine and signing old postcards when I came in.
I’d been introduced to Ron McNair, who was quite a good sax player. I wrote a piece of electronic music with a saxophone. We were communicating when he was training at NASA. He was quarantined in those days, for the training. I had to call him every two days at a very precise time. He said, “I can’t call, but if you call me at 2:00 precisely, I’m in a corridor where there is a public phone.” [laughs] So we started this working relationship by rehearsing the piece [over the phone], me being in Paris and him being in Houston. The idea was for him to play live onstage – to get a link where he would play saxophone live [from a space shuttle] with me and the band onstage.
That was the Challenger. The shuttle exploded, as you know. Everybody was crying. I wanted to cancel the whole thing. Lots of astronauts gave me a call: “You have to go on as a tribute to the astronauts.” It became an international event. Obviously, the concept was also a tribute. But apart from that, the concept, by staging the skyline, was a kind of gigantic rave party.
Rendez-vous Lyon (October 5, 1986)
That brings us to Rendez-vous Lyon.
This is my hometown, and I was asked by the city to do this concert for the Pope. I met him just before the concert. I must say I [was] very impressed. Whatever your religion, or not, this man, John Paul II, was actually amazing. When I saw him come into the room, it’s like the temperature was getting higher. I was fascinated by the size of his shoes. It’s like if he’d left the box around the shoes. [laughs] It was like he was having his head in the sky and being so grounded – which he was, actually, a very grounded and visionary man.
Paris la Defense (July 14, 1990)
For Paris la Defense in July 1990, how did you hook up with Peter Minshall and his giant marionettes?
I went to record a month before with a steel band in Tobago, and I met Peter Minshall over there. I had the idea [that] it would be interesting to have oversized characters onstage. And this guy was a genius. He used to be one of the youngest decorators for the Scottish ballet. Then he moved to Tobago and created this fantastic carnival, like the Brazilian carnival, where the whole island is participating. He was designing a mad street opera. I saw that and said, “We should really work together.”
This was another of your concerts whose audience size made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Did that become a goal of yours at some point?
It still and will remain a question mark for me. I’ve never been obsessed by breaking records. We know these days with festivals: People need to be together to share a unique event for one night. I love the idea of hijacking a place for one night. It’s a very Romanesque approach. And it’s very risky. You have no second chance; the audience has no second chance. They can’t see you the following week.
Swatch the World (September 25-26, 1992)
What kind of watch did you own when Swatch asked you to play for them?
In those days, I was wearing always a watch with an alarm, because I didn’t trust hotels to awake [me] at the right time. [Nicolas Hayek], the head of Swatch, was a crazy guy, and a very nice man; he also invented the Smart Car. He asked, “Why don’t you have a Swatch?” I said, “I’m only wearing alarm watches.” He said, “Why don’t you create one for Swatch?” I said yes. After this event, I did a stadium tour and Swatch was the partner for that. Actually, I created the first alarm music Swatch. It was quite challenging, because in those days there were two notes [available].
By the ’90s you were starting to put on shows more and more frequently, and began to tour regularly as well. What was the impetus to tour? Was it just a lot easier to mount a show at that point?
Yes. I was able to synch the visual with the music much more. Before, I created these giant projections using searchlights from the German army from the Second World War. They were powerful searchlights. It was very dangerous; you could burn yourself very easily. We were using giant slides made of fireproof glass to project images of 50 by 50 meters. We were also using 70mm film projectors with film, before video. Suddenly, you could create automation for this – that was a step ahead. LED screens are very popular these days, but they are quite recent in history.
The Paris rave scene was kicking up around then. Were you paying attention to that?
Absolutely, yes: When I saw the first rave, I was quite convinced that it could become the most popular genre. I think visuals are so important in electronic music due to the fact that electronic instruments are so specific. Acoustic instruments – a violin or a trumpet, or even an electric guitar – have been designed for performance. Then we put microphones on them to record them in studios. With electronic instruments and synthesizers, it’s exactly the reverse: These instruments have been created in studios, and then we try to put them onstage. As we know, it’s not the most sexy thing in life to stand behind your computer, your synth, for two hours.
Nuit Électronique (July 14, 1998)
How did you connect with Apollo 440 and T.K., who performed with you at Nuit Électronique?
Three years before, I did the first concert in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was a very high-tech already for that moment. I wanted to do something different, because I’d been asked to do a concert for the end of the World Cup when France won. It had been decided at quite a late stage. So I decided to gather together lots of people to do an electronic night to celebrate the victory of the French team. It was a big DJ party, a big dance floor party outside.
Your own performance was heavy on dance remixes of your work. Did you get a hard time with the press and fans for it?
Yeah. You know, fans are always more dogmatic than you are. When they like you, they want you to stay exactly where you were when they discovered your music for the first time. Sometimes you are in synch with what your fans are expecting; sometimes no. But you have to move on. Obviously, some of the remixes were really quite far from the originals, but they were other things, which as we know is what’s exciting about a remix – you get to revisit your old stuff with a different perspective.
The 12 Dreams of the Sun (December 31, 1999)
Before you were scheduled to play at the Egyptian pyramids on Millennium Eve, did you already have New Year’s plans set?
Not at all: My plan had been to go on holiday with my family and friends, celebrating 2000 in a total different way.
That was a big challenge – maybe the biggest in my life. If you succeed to do something in Egypt, you can do something on the moon. In those days the level of technology was very low and the level of corruption was very high. I met the president at that time in Egypt and he said, “It’s so great, what you are doing, but you know what’s even greater? You are able to do this in my country. I don’t know how you could do it.” It shows how difficult it was to stage. The crew stayed three months in the desert. All these technicians from the US, from the UK, from France – they were not wearing watches anymore. To be close to the pyramids, you were dealing with time and space in a totally different way.
What kind of energy does playing in front of the Pyramids generate?
It’s this mixture of very different things. You have to understand that Egypt is an Arab country, and the ancient Egypt has nothing to do with the Arab community. So the people in Egypt are not related to the pyramids. Because of this, the pyramids have still this kind of remote magical situation in the country. And because it’s in the desert, but close to Cairo, on one side the Pyramids are close to the urban concept, but the other side belongs to the desert. It’s a very strange mixture – kind of a mix of Blade Runner with Lawrence of Arabia or Indiana Jones.
Oxygène 30th Anniversary Tour (2007)
What made you decide to create a second volume of Oxygène?
Actually, I’m still thinking I would like to add two or three parts to complete the project one of these days. When I did Oxygène, I wanted to do a double album. I did the first part and we released it; it had a massive success, and then I went on different projects and never finished the idea.
I thought it could be cool and fun to Oxygène entirely live – with the instruments of that period, and without MIDI. We were thinking of going onstage like a quartet of classical music or jazz, absolutely live. It was a nightmare, but we did it. Then I said, “I’d like to do that in a theater for once, in France.” It was really successful, and I’d been asked by lots of theaters in Europe to do this. It became a tour where I played [it] like a piece of classical music. I had probably 50 analog synthesizers onstage. In the middle of the concert, I had a giant mirror coming down at 45 degrees, showing us playing. You would see the hands and everything.
Arena tour (2008-2010)
On your long late-2000s tour, you performed selections from your entire catalog. Did that help inspire the music on your new album, Electronica 1: The Time Machine?
This tour was not necessarily linked to what I’ve done with the new album. We are, as electronic musicians and public musicians, quite isolated. Everybody thinks she or he is connected through the Internet to the world, having the Pope in their living room, and not being able to talk to their neighbor anymore. This project is the reverse. Featuring albums, most of the time, [are] just you sending a file in space and somebody else on the other side of the world taking it; you never meet the guy or the girl making the top line or whatever. This was exactly the reverse. I wanted to collaborate from scratch with people who have been part of my life as a musician, source of inspiration, people I respect and directly or indirectly linked to the electronic scene.
Illustrations: Benedikt Rugar