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Jean–Michel Jarre:
Innovation in Music

The story of electronic music started with the invention of the microphone and magnetic tape and reached artificial intelligence in less than a hundred years time. We are talking about a massive series of evolutions that shaped and changed the face of music forever. The kind of electronic music I represent goes back to the times of futurist Luigi Russolo, who wrote his manifesto “L’arte dei rumori” as early as 1913. The French composer Pierre Schaeffer then proclaimed the idea of musique concrète during the late forties in Paris. And last but not least, Karlheinz Stockhausen started composing at Studio für Elektronische Musik in Cologne during the fifties. 

These people laid the foundation for everything I have been doing since. By inventing the concept of musique concrète, Schaeffer created the theory of electronic music and should be eternally praised for that. He was the one who defined music’s single most important evolutionary step in the 20th century by saying that there can be music beyond notation and sheet music. He basically introduced the idea that concrete sounds should also be considered music. Music is sound. That was his message. And as we all know, this concept changed the shape of music fundamentally. Every electronic musician, every composer and DJ is a sound designer nowadays and thus a descendent of Pierre Schaeffer. 
Of course, the development of technology eventually helped achieve this vision. But back then the idea of a musician who, like an artist painting colors on canvas, can invent his own music, was still in the realm of fantasy. Proclaiming sounds as music was a revolution in itself. After that the digital revolution, the computer and the binary code, did not only change and accelerate our daily lives but also the world of music and composition immensely. 
I see and try out new instruments and new technologies, new plug-ins and new software whenever they are introduced to the market – and more often than not I can use it even before. The beautiful thing about this ongoing evolution is that the ‘old’ instruments that I used when I started more than forty years ago have not become obsolete in the meantime. They still have their very own, specific sound qualities. This goes for the EMS synthesizers, as it is valid for the Stradivarius violin. Nobody has yet built a better violin. Different, yes, but better?

In that sense, the pioneer Peter Zinovieff comes to mind. He invented the VCS 3 synthesizer in 1969 – a true breakthrough. People like him opened the doors towards new concepts of composition. The same could be said about the Roland TB-303 invented by Japanese engineer Tadao Kikumoto. The whole acid house movement was built on the sounds that you could squeeze out of this little Pandora’s box. All of these inventors – and we also have to name Robert Moog in this context as the godfather of the synthesizer – were active in the golden years of the 20th century, from 1950 and 1970. They were the true inventors of electronic instruments because before them there was nothing, except for the Church organ that many consider the first precursor of a sound-producing machine. Before that you had pieces of wood with strings mounted on them or drums covered with hides that you could bang on.

And this is the beautiful thing about the ongoing technological evolution: nothing replaces anything; everything adds new aspects to the existing technology. On stage I am still using the Moog synthesizer – one of the first synthesizers ever built. But I use it in connection with contemporary top-notch devices. I use advanced computers to control my machines and I even designed one interface that sort of still belongs to the future together with people in my team. So, the next step in the evolution of music will obviously be artificial intelligence. I composed and recorded my last two albums Electronica I and Electronica II with a wide cast of collaborators – from Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese to Jeff Mills, one of the inventors of Detroit techno. But who knows? Maybe my next collaborator will be a machine or an algorithm? We already know that in twenty year’s time computers will be more powerful than the human brain. I hope to experience this while I am still alive.

Because we have two options of how to view this process: we can consider it a tragedy and understand our present era as a pre-Terminator age that will lead to societies run by machines and no longer by humans. Or we can also see it as a blessing and have faith in the human race, which in the past has always been flexible enough to cope with technology, growing and evolving with it. I personally can’t wait to collaborate with more and more intelligent digital instruments. 

Having said that, every relevant work of music that has been released in the last forty, fifty years has been important because it exceeded pure technology. In other words: every plug-in, instrument or computer is just a tool. If you want to create a piece of music that is going to last you have to find a way to define your very own unique musical language. It’s like discovering your own musical fingerprint. Formats have been the result of such individual efforts. Because of the piano we have the concerto. Because of Elvis Presley we have the format of the three-minute single and the jukebox. And because Native Instruments invented by the “Massive” plug-in we have dubstep as a style. Whether you like it or not, technology always came first. Then the musicians arrived and experimented with the instruments and more often than not the most poignant results came from using these instruments against the grain or at least against their creator’s original idea of how they should be used.

Let me give you a very specific example from my own working experience when it happened the other way round. For decades now, I have had this very clear vision of how certain things have to be so that I can use and incorporate them in my concepts. Over the course of the years I have always composed complex sound environments – layers and layers of music that unfold three-dimensionally as sounds. I have always wanted to translate this into 3D cinematography and virtual three-dimensional stage design for my concerts. But 3D technology as we know is not capable of allowing this experience yet. So I am working together with people who are actually trying to create three-dimensional virtual worlds that don’t force you to wear 3D glasses anymore. I am talking about a total visual experience here and we all know that it is only a matter of time until it will be on the market. I know what I am talking about. I have used 3D projections in the past. But for me these projections were merely gimmicks, comparable to the first steps of film on celluloid, when the brothers Lumière screened their first short films in circus arenas. 

Another thing I am interested in is flexibility. I am currently traveling through Europe presenting my two Electronica albums as well as the third part of my Oxygène series. I really like being on tour. I’ve been on tours in the past and I’ve given some spectacular site-specific concerts. But only now, well into the 21st century, am I able to spontaneously change visual or audio elements of my show if I want to because the technology has finally caught up with my needs as a spontaneous musician. This is the first tour where I can relax and have fun on stage because I can rely on elaborate and sophisticated technology that allows me to be a human being. And that’s why my current tour is so satisfying and inspiring for me: I can react to my ideas and feelings without having to worry whether things are doable or not anymore. It might sound bizarre, but thanks to technology I am no longer a slave to technology.

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