Jean-Michel Jarre re-records Oxygène

Jarre’s electronic classic remade ‘the old way’

12/12/2007 - 

Jean-Michel Jarre, France’s undisputed king of electronic music, is back in the headlines again. And this time not for some mega sound-and-light spectacular at the foot of the Pyramids! The French electro pioneer has re-recorded Oxygène to mark the 30th anniversary of his seminal album and he will be treating fans to a live version of it at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris. RFI Musique hooks up with the electro maestro.

"I’m not necessarily in favour of anniversaries!" Jean-Michel Jarre announces point blank at the start of our interview. But, it seems, some kind of celebration is in order. After all, it was thirty-one years ago today that Jarre released Oxygène, an album recorded on an old eight-track in his hastily converted kitchen - the prehistoric version of the modern home studio!

"I actually decided the moment had come to re-record Oxygène when, four or five years ago, technology made high-definition sound and images possible," says Jarre. "That decision wasn’t based on some sort of nostalgia. I’d always had the idea I’d re-record the album at some point. The thirtieth anniversary of Oxygène has simply given me the chance to bring out this new version which I tried to make identical to the original, digging out all the old synthesisers I worked with at the time. It’s funny, but it was the act of working exclusively with all those old instruments that made me realise just how extinct they’ve become. They’ve fallen into total oblivion these days. These kinds of synthesiser have become the stuff of fantasy and ignorance now… Here we are in 2007 and every violinist in the world would like to get his or her hands on a Stradivarius. But, despite the huge advances in technology over the past four centuries, no-one has managed to equal the sound of a Stradivarius or better the way it’s made! And it’s the same with those old analogue synthesisers. They laid the foundations of electronic music and their sound is still unrivalled!"

Interestingly enough, Jarre has never played the complete unabridged Oxygène live on stage at any point in his career. So his upcoming concerts at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris are set to be a major event. When it came to the 2007 re-recording of Oxygène, the electro veteran dug deep into his archives and dragged out all his old Moogs, ARP 2500s, his Mellotrons and his Theremins and set them up in a hangar in Antwerp. "We worked exactly the same way I did on the original Oxygène," he says, "recording everything on an old eight-track. And I played with three other musicians to get that special eight-hand effect. We filmed everything in one take working under 100% live conditions - just imagine, when the majority of concerts are partially pre-produced and pre-mixed these days! I can guarantee we didn’t use a single computer or timecode."

Jarre’s vintage equipment was then transported to the Théâtre Marigny, a decidedly small-scale venue for a man notorious for staging gigantic sound-and-light extravaganzas at major tourist spots (such as the Place de la Concorde, in Paris, in 1978). Needless to say, Jarre’s futuristic stage shows broke all attendance records. And the French star could be back to his record-breaking ways soon. Following hot on the heels of new albums by Prince and Coldplay, Oxygène is to be distributed in the U.K. with the Mail on Sunday in January 2008 - an estimated 2.7 million CDs going out to readers!

Besides celebrating one of the most famous tunes in the history of popular music, Jarre claims his Oxygène revival is partly intended as a tribute. "The Oxygène project actually became much bigger than I’d originally envisaged," he says, "The idea is that this is also an homage to the creators of the synthesiser, without whom I would never be where I am today! This is my way of paying tribute to the men who invented these instruments with their totally poetic irrational side. When you see a Mellotron, the thing that instantly springs to mind is Boris Vian’s crazy violin-trumpet!" In all his interviews to date, Jarre has always expressed a heartfelt debt to Pierre Schaeffer, the legendary creator of “musique concrète” (concrete music) and director of the Groupe de recherche musicale (currently celebrating its 50th anniversary at La Maison de Radio France, in Paris.)

As a budding young musician, Jean-Michel Jarre trained at Schaeffer’s experimental music institute. And he maintains that Schaeffer’s teaching was not just based on theory, but revolutionary acts. "Back in the ‘40s, Schaeffer invented the sample, the locked groove - in other words, the loop -, the delay and the concept of reinjecting sounds. It was Schaeffer who experimented with distorting sounds, playing them backwards, speeding them up and slowing them down. He was the one who invented the entire way music is made these days.

And I think it’s an absolute scandal that he’s never been accorded his rightful place in music history - because if you follow electronic music back to its source, you’ll find Schaeffer not us! From the moment Schaeffer emerged on the scene, music was never made the same way again. It wasn’t that he introduced a new musical style. He came up with a radically different way of thinking about music in terms of sound which linked directly into Chinese, Indian and African music… From time immemorial, these ancestral forms of music have been approached through sound, not via notes on a page."

Back in the days when he recorded the original Oxygène, Jarre was best known for the hits he wrote for French singers such as Christophe (Les Mots bleus), Patrick Juvet (Où sont les femmes?), Françoise Hardy and Gérard Lenorman. And the reason he recorded his first electronic album alone was because three decades ago no-one believed in a project by a young composer freshly emerged from an experimental music chapel. "What I was aiming at with Oxygène," explains Jarre thirty years on, "apart from establishing some sort of bridge between electro-acoustic music and pop, was creating something that was not at all repetitive. I was obsessional when it came to checking that each individual sound was different from the last. No sound was the same in terms of length, height or attack… At the end of the day, Oxygène was a ‘couture’ album on which everything was painstakingly stitched by hand!"

Jean-Michel Jarre Oxygène 1 CD + 1 DVD (EMI) 2007 In concert at the Théâtre Marigny, in Paris, 12 - 16 December 2007

Bertrand  Dicale

Translation : Julie  Street