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Jean-Michel Jarre: Producing Oxymore

Immersive Worlds By Sam Inglis
Published November 2022

Jean‑Michel Jarre in the immersive studio at the Paris headquarters of Radio France.Jean‑Michel Jarre in the immersive studio at the Paris headquarters of Radio France.

Immersive audio is helping Jean‑Michel Jarre implement a distinctly French musical vision, inspired by his own mentors.

“I feel very privileged to have witnessed three moments of disruption,” says Jean‑Michel Jarre. “One was the emergence of electronic instruments. The second was the emergence of computers and the digital age. And the third, which is maybe the most important one for me, is the technology of immersive worlds.

“For a human being, the feeling of immersion is first of all audio, before being visual. The visual field is 140 degrees. The audio field is 360 degrees. So for the development of the metaverse, the development of XR and VR, sound is absolutely crucial. And I think musicians have a lot to say and to do in virtual worlds.”

For Jarre, immersive audio is not merely an extension of stereo, or a superior way of repackaging content originally created for stereo. It’s a much more radical medium, with endless possibilities that musicians are only beginning to get to grips with. “Stereo is an illusion. [Film director] Christopher Nolan used to say that he loves 2D, rather than 3D with glasses, because he loves to control the illusion of perspective. It’s what great painters have done in the history of painting. And in music, it is the same. With stereo and with a frontal approach, with a flat 2D approach, we have been trained as musicians to create perspectives, to create layers. Suddenly, with immersive audio, you take this and you put them all around your ears.

“So it’s actually, in a way, going back to the natural way of listening to sound. Because in nature, stereo doesn’t exist. The world around us is mono, and it’s only our environment and our ears which are creating the perspective in audio. I think the music of the future is going to be absolutely different because of that. In a few years from now, and especially also because of the development of the metaverse and immersive worlds, our children or grandchildren will regard stereo as we regard the gramophones of our ancestors.”

Jean-Michel Jarre: "For a human being, the feeling of immersion is first of all audio, before being visual. The visual field is 140 degrees. The audio field is 360 degrees... sound is absolutely crucial. And I think musicians have a lot to say and to do in virtual worlds."

Centralisation

The technology that powers Jarre’s immersive project, Oxymore, is new, but the philosophy behind it is not. From 1969, Jarre trained under French composers Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer. Both were pioneers of musique concrète, and both sought to break down conventional perspectives in music performance. “These pioneers defined a new vocabulary. They were breaking the tradition, not only by considering music in terms of sounds, and saying every noise can become music, depending on the intention of the musician, but also in terms of space, saying, ‘OK, the sounds should be 360 degrees.’ They were not interested by stereo at all.

“They were really obsessed by this idea of 360‑degree composition: at that time, by just creating sounds for each speaker, and not so much in terms of movement, because the technology was not there, but with the idea of creating a kind of immersive platform from which they could explore textures. They were really thinking of multi‑mono, placing speakers in circles and then using a console to place a sound here and there. It was very basic, but the idea was to break with this idea of the frontal relationship with the sounds. And they also created, later on, what they called the Acousmonium, which is an orchestra of speakers on stage.”

In his own experiments with 3D composition and mixing, however, Jarre formed the view that today’s most popular spatial audio formats aren’t yet truly ‘immersive’, in the sense of giving equal status to sound arriving from all directions. “I realised at quite an early stage, even before this project, that Dolby Atmos is an excellent system, but originally created for movies and not for music. And then we had to, as musicians, adapt ourselves to a technology that has not been devised and created for us. In the history of music, we are quite used to this. But it creates a lot of issues, mainly for binaural because of the different filters.

“Dolby developed their system with a kind of ‘heliocentric’ approach that was basically made for movie theatres. Wherever you are, you are in the right position to have the dialogue in front of you and the rest of it on each side and the effects behind. And that is not at all what we need as musicians. We are more ‘egocentric’ as musicians, and we need to have an equivalence all around us from the centre point. It’s quite a different approach.”

For this reason, Oxymore was mixed not on a conventional Atmos system, but in an experimental studio at the Paris headquarters of Radio France, using Steinberg’s Nuendo and L‑Acoustics’ L‑Isa to feed a monitoring system with 29 loudspeakers. It was a fitting choice of location: Jarre’s studies with Henry and Schaeffer took place in this same building, and he used to sneak into unused studios at night to practise his craft.

The Radio France immersive studio features 29 Genelec monitors arranged in three layers, with Steinberg’s Nuendo controlled from a Yamaha Nuage fader surface.The Radio France immersive studio features 29 Genelec monitors arranged in three layers, with Steinberg’s Nuendo controlled from a Yamaha Nuage fader surface.

The Concrete Jungle

In tribute to his mentors, Jean‑Michel Jarre used the techniques of musique concrète extensively in the creation of Oxymore. In fact, the seed of the project was a cache of sounds created by Pierre Henry himself, which were passed to Jarre by Henry’s widow after the composer’s death in 2017.

“In the middle of the 20th Century, these guys were really obsessed by the textures of sounds. I studied this with them. Schaeffer classified almost all sounds of nature by types of textures. I think in electronic music, texture is fundamental — and these days we are forgetting it, because we have so many plug‑ins and so many ready‑made sounds that we are not really working on the textures any more. And for Oxymore, I really tried to work on acoustic sounds or electronic sounds to merge them so after a while, you don’t know if it’s a digital sound or a sampled sound any more. That was the link with Pierre Henry, because it has been really useful for me to use — not so many of his sounds, but some of them — but more as a source of inspiration.”

Discussions of musique concrète often focus on the use of tape loops, but Jarre does not think the specific medium is very important. “For me, tape is secondary in the idea of musique concrète. What is important is the word ‘concrete’, which could be the opposite of abstract: the texture, the content of sounds. To use noises and transform them into musical elements. When Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry started to work on musique concrète, it was actually before tapes. They were using 78s, and the first concert they did was exactly like what a DJ used to do 20 years ago. They had actually a bunch of 60 or 80 78s — not vinyls, it was like metallic plates — and they were playing them, slowing them down, playing them in reverse, exactly like scratching. They are really the first DJs of music history!”

The development of sampling, likewise, made it easier to implement the ideas behind musique concrète, but did not fundamentally change them. “I was very lucky enough to have one of the first Fairlights in Europe. It was like a grail for me because suddenly, what I was doing before with tapes and taking lots of time to do, suddenly you could record the sound of your dog, as we know, and play your dog on the keyboard. So it was a total revolution. But it’s the same approach, in terms of taking sounds and transforming them into musical elements.

“What I wanted to do with Oxymore was not only this, but to go back to what musique concrète is all about, what electro‑acoustic music is all about. Not in a cerebral, intellectual way, but also to have fun. I got some sounds from Pierre Henry, but at the end of the day, I didn’t use them so much. Maybe in the whole album you have five percent of these sounds. But they are very important because for me, they were the source of inspiration for the whole project.

“Beyond a tribute and an homage to Pierre Henry, I love also the idea that musique concrète is quite close to another French movement called surrealism. The Marcel Duchamp approach influenced a lot of musicians such as John Cage: a kind of irony in terms of assembling sounds which have nothing to do with each other. And it’s something that I really enjoyed by doing it. It was like going back to the roots, but with the tools of tomorrow!”

Old & New

Jean‑Michel Jarre has an enormous inventory of instruments at his studio, including practically every synth ever made. He typically selects a smaller palette from within this armoury to provide the core sounds for each project. The palette from which the Oxymore textures were generated was light on classic analogue synths, focusing instead on acoustic instruments as sources for sound design, along with modern digital synths and controllers.

Few analogue synths were used in the creation of Oxymore, but Jarre’s Mellotron does feature. It is an unusual early model with two manuals side by side, designed originally for film dubbing.Few analogue synths were used in the creation of Oxymore, but Jarre’s Mellotron does feature. It is an unusual early model with two manuals side by side, designed originally for film dubbing.

“I used a palette of instruments, from old Mellotrons to recent keyboards, and also sound effects that I recorded with contact mics, such as the Zeppelin Labs Cortado — for me, one of the best contact mics available. I’m not sponsored, but they’re really cool for what we need as musicians. I use lots of elements that people use when they’re doing sound effects for movies, and old instruments such as the Cristal Baschet [see 'The Cristal Baschet' box later on].

“Two very recent instruments are the Expressive E Osmose and the Nonlinear Labs C15. The Osmose is an amazing instrument, because you can really have so many ways of processing the colour and the pitch and all that. You can move horizontally, vertically, the speed and everything, so it was an ideal instrument for what I needed, to work constantly on the speed of a pitch or the evolution of sounds. I really used it a lot for having evolving textures and sounds. And it’s interesting because these instruments are very, very new.

Modern instruments that featured heavily included the Nonlinear Labs C15 and the Expressive E Osmose (below, lower right in front of modular).Modern instruments that featured heavily included the Nonlinear Labs C15 and the Expressive E Osmose (below, lower right in front of modular).

“I use also, for performance, the Erae Touch [MPE controller], from Embodme. And also some plug‑ins, of course, from Arturia and Sample Logic. You have so many. And Spitfire also. I use a bit of Omnisphere also. A mixture of different digital elements, and I use a lot of granular processing, which you can do with lots of gear these days. Granular synthesis was also part of this work on making a sound evolve, even sounds that I recorded.

Many of the sounds on Oxymore began life as recordings of acoustic instruments such as the waterphone (front) and thunder drum (rear), often miked with contact microphones.Many of the sounds on Oxymore began life as recordings of acoustic instruments such as the waterphone (front) and thunder drum (rear), often miked with contact microphones.“I have a few different waterphones, from a fantastic craftsman from Poland, Janus Slawek. The waterphone is an instrument you play with a bow. You can put some water in it, and then by moving it while you play with the bow, you can create some very interesting Doppler effects. So I use that a lot. I have a few. And also, the thunder drum is a quite interesting drum with a long metallic tail, and by moving it, you create really the sound of thunder — but it’s not thunder. As Fellini, the Italian director, has always said, ‘I’m not interested by the sound of the sea. I’m interested by the image of the sea. I like to recreate my sea in the studio with some cloth and paintings and fans, and doing something which would be my image of the sea.’ It’s a little bit the same with these thunder drums. You create your own thunder, which is of course not the same one as the real one.

“And also, there is another percussion element called the ocean drum. It’s a flat drum with two skins, and then you have a few hundred little lead balls between them. This is also a very nice instrument that I used, not necessarily to recreate the sound of the ocean at all, but to create this evolving noisy effect that you can only have with the microphone and contact mic, which is different from white noise or pink noise.”

Jean-Michel Jarre