A forefather of electronic music who sold 18 million copies of his 1976 album Oxygène and broke concert attendance records by drawing millions to outdoor events in Paris and Moscow, Jean-Michel Jarre can boast a gravitational pull.
So when the French synth pioneer sought collaborators for his latest project, Electronica, he enlisted a crew ranging from peers and proteges Tangerine Dream, Air and Moby to the Who’s Pete Townshend and horror film auteur John Carpenter.
“I really wanted to gather some artists linked to the electronic scene who’d been an inspiration to me,” says Jarre, 68. “And everybody said, ‘Yes.’ ” Laurie Anderson, Gary Numan, Pet Shop Boys, Vince Clarke, the Orb, Cyndi Lauper, Primal Scream, Peaches and Hans Zimmer also joined the sprawling lineup that produced 2015 and 2016 volumes of Electronica. But rather than have artists come to him or record parts separately, Jarre traveled to them, unfinished compositions in hand.
“I wanted to share the creative process physically, in the same room,” Jarre says from Los Angeles before his first U.S. tour. “To open your studio to someone else is quite generous, showing your secrets and projections, your weakness. It’s something quite special.”
The results include floaty, synchronous soundscapes with Tangerine Dream and the vocoder-enhanced group Air—and where else could you hear Townshend sing over a thumping dance beat? Jarre says the Who’s mastermind was high on his wish list for introducing synthesizers and sequencers in rock classics like “Baba O’Riley.”
But the strangest contribution belongs to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who overlays the jittery techno track “Exit” with spoken-word warnings about privacy and freedom of speech. Jarre met and recorded Snowden in Moscow and says that their talks reminded him of his mother, who was active in the French Resistance.
“I’ve been raised with this idea that when the power in place is generating ideals or acts that are negative to the community, some of us have to stand up and resist,” says Jarre, who just performed a concert at the Dead Sea in protest of President Trump’s stance on climate change. “People in this country have the tendency to forget that America was founded on an act of resistance, considered by the power in place—by the king at that time—as an act of treason.”
Jarre’s parents broke up when he was 5, and he had little contact with his father Maurice, a renowned Hollywood film composer who died in 2009. “It’s sometimes better to have an open conflict with your father because you have something to rebel against, like a black hole in action, but that’s behind me now,” says Jarre, who grew up close to his grandfather, an oboist, audio engineer and inventor.
“When your father or grandfather was a shoemaker, sometimes you have more [of a] chance to become a shoemaker yourself,” Jarre reflects. He played in rock bands before following an avant-garde path, studying with influential composers Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, which fueled a faith in electronic music.
“I’ve always been convinced, even at the time when we were considered a bunch of crazy kids working on strange machines,” Jarre says. “I was always interested to create that bridge between experimentation and melody… Stravinsky or Mozart, they were avant-garde when they started, but they were linked with the melody.”
He also wanted to put theater into performance. “Staying behind your laptop or some machines, it’s already not the most sexy thing,” Jarre says. “I like to share with the audience a kind of visual link with what I’m doing on the stage.”
Early on, he developed visual projections and lasers, taken to extremes at massive free events. “Electronic music was and is made for the outdoors,” says Jarre, who even plays a laser harp, cupping his gloved hands across fanned beams of light to trigger notes expanded by pedal.
“It’s shaping the sound with my hand,” Jarre says of what’s sure to be a highlight in his local debut at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion with two backing musicians on May 16. “The future of electronic music is really to create a better emotional link between what you hear and what you see.”
JEAN-MICHAEL JARRE plays Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on May 16.