Jean-Michel Jarre’s flowing and melodic synthesizer music is so calming that his album Oxygene was played on Dutch radio and television throughout the two days in 1977 that South Moluccan terrorists held Dutch passengers hostage on a train. Interview, which reported this event, called Oxygene “perfect background music for life.” Although this was the French composer’s first album, he was familiar with the power that music can exert when playing a supporting role—his father is Maurice Jarre, a highly successful composer of music for film soundtracks. The influence was not immediate, though, for his parents separated when he was young. His father moved to Hollywood, where he solidly established himself with the well known “Laura’s Theme” from the movie Doctor Zhivago and the score for Lawrence of Arabia. Concerning the influence of his father on his music, Jarre told Interview: “My mother and father split when I was six years old. She never remarried and I only saw my father once or twice a year. He moved to Hollywood. But I played piano when I was five and I saw his movies, so maybe that was an influence.”
Jarre studied French literature at the University of Paris and while there joined the Groupe de Recherches Musicales founded by French sythesizer specialist Pierre Schaeffer. He also studied at the Conservatoire de Paris but found his professional educational experience stifling. He set up a home recording studio and began to pursue his own musical directions. At age 22 he wrote a ballet score, Aor, which was successfully produced at the Paris Opera. Oxygene was released in 1977 and became one of the top-selling albums in Europe and the first record by a French composer to reach the number one position on the British charts. The album is a model for the form of synthesizer music that has been referred to as “Space Music.” down beat appropriately described Oxygene in space terminology: “[the album provides] a languid aural journey through the galaxy in 4/4—a big bottom sound thuds portentiously over the hum of the old spaceship’s motor; asteroids shoot past; a meteor shower washes away the stars twittering in the high register.”
In 1986 Jarre was invited to Houston to be part of a celebration of the city’s sesquicentennial and the twenty-fifth anniversary of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. His “City in Concert” presentation was described by Stereo Review: “On April 5, 1986, more than a million people filled Houston’s parks, bridges, highways, and streets to witness a synchronized mystical, pyrotechnic, and laser-projection extravaganza that actually turned the city and its skyline into one gigantic stage.” The album Rendez-vous is a live recording of this show. Jarre performed with a seven-member band; one song is dedicated to astronaut/musician, Ron McNair, who
Son of Maurice Jarre (a composer of film soundtracks); first wife was in public relations work; married second wife, Charlotte Rampling (an actress), October 7, 1978; children: (first marriage) Emillie; (second marriage) David-Alexis. Education: Attended the University of Paris and the Conservatoire de Paris.
Recording artist, 1977—. Has also composed a ballet score, Aor.
was to play saxophone at the concert but had died earlier that year in the tragic Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Jarre is not a prolific musician. While many artists try to produce an album each year, he has five major releases in ten years. But with each one he pushes his art a little farther to offer something unique. With Magnetic Fields he abandoned the romanticism of Oxygene to explore what a down beat reviewer called “a world of ethnic rhythms with a battery of synthesized percussion sounds that stack up in polyrhythmic spiral.” With Zoo Look he teamed up with Laurie Anderson, who pushed the “world rhythm” concept one step further by contributing vocal material in over twenty rare languages including Balinese, Sioux, Quechua, and Gabonese. down beat called the album “a keyboard album of vocal music, a contradiction in terms made possible by the wonders of digital technology.” Jarre had taken Anderson’s vocal contributions, and through sampling techniques, entered them as sounds into his Fairlight and Emulator synthesizers, ready to be played back like any other instrumental sound.
In his search for new sounds, Jarre experiments with new musical instruments. “Each generation must invent a new range of instruments for their new music,” he told Steven Gains in Interview. “We are still less clever than the composers of the seventeenth century. We still use clarinets, violins, and pianos that were invented by furniture and instrument makers with the complicity of the musicians of the time.” The Rhythmin’ Computer, and instrument he had built to his own specifications, can be heard on Oxygene.
Jarre also has his own ideas about music. His creations come primarily from within himself, rooted in his own imagination and feelings, not in what he learned in school. He is mistrustful of traditional categories and of the system of music training that enforces right and wrong approaches to music. “We are the only society with a written musical code,” he told Gaines. “There is none in sculpture, or painting—only music, and not in China or Africa, either, only in the West. That’s the reason people stopped considering music as an abstract expression or an intellectual art.” Jarre has created a new form of music on entirely new instruments. His instruments create sounds never heard before, and mimic the sounds from cultures that few of his listeners will ever experience. His music is the sound of the future, built on the sounds of the world at large, and cast in the form of his own musical ideas.
All sections released by Polydor/Dreyfus
Oxygene, 1977, reissued, 1987.
Magnetic Fields, 1979, reissued, 1987.
Equinox, 1979, reissued, 1987.
Zoo Look, 1985, reissued, 1987.
The Essential Jean-Michel Jarre, 1986.
down beat, May, 1978; September, 1982; April, 1985.
Interview, January, 1978.
People, December 5, 1977.
Stereo Review, April, 1979; December, 1986; May, 1985.
"Jarre, Jean-Michel." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jarre-jean-michel
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