Jean–Michel Jarre On His Current Synth and Software Picks

Pioneering French electronic musician and composer Jean–Michel Jarre has sold over 80 million albums to date, holds four records in the Guinness Book of World Records for concert attendance, and his most recent effort — Electronica 1: The Time Machine — was just nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award (Dance / Electronic Album).

While on his first North American tour ever of his more than four–decade, award–winning career, Reverb got a chance to catch up with the electronic music innovator before his performance in Chicago at The Auditorium Theatre.

How is the tour going so far for you?

Actually, this North American tour is going really well. I’m really touched by the way this whole project is welcomed by the US audience — from Boston, Philadelphia, and of course, Radio City Music Hall in New York is very special. It’s one of the most beautiful and legendary theaters, and playing there meant something very special to me.

When I was 18 years old in New York for the first time, I said, “If one day I play in America, I would like to play there.” This was the case two nights ago, and with a fantastic audience.

I’ve been really touched by the way people not only have welcomed me or welcomed the show, but also [how they have] reacted to the whole concept, to the whole project. That’s very reassuring when you are working hard. I [wanted] to do something special for America. It’s really great and very promising for the future.

This is your first North American tour, is that correct?

Yes. I mean, actually, I have done lots of things in North America before... Funnily enough, I’m in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest concert attendance in history in North America.

That was Rendez–Vous in Houston?

In Houston, yes, but I never really toured all of North America before. I haven’t done so many tours in my life, mainly because I have been involved in many one–off projects in specific locations. For one reason or another, when I was touring, it wasn’t fitting in terms of schedule, planning, times, or logistics. And now, here I am.

How do these US dates so far compare to the concert in Houston in 1986?

You can’t compare. Some of this project I’m also doing outdoors like, Houston. But [Houston] was something so special. It was originally intended to celebrate the 25th anniversary of NASA. The project was that one of the Challenger astronauts, Ron McNair, would play live in the timelessness of space with me on stage via live link, which was something that had not been done.

We prepared everything, everything was fine. We became quite good friends, of course, with the astronauts, and they said, “Okay, watch me, watch the take–off on TV, and we play together three weeks from now.” That was the Challenger, and obviously, everybody died in the crash.

So we were all in tears, and I wanted to cancel the project. But the astronauts from Houston contacted me and said, “You really should do this concert for the astronauts, and as a tribute for these great heroes and great guys.” So I did the concert, and Ron McNair’s best friend, Kirk Whalum — a very good jazz man — played his piece.

What was very moving is that originally, the idea was to use Ron’s heartbeat for the beat of the track. We got it recorded at NASA, and the fact that this concert became a tribute to these guys — to Ron, to the astronauts, to the Challenger crew — it was something amazing to have his heartbeat be the drum part or the percussion part of that track.

So, for lots of reasons, that became something very, very special. This tour is something totally different.

Technologically back then was all so challenging, being the first time that a show had been done at the scale of the city of Houston. Texas was big, but this project was done on a scale of the state because the whole idea was to view the skyline of Houston as a backdrop for the show.

Speaking of the new project that you’re working on and the concept that you have for it, how did you arrive at the full immersive experience that it is?

When I did Electronica 1 and 2, I worked with writers and was not thinking about the stage work. And then I did Oxygen 3, which was for me, the [sacredness] of oxygen. I said that I really would like to express what I always wanted to express on stage. But technologically, it was not really possible.

Actually, when I do some music, I’m trying to create some architecture of sound and some soundscapes and perspectives and layers of sound, and to express that visually was quite challenging. I’ve never been able to express it correctly.

This time, I did a kind of a stage design and production, where the whole idea is kind of like a 3D show without the glasses. With the sliding layers and sliding panels you create, you have this kind of real feeling of 3D images. In my opinion, that works really well with my music.

I devised every graphic depending on every track. I’m a big fan of concerts — I go to a lot of them — and most of the time you know more or less where you are visually and where you are musically after one or two songs. I fear [that predictability].

So to avoid what I fear, I really wanted to create something that after one, two, three, or four songs, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I think it’s something. You tell me, but I think it’s working quite well.

So, with that kind of setup, with synthesis, what are some of the most useful favorite pieces of gear that you’re using these days? Are you still making a lot of your own equipment or are you using more commercial brands?

I’m really mixing both. I’m still using the first synthesizer I had, which was one of the first VCS 3s from EMS, and it’s still working. It’s not on stage now, but it’s on stage very often.

I’m also using the EMS Synthi AKS, the ARP 2600, the Memorymoog, and some modular synthesizers on stage. I’m using basically everything. Some are virtual synthesizers, some from Native Instruments. I’m also using the new Roland System 8 and the System 50.

What are some of your favorite plugins that you’re using these days?

I obviously really love everything from Eric Persing of Spectrasonics, like the Omnisphere. I really like Native Instrument gear, too, and all of their plugins. I like very much the Spire by Reveal Sound, June, and Diva.

I also use an iPad on the stage [with a program] we devised especially for the project. It’s kind of an interface, with the big touchscreen [used] to create effects and to have a kind of visual interaction with the sounds. I also love the Sub 37.

The new Sub 37?

Yes, I am using it. I love it. I really love the new Rev 2 from Dave Smith. I think it’s probably the best polyphonic synthesizer out there, ever. The fact that you have 16 voices makes it the best.

Yes, 16 voices is amazing polyphony for a synth. Synthesis and synthesizers were a great breakthrough in terms of sonic ranges and sound manipulation, and now computers can replicate this to an extent in the form of modeling. What do you think is the next progression of technology–meets–musical creation?

Artificial intelligence. That school is going to be the real revolution in the 21st century. It has not started yet, but we have to understand that in one or two generations from now, machines will be able to create original music, original movies, as well as original novels, and we should not be scared by it.

We just have to adapt our brains and integrate ourselves into the new technology. I also think that virtual reality and artificial intelligence are going to entirely change our relationship as creators and as consumers regarding music, movies, and visuals.

Is there room in electronic music to tackle questions about the human condition further than we’ve already experimented with? Do you feel that this medium has explored the stories of our species enough, or do you think there’s still lots of room for expansion on that?

I think that you always have two ways of approaching new musical movements. Jazz, rock, folk, grunge — they were major movements. And when they developed, they were always reflecting the society of their times.

Today, with electronic music being the major music genre of our time, it’s quite normal that this genre should reflect the society of our time. There are always two approaches: the hedonist part where you can have fun dancing into the night, but there’s also the more social or political aspect.

Electronic music and electronic musicians are the closest artists to the internet revolution and new technology, and they should be the ones also approaching the ambiguity of technology, the dark side of technology. Which is great.

We are all very excited that we can have access to the world in our pockets, but we also know that we are spied on and that technology can have a dark side, and I think it’s the role of electronic music today also to point out this, to question this. I think it should be done even better.

I think that has been done with a novel like Neuromancer or by authors like Arthur C. Clarke or Frank Herbert. It should be done in literature, it should be done in movies, it should be done also in electronic music. I think there is a lot to dig into these next few years.

What are some creative audio interfaces, tools, or methods of composition that you’re using right now that are different from what you’ve used in the past or have helped you to evolve the way you create?

As an artist, you always have your own tricks, regardless of what the technology is. But I would say that Ableton Live changed my life a lot. These days, for me, Pro Tools/24 tracks/analog tape is the past — even if it’s still in a lot of studios for mixing.

I consider Ableton Live more as a musical instrument, not just a Digital Audio Workstation. It changed my way of working. It gives [me] the ability to write some music at the same time of producing and mixing it. Doing everything at once is really something.

Also, it’s live performance features. It certainly encapsulates all of the different paths and moments of the creative process for a musician, from the musical idea to the performance through composition, mixing, producing, recording, performing, and even distributing.

To learn out more about Jean–Michel Jarre, find his music, and keep up with his touring schedule, you can check out his website here.
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