Jean Michel Jarre succeeded where such luminaries as the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Pink Floyd failed – in becoming the first Western rock artist to be allowed to perform live in the People’s Republic of China. His tour of that country in 1981 consisted of five sell-out concerts in Peking and Shanghai before ultra-polite audiences that included top political leaders and young students; it was heralded as a major success on both sides of the Bamboo Curtain. Jarre was born in lyon, France, in 1948. His father, Maurice Jarre, became famous for his film soundtracks for such movies as Dr Zhivago and Laurence of Arabia. Jarre started to learn the piano at the age of five and continued his musical education until the age of 24, having studied harmony and composition at The Paris Conservatoire. His work at this world-famous institution was augmented by extra-curricular activities involving local rock bands, although this didn’t prevent him from completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1968. Jarre moved to the Paris Music Research Centre to work under the direction of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry on musical research and composition, and it was here that Jarre came into contact with musique concrete concepts, whereby the composer is encouraged to think more in terms of sounds than dots on the page.
During his time at the Music Research Centre, Jarre composed and recorded his first major work, The Cage (1970), which put into practice his musique concrete ideas. The album was never released internationally, and found only limited success in France, The Music Research Centre’s emphasis on the theories and philosophies of music, as opposed to the actual playing, led Jarre to leave in 1972, and to set about building up his own music studio. That same year Jarre released his first synthesized record called “Zig-zag dance“: it sold 300.000 copies and helped him to finance his studio. He also spent a considerable time writing songs, and producing such artists as Françoise Hardy and Patrick Juvet. It wasn’t until 1976 that Jarre established himself as a performer with Oxygène, The album was marketed by Dreyfus, a small French independent label which promoted it through hi-fi stores, but such were the qualities of the album that Polydor soon took an option to handle it worldwide.
Oxygène was a mammoth success for Jarre; the album was just a single electronic piece in six parts. Very simple chordal structures were used as a basis but the simplicity of the foundation left considerable room for themes to be developed and enhanced throughout the work. Much of the commercial success of the album came as a result of Polydor’s decision to release one of the most arresting passages of the work as a single, and this section – “Oxygène Part IV” – represents to many the acceptable face of electronic music. A sequenced bassline is used as a counterpoint to a simple five-note pattern with various synthetized percussion voicings providing the rolling rythmic feel of the piece. The hook is delivered by an almost speech-like cross-modulated synthesized phrasing. The rest of the album isn’t quite as compelling; although there are other simple yet inventive sections, there are several meandering passages that get nowhere. Oxygène was recorded at Jarre’s small 8-track studio using mainly AKS and VCS-3 synthesizers, (both made by the British company EMS). He also utilised the ARP2600, a Solina String Ensemble, an RMI Electronic Piano and a Farfisa Compact Organ.
Oxygène’s success enabled Jarre to move to a 16-track studio to record Equinoxe (1978), his second major album. This followed very similar lines to Oxygène in that it was a single composition (this tile split in eight tracks); however the facilities and advantages offered by a larger studio can easily be discerned from the much cleaner recording standard of this latter work. Although Jarre again uses the “wallpaper” strings with heavily-modulated oscillations swooping through the audio spectrum as the backdrop, Equinoxe is a more exciting album rhythmically and there is more dynamic range to the work.
Since Equinoxe, Jarre has availed himself of the latest adavances in electronic music technology and has invested in a very expensive computer-based musical instrulent known as the Fairlight CMI. Magnetic Fields (1981) illustrates the effect the Fairlight has had on Jarre’s music. The album has a far more precise quality to it, and to some extent less “feel”, and there is certainly more use of polyphony, but Jarre’s popular electronic style – layering simple melodies, harmonies and effects onto common (4/4) time rythm tracks – is still predominant.
In 1979, Jarre had given what was claimed to be the biggest concert ever, at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Over a million people were reported to have attended the concert, an audio-visual extravaganza with projectors, lasers and fireworks blitaing half the city. For technical reasons Jarre was compelled to use a lot of backing tapes for this performance, but he decided to avail himself of the services of three other musicians for his Chinese tour to pake the performance as “live” as possible. The resulting album, The Concerts in China, features much of Jarre’s earlier work rearranged for the four musicians (three synthetists and a percussionist), as a result a new dimension is given to the iverall sound, with parts of Equinoxe in particular benefiting from this reworking. In addition to his familiar pieces, this album also features a Jarre composition performed with the Peking Conservatoire Orchestra entitled “Fishing Junks at Sunset”. This reflects a fusion between the traditional Chinese instrumentation and the advanced electronic music technology of today. Jarre manages to mesh these two seemingly-incompatible elements into a beautifully atmospheric tone poem that effectively conjures up the imagery in the title.
With the possible exception of Walter/Wendy Carlos, Jean Michel Jarre has been the most commercially successful artist in the field of electronic composition. His critics claim that his work is over-simplistic and “safe” in sticking to a basic formals, but there can be little doubt of the man’s considerable talents.
Written by David CROMBIE