Forty-years-ago this spring, electronic musician-composer Jean Michel Jarre released the trembling, prayerful and powerfully evocative Oxygene. Born into a provocative moment when Paris was ablaze with existential punk rockers and decadent disco queens, Jarre’s vibrating, meditative space music album with its rich, contagious melodies and sauntering pulses was a tonic, a multi-platinum marvel and the first of three haunting sequels, the most recent of which (Oxygene3) was released in 2016, setting the stage for Jarre’s first U.S. tour in decades with a Philly date at the Tower, May 18.
“That album, made at a time of rebellion –within the political world as well as the musical - still speaks to me,” says Jarre from his Paris studio - office of the original Oxygene. “I wanted to make the sound of the wind, the rain, but with melody, the song being the largest part of my palette. I was obsessed by melody – the idea that I could experiment with both space and noise, along with melody. That is true too of Oxygene 2 and 3, by the way. Melody comes first, then the mood, its 'enviorment.'"
Experimental and abstract as his work was at the time of its birth, Jarre's work grounded and earthen due to its influence in the painterly arts and cooking; “something tangible with your hands, touchable, see-able, beyond just Jarre,” he says, of music that had texture, traction and smell beyond that of most ambient music. “Something sensual and abstract, which actually makes it not so abstract at all; something organic and tactile.” The most interesting moment of creation for him, even now at age 68, is when he is losing control. “You are sent somewhere unexpected, something surprising. I like surprising myself.”
Without giving too much credit for his simmering rhythms and soigné song-craft to heritage, the younger Jarre was the scion of a freedom-fighter mom (“she was the queen of the French Resistance”) and a king of the ethereal Hollywood soundtrack, epically exotic composer Maurice Jarre of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago fame. Mention his pop, and Jarre laughs, claiming he’s never truly considered whether or not he was rebelling against his dad, as most children do. “Interesting question, as I had a very divided life as my parents divorced and he lived far away in Hollywood. I didn’t think I was rebelling as I had little to rebel against – ours was a black hole of a relationship – but I do think that one reason I have turned down soundtrack work in my life, as cinematic as my music is, was because THAT was his territory. Thinking of your question though, I wish I had more time with him. I always did.”
Staying with his parents’ legacy, knowing his mom was extremely political and radical, there is the question of one of Jarre’s most recent collaborators, Edward Snowden, who appears as part of the composer’s recent series of “duets,” the Electronica series of 2015 and 2016 (Vol. 1: The Time Machine, and Vol. 2: The Heart of Noise), featuring Gary Numan, Pete Townshend and Laurie Anderson. “The record talks about the strange ambiguous relationship between us and technology with the smart phone and up-close aspects of the form on one hand. The spy world. I was raised with ideals of standing against the power in place. I was touched by Snowden, a soldier who didn’t wish to harm his country, but act in resistance. The border though between a hero and a traitor is a fine balance. Every time you fight against power – speak up for women or any form of minority – you pose risk. That was interesting and necessary for me to do, work with Snowden.” Jarre went to Moscow and brought Snowden a jarring techno track to speak over, along with filming the expatriate. “It was very simple, an elegant, straight-ahead story about why he did it that I play nightly during this tour. I think it is a very powerful part of the new show, if I say so.”
Jarre is used to creating spectacular events in stadiums across the globe (he has a great working relationship in China with several live albums to show for it), so shrinking his highly visual, immensely operatic stage show to suit American theaters is a challenge. “I am approaching this tour so much differently than others I have done – a different visual and sonic environment – artificial and architectural soundscapes – that I am creating myself; a 3-D experience without those silly cardboard glasses,” he says with a chuckle. “There are layers of light and transparencies. We tell a story, yes, within the architecture and structure of the music where visuals are crucial, but not the sort-of MTV visual. The audience must become part of telling the story by their interpretation of what they are hearing and seeing.”