Jean Michel Jarre (1948-) is one of the most influential popular composers of the late 20th century, though he is mostly unknown in the United States and Canada. Son of the renowned French film composer Maurice Jarre (who scored classics such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”), he almost single-handedly inspired the electronic dance music that has spawned countless subgenres and is as ubiquitous now as sliced bread.
Of course, the general consensus with regards to the origins of synthpop (the proto-EDM) is that it was inspired by German synth outfits, with Kraftwerk at the helm. Yet these were avant-garde krautrockers, who didn’t really set out to do pop music. Jarre did, providing a more direct and logical precursor for 80s synthpop. This, even though his very popular music had no lyrics (which is uncommon particuarly in North America). Jarre’s music is still often described as experimental and artsy even though his appeal clearly stems from his uncanny ability to write timeless, catchy tunes.
And this appeal is massive even after over four decades in the music business. Starting with his 1976 debut “Oxygène”, his albums have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and attendance at his spectacular open-air concerts has been record-breaking. His place in popular music is undisputed. Yet this place is often relegated to just his technical accomplishments as a synth pioneer. At times, one wonders whether Jarre things any differently - being that he is often more interested in talking about his equipment than melody-making.
Jarre also often credits his one-time mentor, Pierre Schaeffer, the developer of musique concrète (an experimental school of music where a variety of recorded sounds are sampled), with shaping his musical philosophy and prefers to talk about the textures he constructs with synthesizers instead of notes and chords. Indeed, Jarre is considered an exponent of musique concrète even though this background alone would not have propelled him far. His compositional wizardry did.
So whether perceived positively or negatively, Jarre’s music being ‘electronic’ and ‘experimental’ seems to obscure most discussion of its other qualities. The fact that synthesizers or sampling never really became mainstream doesn’t help either. For example, to this day the theremin isn’t taken seriously as an instrument but is associated with 1950s B-movies about alien invasions… and Jarre’s music has actually been referred to as ‘space music’.
Perhaps in response to this kind of disparagement, Jarre once remarked that what he has done with synthesizers in the 20th century is no different from what a Joseph Haydn was doing in the 18th. Namely, both musicians utilized the most advanced technologies of their day. Clinging to traditional instruments (orchestral or other) just as dismissing cutting edge instruments (such as synthesizers) as ‘spacey’ or ‘futuristic’ misses the point of music-making. This is the fault of our superficial cultural clime, which is content with letting personal or collective impressions trump reality. Projection, it seems, is the norm.
At the end of the day, Jarre has succeeded in being ‘descriptive without words’ – a musical ambition he has had since hearing jazz in his childhood. He is also living proof of the power of the melody to trump all other considerations in music, from technical to philosophical.
Some recommended listening: