Jean-Michel Jarre Dives Deep Into Equinoxe Infinity

If Klaus Schulze is the consigliere of electronic music, then Jean-Michel Jarre is surely the Godfather.

The Lyon, France-born Jarre has racked up over 80 million album sales and counting internationally, with his analog-synth-centric 1976 album Oxygène generally acknowledged as having opened a wider door on the synthesizer revolution of the ’70s. JMJ, as he’s also known, further cemented his position with the 1978 sequencer-and-synth masterstroke, Équinoxe.

JMJ has also been on a creative tear of late, having chalked up almost a half-dozen new releases over the past 3 years, including two volumes of his Electronica collaboration series as well as the September-released 41-track career-spanning Planet Jarre compilation. Now he graces us with the sonic-swath-sweeping Equinoxe Infinity (Astralwerks), which not-so-coincidentally happened to be released 40 years to the day after Équinoxe on November 16.

Jarre (pronounced Jar) feels his recent forays into surround sound and higher-fidelity recording in general are paramount to achieving a better listening experience overall. “All of these opportunities are important to educate the audience to a different way of listening to music than the ‘usual’ way, or the day-to-day way of listening to music on smartphones or very crappy desktop speakers,” JMJ believes — and so do we.

Jarre, 70, got on the horn with me from across the Pond to discuss his far-reaching “multi-mono” surround sound goals, how to best harness the way music moves through space, and how he fielded a “spatial” performance suggestion from noted sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke.

Mike Mettler: When we first met in New York in 2015, we talked extensively about our mutual passion for surround sound. Naturally, I love the 5.1 tracks you made available via the download card included in the Super Deluxe box set of Planet Jarre. I have to say my current favorite 5.1 track is “Équinoxe Part 5” — and not just because you have the all-channel storms at the beginning of it, but also how you move what I’m calling the “skitters” around each channel. Do you have a personal favorite amongst these 5.1 tracks?
Jean-Michel Jarre: If I had to choose, I would say it depends on what you put the priority on. “Oxygene 15” is a good track for this 5.1 concept, and so is the track I’ve done with The Orb [“Switched On Leon”], which is quite interesting as well. But I will agree with you — “Équinoxe Part 5” is quite spacy.

Mettler: What this tells me is that, in a way, your music has been somewhat “contained” in the initial stereo mixes, in that it’s almost too big for just two channels because of the way you compose your material. Do you agree that 5.1 opened up your world to doing things you just couldn’t do in two channels?
Jarre: You know, this is a very interesting point, because when you think of it, stereo was invented some 70 or so years ago [in the 1930s], and that was a “trick” for the human ear. Things being played on a stage are being phased on the left and on the right — and that’s not natural. That’s not the way you listen to sounds in nature and in your own environment, because most of the sounds as we know them are mono. When I talk to you, it’s mono, and when I play a flute or a violin, it’s mono. Our ears are what create the depths of the environment, and these kinds of surround effects.

This is why I’m very much interested these days in what I call “multi-mono” sources, which is actually what surround sound gives to you. And I’m also into binaural technology, which is something I’m currently working with for a future project. It’s interesting as something that recreates what the human ear, and the human listening conditions, are.

Mettler: I’m sure you’ve had a chance to listen to or test out some of the binaural headphones that are now on the market.
Jarre: I have, and this also goes along with the VR world I’m getting more and more into. It also goes with the future of artificial intelligence and how we’re going to be living more and more in the context of the virtual world that offers a 3D environment. All of that makes me feel that we need to seriously reconsider the ways we are listening to music at this time.

Mettler: And like you also discuss in new Equinoxe Infinity material like “Machines Are Learning,” you’re very much into dealing with AI concepts.
Jarre: Yeah. And when I started on Equinoxe Infinity, for the first time, I started from with the visuals. I loved the cover of the first Équinoxe album [designed by artist Michael Granger], with all of the creatures watching you — and watching at you. So I said, “What happened to these creatures, these watchers, 40 years later? And what would happen to them 40 years from now?”

I started from the idea that these watchers could symbolize technology learning from us, from the beginning of my experience with music going from analog to digital, and from modern stereo to surround. And with artificial intelligence, we are going to collaborate more and more with an algorithm. We had that as the kind of impetus to write the music.

Mettler: I know vinyl has been important to you as well as the other important listening medium for people to experience your work.
Jarre: Yes, exactly. It’s a very interesting point, Mike, but something like 60 percent of vinyl that is bought is never played. What people are doing is they’re downloading the music, and then the object in their hands is a tactile experience — a felt experience. Because of that, people are sitting somewhere and listening to the music in a different way because they have the object to touch and to look at, as a visual complement to the music they’re listening to. They go back to a more natural way of listening to music, and not skipping from one track to another.

Mettler: Also, the exquisite packaging you’ve done for Equinoxe Infinity lends itself to just that kind of full sit-down listening-and-looking experience.
Jarre: And I pushed the concept even more, since the album has been released with two different covers. [The two covers were created by Filip Hodas in homage to the original 1978 Équinoxe “watchers” artwork done by the aforementioned Michael Granger.]

Mettler: I’m leaning more toward the one I’m calling the “Easter Island” cover.
Jarre: Yeah yeah yeah! That one is darker — more dystopian, reddish, and the man with the smoke in place of his head. It’s quite dark. They’re two different visions of the future.

For the music itself, I tried to work with AI in the musical algorithm FiDef, but I think it’s a little too soon. In a year’s time, I think we’ll be able to create much more convincing music in this algorithm. So far, it’s still a bit laborious. You may have a very creative algorithm, but it’s a bit raw in terms of the groove and the variations. Like I said, I think it’s a little too soon, but the algorithm will be much more involved in my next project.

Having said that, this current Equinoxe Infinity project is very much connected to the artificial intelligence technology, especially from the visual point of view. And we tried to approach the audio with the same kind of vision, if I can say it in that way.

Mettler: You absolutely can do that since we are known as Sound & Vision, after all, so we can consider this to be a full 360-degree album for both eye and ear.
Jarre: That’s right, exactly! In talking about sound and vision together, you understand exactly what I mean. And, as you know, from the very beginning of my career, the visual aspect of my work has always been very important. I’ve done my live concerts with lots of video and visual elements. Recently, I experimented with sampling at a big concert in Saudi Arabia [The Green Concert, held on September 23], projecting 3D images on a building in Riyadh, which was amazing.

Something else I’m working on is creating something in 3D to go with the music, because we are dealing with 3D constantly. When we’re playing the music, the music is actually traveling through space, from the instrument through the speakers and the P.A. out to the ears of the audience. As musicians, we have explored the idea of 3D in space for a long time, and now it’s time to unite that with the visuals, and all the possibilities that technology is offering us today.

Mettler: I’m glad you brought up the concept of sound moving through space, because I recently spoke with some of the scientists and other members of the creative team behind the National Geographic show MARS. One of the questions we addressed was, because the atmosphere on Mars is different from ours, how would sound travel in that atmosphere? Have you ever thought about anything like that in relation to your own music?
Jarre: Yes, and you are commenting on something my very good friend Arthur C. Clarke [the late author of such legendary science-fiction works as 2001: A Space Odyssey] once told me. He said, “You could do a concert on the moon.” And I said, “We can’t do a concert on the moon, because you basically have no atmosphere, and we need that for the sound to be carried to the ears.” So he said, “Yeah, but you’ll find a way. You’ll find a way.”

Actually, it’s a very interesting question to think about — how to convey sound in space. Of course, we will eventually find solutions, and that’s very exciting.

Mettler: We do seem to agree that, at the very least, whether we’re on Mars or on the moon, we would be getting the vibrations made by instruments, even if we can’t get true sound in an open-ear situation.
Jarre: And as we know, when deaf people are going to concerts, they are not listening with their ears — they are listening with their bodies, picking up the vibrations — and they express very interesting feelings about it. I remember that, two or three times in my life, I did some concerts where we had deaf or disabled people and children who were describing the music in the concert in a very, very emotional way. Out in space, you will have to experiment with how you’ll be able to experience sound with totally different parameters.

Mettler: If the powers that be called you to go on one of the manned missions to Mars, would you go?
Jarre: Of course I would, yes! Before my concert in Houston [on April 5, 1986, in front of a then-Guinness World Record-size audience of over 1.3 million people], NASA was just opening the mission idea up to civilians, and I was on the list. (chuckles) There was another musician on the list too — Johnny Rivers, I think. He was very much into space, so he was also on the list. But once there was the tragedy of the Challenger [the space shuttle that broke apart 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986, killing all seven NASA team members onboard], there was a bit of a stop in pursuing the space exploration from NASA, and from all over the world. But we are getting back to that now with this new vision for the future, and the future of space exploration.

Mettler: Well, if anybody should be performing the first concert in space, I don’t know who would be better suited for it than you — so we’re signing you back up, if you don’t mind.
Jarre: (laughs heartily) Okay! I’m in!

Mettler: To bring it back to Equinoxe Infinity, there must be a 5.1 version of it coming at some point. Can we confirm that?
Jarre: Yeah, we can, and I’m also working on the binaural experience. I don’t know exactly when that’s coming because I’ve been working on all kinds of musical side projects, but I would like to explore getting back to working on and finishing this around Christmas, or the beginning of next year.

But yes, I’m definitely interested in exploring that mix. And like I said, I did the album almost as a soundtrack to the artwork. I had the feeling of taking different approaches as to how to explore space while I was working on the music. Not necessarily with the idea of creating space within the music, but something that would go beyond the stereo field with either the 5.1 or the binaural technique.

Mettler: “Robots Don’t Cry” is the perfect track for doing that, with the way you have the percussion wash at the beginning and how the strings then come in after that. It’s a track that is already predisposed to immerse the listener in it. And “Flying Totems” in and of itself already lends itself to the 5.1 concept.
Jarre: (chuckles) Exactly! We will do a special 5.1 version to bring all of that out somewhere. It’s really great to hear about this, because it’s very important for all of us musicians to have people like you be able to explain this intention to the audience beyond my own words. This technology enables a totally different listening experience, and it’s very important that we promote this very immersive way of listening to music.

Mettler: I agree, and I’m glad you think so as well. Thank you for giving us the template of albums like Équinoxe and Oxygène, which deserve getting their due in expanded space. And now, with Equinoxe Infinity and your other forthcoming material, we also have new music that’s perfectly suited for more adventurous listening.

Jarre: And thank you for saying that, because that’s exactly the reason I’m doing what I do.