An exclusive chat with the maestro of electronic music composition
Pioneering French synthesist Jean-Michel Jarre recently compiled and released a career-surveying set, Planet Jarre. The 41-track set (available in multiple configurations) draws from both his most accessible and most adventurous works of the last 50 years. Following on from the deep-dive approach of Planet Jarre – a collection filed with gems and scattered with rarities – I took a similar approach in this, part of our second in-depth conversation in as many years. Rather than focus on specific works, we explored his creative approach to creation.
When you look back upon your body of work, are there any projects where you think, “I don’t really like that one,” or “I wish I hadn’t done that one”?
You know, Bill, the reason why we are talking today and the reason why that also I’ve finalized my next two albums — the first of those is supposed to be released next November — is because, precisely, for this project, I had always a mixture of my own feelings: a mixture of frustration and hope. The frustration that every album is not exactly what I wanted, and the hope that next time it will be better.
So, actually, of course, when I look back, I say, “Yes, I could have done this in a different way.” Like, “Now with the technology and tools we have for mastering and things like that, this one could be better.” But at the same time, I’m not the kind of guy listening to my music again when it’s finished. In a sense, when I’ve finished a project, it doesn’t belong to me any more; it’s up to the listeners to make them exist or not.
Because a great deal of your work is instrumental, I’m curious about the inspiration for the pieces. Do you start with a non-musical concept, such as an emotion or story idea that serves as a catalyst for the song? Or do you start instead with a melody or a melodic sequence?
It’s an interesting question. Because, actually, I always thought the big strength of instrumental music is actually to get rid of telling a story the way you do with a song with lyrics. And actually, for me, I’ve always considered instrumental music like a soundtrack of the movie that you, as a listener, can build from the impact and the feeling you have by listening to music.
When I’m starting an album, first of all, I never think about the stage and performance. That always comes later. And secondly, I’m more starting like a writer for a novel. You have the title, maybe, or you have the concept, and you say, “Okay. I’m going to try to follow that line.” Oxygène was of course [focused on] liquid air material. Équinoxe is more wet or liquid. My last album, Electronica, was based on collaboration.
And the next studio album, Équinoxe Infinity, has been announced today, so I can talk about it. I started with something I never did before. For the first time, I started from the artwork; I’ve never heard of people having done that, from my knowledge. I was quite happy with this idea, and said, “Okay. The artwork of the first album 40 years ago was really intriguing and great. And the creatures on the first Équinoxe album, what happened to these characters 40 years later, or even 40 years from now?” So, I started with this, and then starting doing the soundtrack of the artwork. And that’s just one example.
Yes, most of the time, I start with visual elements, or a concept from books from which I try to write to the soundtrack.
When you compose a piece, do you have a specific idea as to how it ought to be experienced by the listener?
I know most of the time what I do is showing me where I go. You start with one part, and suddenly, what you are doing is revealing what you have to do next. It would be really untrue to say that at the beginning I have a precise idea of what the album will be. I’m starting more in the dark, and I like this. I think it’s good to keep uncertainty in the creative process.