electric dreams of synth maestro
Published 18/09/2010 | 05:00
His mother fought in the French Resistance and escaped the Nazi concentration camps; his father was a famous composer who was feted in Hollywood. As a child he was serenaded by jazz legends in Paris, and on the way to selling an estimated 80 million records, he became the first Western musician to perform in Communist China, and counted Pope John Paul II as one of his most ardent fans . . . if they ever make a biopic of Jean Michel Jarre's life, they won't be short of material.
His private life is equally as colourful -- Jarre was married to film star Charlotte Rampling and his current wife is the French actress Anne Parillaud.
And the 62-year-old French synth maestro, who helped popularise electronic music around the world since he shot to fame in the mid-1970s, is making a rare appearance in Dublin when he plays the O2 next month.
Jarre last performed here three years ago when he played his pioneering 1976 album Oxygène -- the soundtrack to a thousand TV documentaries -- from start to finish, having re-mastered and re-released it for the new millennium.
I caught his show earlier this month in Oslo, where he headlined a local open-air festival, filling the night sky of the Norwegian capital with an extraordinary light show. The centrepiece of the visual feast was when he played his celebrated laser harp, which consists of Jarre coaxing melodies from giant green laser beams shooting up out of the venue and into the night.
But such shows usually work better indoors, and so Dublin audiences will be licking their lips that Jarre's Irish gig is under the roof of the O2.
"I had the idea of putting the magic of the outdoor concert indoors, to share with the audience in a more controlled space, a total immersion in the music," says Jarre, speaking to the Irish Independent.
"It's quite ambitious in terms of staging a concert with such technology. My manager, Fiona Cummins, is Irish and she's delighted that I'm playing there."
And that laser harp looks like a lot of fun to play. "In electronic music, staying behind your laptop for two hours is not too exciting to watch. At a very early stage, I asked myself how to perform electronic music with instruments that had been designed in a laboratory, rather than for use on stage like a guitar, violin or piano -- where we just put mics on them. I thought 'how can I visualise the music?'"
Comparisons have been drawn between Jarre's brand of prog-tronica and Teutonic masters like Kraftwerk, who also emerged in the 1970s. Was he aware of what they were up to at the time?
"Bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, who I respect, have a very robotic, dehumanised approach," says Jarre. "They're almost an apology for machines. It's very German. I have always considered electronic music to be the opposite. I see it as like cooking -- a very sensual and organic approach, working with textures and sounds."
As mentioned above, Jarre's childhood was unusual in that he was immersed from a very young age in the Parisian jazz scene, where he would accompany his mum -- who was a singer -- to see the American greats passing through town.
"My mum was in the French Resistance. She had been put in jail by the Germans," says Jarre. "There, she met a very colourful person called Mimi Ricard who opened a very influential modern jazz club after the war in Paris called Le Chat Qui Pêche or The Fishing Cat.
"People like John Coltrane and Chet Baker used to play there. We would visit her there from time to time. I used to hang around as a kid in the club. I witnessed these giants of jazz playing -- I didn't really know who they were.
"I remember for my fifth birthday, Chet Baker sat me on the upright piano and he played just for me for a few minutes. I can still remember the pressure of the air on my chest. It was my first physical contact with sound."
Jarre went on to play in rock bands as a teenager and he studied classical music at the Conservatoire de Paris.
Jarre's dad was the late triple Oscar-winning composer Maurice, who scored films such as Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage To India. So was Jarre Senior a big influence on Jean Michel's musical career?
"Unfortunately not, as my parents split up when I was five-years-old, and so I grew up far away from my father, which was really sad," he says. "So he had no real influence on me on a day-to-day basis. At the time he was living in America, I was living in a suburb of Paris."
So Jarre Junior made his own way in the world, going global with first Oxygène and then its follow-up Équinoxe. Superstardom beckoned. Even Communist China fell under his spell, inviting him to become the first Western pop star to play in Chairman Mao's workers' paradise.
"It was like playing on the moon in those days," says Jarre of the experience. "And they probably considered me as an alien. It was 1981, just after the fall of the Gang of Four. It opened the door. The British Ambassador gave my album Équinoxe to Chinese radio. It was the first non-Chinese music to be played on it.
"Then they invited me to give a masterclass on modern electronic music to the Beijing School of Music. Then they got the idea to ask me to give a concert over there. I became quite well-known all over China because the concert was broadcast on Chinese television -- and they had just one channel: Mao's channel.
"On my first visit I played in a big stadium in Beijing, and in Shanghai the venue was like a cathedral. Amazing."
Did he get to meet any other Chinese musicians on his visit?
"I was in contact with a lot of artists over there. One dissident painter was in jail. After each concert, I asked for news of her, and on stage in a very stubborn way, I continued to ask for news. Eventually they allowed me to have contact with her and they freed her three months later.
"When I went back there four years ago, I played on stage with lots of artists who were dissidents during the student revolution in 1989. I have created a long-term relationship with the country."
From the Far East to the East Link, Jarre has come along way.
firstname.lastname@example.org Jean Michel Jarre pays the O2, Dublin, on October 4