- Marc Tso
- 'I have an emotional relationship with Ableton Live,' says the electronica pioneer.
A pioneer in electronic music, French composer-performer Jean-Michel Jarre is well-known for ambient and new age music that warmly embraces synthesizers, drum machines and other new technologies.
Currently in the midst of his first-ever American tour, Jarre released his breakthrough Oxygène album in 1976. While he's gone on to release nearly 20 more albums, the musical concepts and themes of Oxygène continue to inspire him.
Unlike many artists of his generation, the 68-year-old Jarre doesn't shy away from modern-day musical innovations. "For quite a long time I had been convinced that the analog way of recording was higher and better than the digital," he explains. He refers to the 1990s and early '00s as "the dark ages of digital," but is convinced that music technology has improved immeasurably in recent years. "I have an emotional relationship with Ableton Live [audio workstation software] like I used to have with the 24-track studio," Jarre says. "It's easy and quick, and I can get the warmth I want to have."
Jarre views the rise of high-quality digital audio as a democratizing development in music, and has no patience with the argument that low-cost technology puts tools in the hands of people who lack the creativity to make good music, flooding the market with substandard product. "That reminds me of the Vatican fighting Gutenberg when he invented the printing system," he says. "They were afraid that suddenly everybody would have knowledge, and they would not have the monopoly anymore. It's the same with music."
Jarre's 2016 studio project, Electronica 2, would not have been possible without software tools, he says. Even so, it took five years to complete, as Jarre journeyed the world to collaborate directly with other artists. "I traveled everywhere: Germany to work with Boys Noize; the UK to work with Massive Attack, Pet Shop Boys and Pete Townsend; Los Angeles to work with Hans Zimmer and Moby; New York with Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper and Vince Clarke from Depeche Mode." Jarre describes Electronica 2 as "merging musical DNA, face-to-face."
But there are — or should be — limits to the reach of technology, Jarre believes. The central theme of "Exit," one of Electronica 2's standout tracks, is that the rise of the internet is turning consumers into product. The track includes a spoken section by exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden. "I've been really moved and impressed by his courage," says Jarre, who considers Snowden a modern hero. "I wanted to collaborate with him, because one of the recurring themes of my Electronica project is this kind of ambiguous relationship we have toward technology."
It was Jarre's mother, a key figure in the French Resistance during World War II, who first taught him the importance of standing up to powerful forces. "I don't think it's too late" he says of the privacy concerns posed by technology. "Awareness always leads to action."