Jean Michel Jarre: Toujours Jarre

From the Gdansk shipyards to the Forbidden City, the electronica wizard commands record audiences. And he's still thinking big, he tells Jonathan Brown


David Sandison

Jean Michel Jarre:

There has always been a certain degree of grandeur in Jean Michel Jarre's ambitions, both musical and social. The first Western pop star to play behind the Bamboo Curtain; a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador; friend and confidant of the late Diana, Princess of Wales; and serial holder of the record for the world's biggest ever concert – culminating in the 1997 performance in front of an audience of 3.5 million at Moscow State University. So it's hardly surprising that he has required some of the globe's most stunning locations as a backdrop to his particular brand of electronica.

During a career now spanning four decades, he has sold more than 70 million records, creating along the way some live musical experiences that have stretched the boundaries of performance to – and beyond – the apparent technological and physical limits. From the Millennium concert at the Pyramids of Giza to an appearance at the Gdansk shipyard where Soviet power began to unravel, the 59-year-old Frenchman has also displayed an acute attachment to key historical events.

And yet history, in the musical sense at least, has been somewhat unkind to him. Unlike his contemporaries Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, who ploughed a similar if colder furrow from the other side of the Rhine, he has fallen out of fashion with modern tastes – a view blithely disregarded by his loyal army of fans around the world. But now, as the classically trained synth-pop pioneer prepares for the next phase of an extraordinary career, some critics are casting a new and more respectful eye over his work.

Watch Jean Michel Jarre performing 'Oxygene',

His latest project is a faithful, live recreation of his ground-breaking 1977 album Oxygene at the Royal Albert Hall, performed on the original analogue instruments. For those who can't make it, a high-definition stereoscopic 3D film of the keyboard wizard performing the piece is available. These have refocused interest on a piece that, according to EMI's blurb, earned him "a reputation as an environment-conscious citizen of the planet and an active militant for its safeguard, a legacy for future generations". The composer-performer wears the mantle of green visionary surprisingly lightly. "I'm involved in matters of the environment but not in a dogmatic way," he says.

Despite his role as a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador – in 2006 he played a Water of Life concert in the Sahara to highlight the dangers of desertification – he seems reluctant to come across as too much the ubiquitous pop- star campaigner à la Bono or Bob Geldof. "I am always a bit cautious about artists and musicians giving lectures. They think because they are popular they have a priority for giving a message to the world. This is rather dangerous. It is also a bit ambiguous because all too often it is linked to a new release," he says.

Not that he thinks musicians don't have a role to play; it is just that Jarre prefers his music and performance to do the talking for him. "Artists can help disseminate these ideas but in a more emotional way. An image or piece like Oxygene can often tell you more than a long speech."

Though he has collaborated with Arthur C Clarke, and along with Zappa, Hendrix and Lennon has an asteroid named after him (4422 Jarre), the composer insists that his primary inspiration is earthbound rather than celestial. "I have always been involved and interested in the planet, but not in a sci-fi way. Sometimes people have a tendency to link electronic music to sci-fi, but my music was always linked to the biosphere and the immediate environment around us," he says.

It is a preoccupation evoked not just in the title of his breakthrough 1977 album but in the artwork, too. Michel Granger's acclaimed cover design depicting the Earth's atmosphere peeling away to reveal a skull could have made a good logo for the environmental movement that was to gather pace a decade later, he concedes. "Thirty years ago, we were not aware or thinking about the future of our planet – we had a much more innocent, naive vision of the future. 2001: A Space Odyssey was ahead of us, but now the future as we saw it then is behind us. Those ambitions are in the past."

Jarre is heartened and optimistic that at last the world is taking the state of the biosphere seriously. "The environment is making primetime TV – it is becoming trendy, fashionable. Politicians are ready to listen because they know it will have an impact at the next election. The majority of the planet is now aware of this issue and the situation. Now people are ready to help and stop the collective suicide we were committing when we didn't know it," he adds.

But Jarre's environmental concern is only one of the driving forces behind his desire to rerelease and perform Oxygene before a live audience. The other is his regard for the old-style technologies he used to create the original piece, technologies that, despite the digital revolution of the intervening decades, more than stand up to scrutiny.

While Tangerine Dream might bemoan the financial and physical cost of the unstable 1970s voltage-controlled oscillators, which would stay in tune for just 10 minutes at a time at the height of their knob-twiddling fame, Jarre believes that they remain unmatched. The Albert Hall concert will see a return of the original Mellotron, string-ensemble Eminents and VCS 3 synthesisers to the stage – offering many electronic fans their first opportunity to hear them played live.

"They are like the Stradivarius for the classical musician, or the Gibson Les Paul or 1964 Fender Telecaster for rock," he rhapsodises. "However music may have evolved, we see that at one stage, people created an approach that cannot be replaced. Any violin player in 2008 dreams of a Stradivarius – an instrument made in the 17th century that has never been bettered, despite the digital explosion of the 1980s."

The concert will see Jarre, accompanied by Francis Rimbert, Claude Samard and Dominique Perrier, play the album's six movements without resorting to backing tapes or computer playbacks. It will be a "plug and play" affair, with "no tricks", he promises.

It is a strange boast coming from an artist who has built his popularity on the back of technological wizardry and visual chicanery. Born into an avant-garde musical family in Lyon (his father is the Oscar-winning film composer Maurice Jarre) soon after the end of the Second World War, he studied first at the Paris Conservatoire before coming under the spell of the father of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. It was here that he played his first Moog modular synthesiser, and where he learnt to think in sounds rather than notes.

A spell at Karlheinz Stockhausen's Cologne studio was followed by a ground-breaking performance at the Paris Opéra. Yet commercial success eluded him until the release of Oxygene and the single "Oxygene IV". By this time married to the British actress Charlotte Rampling, Jarre made his first entrance in the Guinness Book of Records in 1979 when he performed to more than one million fans in Paris's Place de la Concorde. Two years later, he went to China where his laser harp made its first appearance.

In 1983, he took the remarkable decision to produce the album Musique pour Supermarché. Its print run of just one copy, and the subsequent decision to destroy the master tapes, was a protest at the "silly industrialisation of music". He continued to push the artistic envelope throughout that decade, planning to produce the first music ever recorded in space during Nasa's 25th-anniversary celebrations in Houston when he was supposed to link up for a live saxophone solo with astronaut Ronald McNair – a plan that was thwarted when McNair died in the Challenger disaster.

The late Eighties were the high point for Jarre's live shows. In 1986, the Pope gave a blessing during a concert in his native Lyon, while two years later, British fans –despite the best efforts of health-and-safety chiefs – were treated to an extravaganza at the then under-construction Docklands. Among the rain- and wind-lashed audience was Diana, Princess of Wales.

Many who were there in east London two decades ago will no doubt make the return journey across town to Kensington next month. Jarre is confident that they will find the experience similarly uplifting. "I very much hope my work can help, that it will give a dynamic and joyful vision of the future, not a gloomy one", he says. "What is great is that any art can move people."

Jean Michel Jarre plays the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212) on 30 March

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