The French grand master of electronic music, Jean-Michel Jarre, plans to return to China with his latest album and an unlikely collaborator, whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Published in The South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine, June 5, 2016
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“You should go, ‘Der-de-dah-de-de-de-dah …’ ad infinitum. See how he feels about that.”
The helpful words of a friend bounce around in my head as I make my way along London’s Kensington High Street to meet Jean-Michel Jarre.
The French musician and composer should really take it as a compliment; a symptom of his incredible capacity to defy the passing of time. It is not just that he looks better than any man of 67 has a right to – fresh-faced with a shaggy hairstyle that wouldn’t be out of place on a member of One Direction – or even that his music is, almost, as cutting-edge as ever. It is also that he manages to polarise opinion like a wunderkind fresh to the scene, not a widely revered elder statesman who helped pioneer a whole music genre and sold 80 million albums in the process.
While my mate expressed the sentiment of many who will never “get” electronic music and the plinkety-plonkety synthesiser sounds of Jarre, on the other side of the divide, another friend spent a full day pondering his oeuvre before sending me a list of no fewer than 15 questions she wanted to put to JMJ (as devotees insist on referring to him). As it happens, Jarre couldn’t give two rhythmic, sonorous hoots about the derision of the unconverted.
“You know, every generation and every movement has a kind of condescending attitude towards the next one,” he says, in a dark and over-air-conditioned room in Sony’s HQ, just across the landing from the opulent suite of offices belonging to reality-television genius Simon Cowell. “It was true of classical music vis-à-vis jazz, jazz people regarding rock, rock people regarding electronic musicians, electronic musicians regarding DJs … it’s a never-ending story. “My advice for a young musician would be: don’t listen too much to the critics, do what you want because, at the end of the day, what people don’t like in you is very often what makes your specificity – is why you are interesting.” Surely he wasn’t always so Zen?
Jarre, dressed in what, judging by his Instagram account, has become something of a uniform – black denim shirt over black T-shirt, black jeans and black crinkled cowboy boots – has a think. He fidgets with the two objects that never leave his side, his aviator sunglasses and iPhone, before getting up to ward off the chill with a silk scarf.
“Yeah, more or less. I mean obviously you prefer to be loved than to be hated. Except if you are a masochist and even then … I’ve been so busy, I didn’t stop to think too much about that because, you know, every stage, I was already in the next stage.”
He is here to talk about the next stage – his 18th studio album, Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise, which follows last year’s first instalment of collaborations. This one features Cyndi Lauper, the Pet Shop Boys, Hans Zimmer, Gary Numan, Primal Scream and Edward Snowden (of whom more later), among others. But Jarre has granted me an interview as much because of his long-standing love of Hong Kong and China as his obligation to plug his album. Oh, and it turns out he reads the South China Morning Post.
“I love your paper,” Jarre says, unprompted. “This is the paper we read when we’re in Hong Kong, obviously.”
The region holds a special place in his heart of noise. Jarre was the first Western musician invited to perform in post-Mao China, in 1981. His concerts in Beijing and Shanghai became cultural landmarks, enjoyed by 500 million listeners and viewers on the people’s radio and television, before being distilled for his first live album, The Concerts in China.
“I met people whose hands had been broken during the Maoist time because they had been playing Ravel or Debussy”
In 1994, he performed an enormous concert to open the new Hong Kong Stadium. Despite selling out, it was fraught with complications. After a row over costs, the government insisted Jarre play for free. He was unfazed, saying at the time: “I really wanted to do this. I see the stadium as an opportunity to give a different image of Hong Kong to the world. It is known as a business centre, and this is a chance to build a bridge to culture.”
In 2004, to mark the Year of France in China, he performed two concerts, at the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Currently, he is planning “a proper tour in China”, including Hong Kong and collaborations with local artists.
Jarre recalls that when British customers bought his breakthrough album, Oxygène, in 1977, many took it back for a refund, complaining of an apparent fault that meant the first few minutes were just white noise. So imagine what Chinese listeners must have made of it.
Referring to the 1981 concerts, he says, “It was at a time when Chinese people had no idea who the Beatles were or Charlie Chaplin. They had no idea what Western culture was for the previous 30 years. It was like playing on the moon.
“You have to understand that it was a very revolutionary concept as a concert from a Western point of view, even if I’d played in Paris, New York or London, so going to China was already something, but going with new lasers and projections was extraordinary [for them]. It was as if I was coming from another planet. They were calling me the Grand Master of Electricity.”
Jarre met members of the public on the second day of his trip, an experience he describes as “a very strong moment in my life”. At a Guardian Live event in London the night before our meeting, Jarre recalled, “People were just hanging on the walls, so in need of outside contact. I met people whose hands had been broken during the Maoist time because they had been playing Ravel or Debussy. [These were] very hard and sad moments but with people wanting to create a new link, a bond with the outside world.”
Jarre still doesn’t know who to thank for extending the unprecedented invitation. “In those days, people were so scared of going to a Chinese gulag or something, we never knew exactly who took the decision. It happened in a very Chinese way – mysterious.”
However, he does know the British ambassador to Beijing passed Jarre’s two seminal albums, Oxygène and Équinoxe, to a Chinese radio station just after the fall of the Gang of Four, when the music played was no longer dictated by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Perhaps a key factor in Jarre’s work being embraced by the Chinese authorities was that its lack of lyrics made it impossible for his music to offend.
He describes the 1981 concerts as a “cultural shock”, “a very strange, surrealistic experience” and “a career highlight”. But it is a sign of just how remarkable his career has been that in the same breath, he mentions “the concert I’ve done with Nasa in Houston [1.3 million Americans camped out to see it] and at the pyramids for the millennium, and also the concert in Moscow [with a record-breaking audience of 3.5 million] and the Docklands [two rain-soaked concerts in east London for a 250,000-strong crowd that included his friend Princess Diana] … all these big concerts are very dear to my heart”. Jarre has never been content to tinker in a studio. He is just as well-known for mega concerts that take over entire city centres, electrifying the skyline with lasers and lights.
His latest milestone is giving Snowden his first musical credit, in the form of Exit, a “quiet/hectic techno track” on the new album that features spoken warnings from the American whistleblower. When he read of the sacrifices Snowden made in 2013, during the biggest intelligence leak in history, revealing global surveillance programmes orchestrated by the US’ National Security Agency, Jarre thought of his late mother, France Pejot, who fought in the French Resistance during the second world war.
So would it be fair to say he got his political fire from his mother and his musical flair from his father, three-time Oscar-winning film composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India)?
“I never thought about this, but that’s an interesting comment,” he says, haltingly. “Yeah, probably. I never saw that in this way.”
The father of three (and ex-husband of British actress Charlotte Rampling) is less sure whether he would be prepared to risk his life or liberty for his ideals.
“I don’t know if I would have the courage. When I saw the life of my mum, I mean, she went into the Resistance in 1941 in the very early stage of the war, was caught three times by the Nazis, and then she went into a concentration camp. You don’t do things to be remembered, you just do things because they’re necessary. It’s the reason I’m really admiring of Edward and that I consider him as a true hero of our times.”
The key lesson his mother taught him is “that you must not mix a people and an ideology”, he says. “And this is everywhere; it’s true even in China. I mean, you cannot mix the Maoist system and all its extreme attitudes with Chinese people. She told me at a very early stage that you should not [confuse the] Nazis and the German people, for instance. And also [that I should] not buy necessarily what politicians are saying, because there are always, everywhere, in every period, governors wanting to control the governed.”
Jarre found Snowden, like Pejot, was hesitant to talk about what he had done.
“What I really appreciated in this man, this young man, is his modesty and humility. He doesn’t consider himself as an iconic person – he just says, ‘I’m an engineer and a soldier, I had no other choice.’”
The two have kept in touch since meeting in Moscow and have come up with a way of incorporating Snowden “visually” into Jarre’s upcoming tour.
“I’m going to the States to promote the project and I know you have so many crazy people saying this guy is a traitor and he deserves to be hanged. I think it’s so, so unfair. It’s interesting just to shift things, to be able to give a slightly different light on somebody I really consider one of the most courageous men I have met.”
Jarre says he is not afraid of having his communications intercepted and has already been the victim of a hacker in Croatia.
“It’s not a matter of being scared that your information could be given to the world, it is the case. We haven’t had a private identity for quite a while, really. All of us. It’s not just paranoia; this is a fact. What we are saying now is recorded one way or another, if needed, because I’ve left my iPhone on the table. Even if it was switched off, they can use it as a [surveillance] device.”
He has reflected on the problem with a range of artwork. Jarre asked all his collaborators for their fingerprints, then superimposed them on to his own and blew the image up into a two-metre-by-two-metre artwork, which he shows me on his phone. This is not a security risk, he insists. “Anyway, our fingerprints are everywhere so it’s not that important.”
Politics seem to run through Jarre like words through a stick of rock. He represents four million creators as president of Cisac, the world’s leading network of authors’ societies, and for two decades, he has been an ambassador for Unesco, currently promoting two UN Millennium projects, Water for Life and Education for All. But he is critical of musicians who use messages of activism merely as a three-minute filler during set changes on tour.
“I don’t like artists transforming their stages just to say ‘Save the penguins’ and stopping between two songs, giving lessons to people. I think it’s not the role of a musician. But to touch the heart of people rather than just their brain, I think it’s something that musicians can do from time to time. And I think that, as probably the most important movement in music these days, electronic music has to have some kind of political consciousness. Particularly in these days, where lots of teenagers are attracted by darker populist figures, such as Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen [leader of the far-right National Front] in France, I think it’s important sometimes just to send a signal through your art.”
Just don’t expect art to make you happy. For more than a decade now, Jarre has been making the strange claim in interviews that anyone hoping for happiness should not be an artist. Is he really unhappy?
“Obviously, I feel very privileged,” he says. “But being privileged and being happy are two different things. I mean, music is an addiction. I have been stuck all my life in studios … not stuck, but I decided to be in studios all my life and I could have done lots of other things. If your priority in life is happiness, don’t be an artist, because being an artist is more on the side of the obsession and nightmare. It’s eating you.
“I heard George Lucas said once, if he had to restart his life, he wouldn’t do Star Wars again because it just, in a sense, destroyed his life. I don’t know any other life. You always think the grass is greener somewhere else. Maybe it’s not, but I will never know.”
All the same, Jarre is more obsessed with music than ever.
“It’s growing, I would say. It’s strange because I don’t know if I have any ambitions. It’s not an ambition, it’s more an addiction. What I want to achieve is to try to improve and, you know, I think creation is a mixture of hope and frustration – frustration that what you have done is not good enough and hope that maybe next time it will be … less worse,” he adds, with a chuckle.
Perhaps it’s because he is speaking in his second language. Or maybe it’s the accent. But Jarre frequently sounds like a turbo-charged philosopher – aphorisms and epigrams tumbling from his lips, usually at breakneck speed. (Talking of the accent, if you ever meet JMJ, ask him to say the name of one of his recent musical partners; I have never heard anyone utter a more beautiful phrase than when he says “F**k Buttons”.)
The nervous wait for responses to his requests for collaborations he compares to a birthday party: “You send out your invitations and you don’t know if everyone will say yes.” In the event, not one artist – or whistleblower – turned him down, he says.
Jarre doesn’t just join forces with other musicians to produce tracks; he exposes himself musically.
“It’s all about getting naked in front of somebody else, because, actually, when you are in the creative process, in a sense, you are a bit naked because suddenly you can’t cheat, otherwise you are not creating.”
Jarre still breaks out in a cold sweat before publishing new material.
“A lot. I mean, I’m talking to you just before my new album is released and I’m quite scared about the way it’s going to be felt, and not from a critic’s or reviews point of view, but generally speaking. And also, I’m starting to prepare my new tour and obviously I [have] really silly dreams about the fact that I go on stage and it doesn’t work or there is no power. Or that I forgot my trousers.”
In his unique gnomic way, the Grand Master of Electricity answers the crucial question before I even think to ask it. “If I had to choose, I’d prefer having no trousers than no power.”
Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise is out now.