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Electronic Music, Science Fiction, and AIs: A Conversation with Jean-Michel Jarre by Neil Clarke

For some, science fiction has a sound. A notion of which I was reminded when an opportunity to meet French electronic music pioneer, Jean-Michel Jarre, presented itself in December. It can be argued that no other genre of music better represents what I hear in my mind as the soundtrack for space, science fiction, and the future. How could I say no?

In 1976, Jean-Michel Jarre’s album, Oxygène (1976), became an enormous commercial hit, bringing with it international acclaim while simultaneously elevating the synthesizer’s popularity in modern music. The albums that followed would go on to redefine electronic music and greatly influence artists both inside and beyond the genre. Ever embracing new technology, it should come as no surprise that his concerts have likewise pushed audiovisual experience, further extending his impact on music.

Internationally renowned, his 1993 concert for the 850th Anniversary of Moscow was attended by 3.5 million fans and remains tied for the largest concert of all time. He was also the first Western artist to be invited to play in China.

Jarre’s follow-up to Oxygène, Equinoxe (1978), also featured cover art by French artist Michel Granger, and introduced the visual concept of “the Watchers.” Now, forty years later, Jean-Michel has returned to the Watchers with a new album, Equinoxe Infinity.

What do you see as the relationship between your music and science fiction?

When I started in the late ’60s–’70s, I was actually opening doors on virgin territories because it was the beginning of electronic music. Electronic music, for me, belied nothing—my influences were from movies and books. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey have really been a major source of inspiration to me as a musician and as an artist. It was released at a moment when we had a rather positive vision of the future. We had a kind of liquid sci-fi, the kind of vision of the future that after the year 2000 everything would fly.

I was also influenced by Asimov and Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, and of course Arthur C. Clarke. When 2001 was released, I remember that I watched it every day for a week going back to the same theater. From then on, my music has been linked with science fiction probably because of the explosion of using technology in music. There’s a link between the evolution of pop culture and the evolution of technology. We also went to the moon for the first time while all of the pop culture exploded in the ’60s. After that, electronic music would then be called space music, linked strongly to science fiction.

I think that we lived the end of the 20th century like the beginning of an era and the beginning of the 21st century as the end of an era. What I mean by this is that in the ’70s–’80s we had a greedy appetite for the future. We decided that everything would be possible. It became part of day-to-day life and you can see it in movies, music, and in NASA programs. I did this concert in Houston celebrating the 25th anniversary of NASA and that was a true sci-fi project. We had an astronaut playing a saxophone in the weightlessness of space with me live in Houston. That was a sci-fi short story in and of itself. I mention this because the concert became one of the biggest in America at the time, with 1.3 million people watching.

Then the Challenger crashed.

That was a turning point in space exploration. Everything stopped. For the first time, mankind began to slow its progress. The end of Concorde for example. In the past, I could travel to New York in 3 hours 20 minutes. Today, it takes me more than eight hours.

In the past ten years, we’ve gone back to the future again with people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos thinking of colonizing the moon and exploring Mars. This kind of vision of the future can be seen in movies like First Man and Ghost in the Shell. At the beginning of the 20th century, the vision for the young millionaires was based on very vintage sci-fi heroes. It’s only very recently that we’re still restoring a kind of idea of what science fiction is.

Science fiction is not only dreaming the future but most of the time it’s also dreaming about the way it is going to happen. Arthur C. Clarke became a fan when he wrote the sequel 2010 and I was amazed to see my name in the acknowledgments. He was saying my music was a huge influence when he was writing the sequel. We became quite close friends. It’s very interesting that science fiction is also, in a sense, describing the world waiting for us tomorrow.

Do you have a favorite story about Arthur?

Yes, I have lots of different interesting stories. I stayed with him for a few days and he showed me the sky. He had great telescopes on the roof of his house. I discovered that in the last days of his life, he was consulting with both the US and Russia regarding astronauts.

We also had this project to do the Royal Albert Hall together in London. I would push him onto the stage in his wheelchair and have a Q&A session with the audience. Then, I would improvise with synthesizers and things, illustrating what he was saying with music.

Another time he said, let's imagine the gravity was a hundred times or fifty times heavier than what we have on Earth. What would be our environment? Buildings would be three meters high. Trees would be like grass, very thick and wide. But if the gravity was 100 times less than Earth, then we would have trees of two or three miles high. For instance, we would have tentacles like an octopus and each step would be three kilometers. He had this idea of shifting slightly one parameter of our environment and that would change everything. I really loved that in him.

Equinoxe came out in 1978 and you’ve returned to it with Equinoxe Infinity forty years later. What made you return to tell the next chapter now?

I started from the artwork on the cover. For me, it is one of the most iconic covers of the vinyl era with these strange creatures watching us. I said, “Who are they, these Watchers, created by this great French painter Michel Gondry?” And then I asked myself what happened to them today and in the future? Before recording, I wanted to conceive two different covers (by Filip Hodas) symbolizing two different futures—one more peaceful, green, and blue and one dystopian and more apocalyptic.

I imagined whistleblowers for environment and the evolution of technology symbolizing the evolution of technology. Since I started making music, machines have been learning from us. Look at smartphones and tablets. They are watching, studying us to sell us products that we don’t really need. Going into our private lives to process data. It’s the dawn of our artificial intelligence. The relationship between machine and man is closer and closer.

Human beings have a pessimistic view of the future. Generation after generation, we have this kind of attitude that yesterday was better and tomorrow is going to be worse, but this is not true. We’re going to be here to talk to each other and we should never forget that two centuries ago, forty years old was the max life expectancy. We could die of the flu or cold without antibiotics and 90% of the people on the planet were starving. So even if it’s not perfect, our world today, it is far better than two centuries ago.

The inspiration for Equinoxe Infinity was done by creating a bridge with the first album and mixing in sounds of the environment like the rain, thunder, and wind, but I recreated this with software synthesizers. This album was a soundtrack to two futures. You have brighter and darker sonic moments and I always liked the idea of this almost oxymoron between dystopian types of moods and brighter and sunny types of moments.

So “the Watchers” (the creatures from the cover art) have been in the back of your mind for awhile now?

Yeah, I think I realized recently that I probably spent more time with machines than with human beings. I’ve specifically thought about people living their lives with elephants or dolphins. After awhile they develop a special relationship and I think I’ve developed a special relationship with machines. In a sense I’m trying to tame them. Humans have developed a kind of interesting relationship with AI, and the collaboration becomes more and more deep in a sense. It’s a richer collaboration.

This album was issued with two covers depicting very different outcomes between man and machine. Some of the people you’ve mentioned, most notably Hawking and Musk, have a very negative view towards artificial intelligence. What do you think of this?

It’s interesting because I don’t agree with them. I have huge admiration for Stephen Hawking. He said that we may have to leave Earth by the end of the 21st century to colonize other planets because the conditions to live on Earth will not be possible anymore. Again you have two ways of thinking. If I had the choice, I would prefer to stay on Earth but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to colonize other planets and explore space. I think this is a fitting evolution of mankind. I don’t think it is necessarily dystopian or dark.

These days we should be more optimistic. We are surrounded by dark thoughts and a dark future. The fission of the atom, the other side has allowed us to make giant advancements in energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and other things. By definition, the progress of technology is neutral. It’s all in how you use it. You can’t be afraid of AI because it has such huge potential for humanity. I think it will help us to create, solve, and contain the threats of environmental issues. I truly think we should sooner than later, through education and in schools, integrate AI existence or content to be studied.

In your own work, you’ve employed some rudimentary AI tools. How would you describe the state of the technology?

When I started Equinoxe Infinity I wanted to have two collaborations for the last part of the music with AI and with an algorithm but I think it was a bit too soon. Next time, within the next few months, it will be possible to achieve the true collaboration I had in mind.

I wanted a situation where you feed a melody of your own into an algorithm and the AI and you have variations of what you’ve done in various styles like Bach. Technology was almost able to do what I wanted it to do. In other words, my choice last year was to either go with an algorithm or an AI able to imitate a Beatles song or a Michael Jackson song. There’s a reason for this—lots of developers and engineers are mad fans of Bach. He had a very mathematical approach to music. Since Bach, we’ve needed to integrate groove and other limits. It’s not a technical problem. It’s more because so many developers approach music in a mathematical way.

I think that next stage will be possible in the next few months and I’m sure within the next few years AI will be able to create original music, original paintings, and original stories. And we should not necessarily be afraid of that. We will have to, as usual, reposition ourselves as creators to deal with these new challenges.

Music often has an emotional component. Do you see this as a potential problem for art created by AI?

I have one track on the album called “Robots Don’t Cry.” I should have called this track “Robots Don’t Cry (So Far).” For centuries we thought clouds were smoke and a random phenomenon. Then one day, someone came along and found they could be explained by science. The universe is made of chemical reactions and a mixture of different elements. Our body is also a complex equation with carbon and hydrogen and all that. In the future, emotion could be explained by complex equations. Then it will be possible to create emotions for machines in a convincing way.

For me it’s like cinema. It’s the industry standard of 24 frames per second. When you see it, you don’t see individual frames, you see continuous movement. You can say that this movement is part of the equation, but a few centuries ago, people would have said it’s not possible. If you divide with enough details, each second of a movement, it is still not a movement. It is a series of still photographs. The same with zero and one a binary system. Even more with quantum physics. This is the reason why I think robots will emote.

AI isn’t the only technology you’re interested in. You’ve recently announced a partnership with TheWaveVR. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yes, I’m very excited! TheWaveVR is a very exciting group in Los Angeles creating a VR world. Amongst them is a very talented artist called Sutu. He’s been involved with the special effects for Ready Player One and he’s creating an entire world based on Equinoxe Infinity. One of the goals is to perform live in a VR world in which DJs would be able to go inside and remix the album.

After, I will do a second performance and a Q&A with some musicians and DJs. It’s actually quite funny, I will have my avatar inside the world to answer questions from the other avatars of other musicians and DJs involved. I think it’s going to be the first press conference in a virtual world. Then for three months, people will be able to go into this virtual world and create their own graphic environment based on what we have done, with my music remixing some of the parts. It’s a combination of science fiction movies and video games.

I’m very interested in this avatar idea. When we talk about mortality and people wanting to be frozen for the future, one way of being immortal is living through an avatar which by definition could be timeless.

How do you integrate telling a story into your music when you’re working solely with instrumentals?

For Equinoxe Infinity, I mixed sounds of the environment instead of just sampling some of the wind and rain like I did with the first album. This time, I really tried to recreate them, thunder, wind, and rain, with algorithms and synthesizers. From a musical standpoint, it’s this mixture of the sounds of the environment with immediate vital space with something technological, something digital. This mixture is how I’ve been able to convey what I want in the studio.

I like that I’m making the soundtrack to the story you can create in your own imagination. It’s the reverse of a song. With a song, you tell a story through your lyrics. With this music, it’s something that the listener is free to create, his or her own story or her own storyboard. That’s exactly what Equinoxe Infinity is.

In days where lots of people now are able to watch all the episodes of Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, or Black Mirror over one weekend without sleeping, I wish that this album would be consumed as an episode of a serial or a movie. Like they are listening to this music as if they are watching a movie.

So the order of the tracks is equally important?

Technology can sometimes be a negative thing. On some platforms and also with this shuffle type of playing a list, you have to have tracks. I hate this because it’s like reading a book with a random order of chapters. Most books would make no sense. Some of them maybe? But most of them would make no sense. In my case, I split it up into parts like chapters of a book, but I would hope that people would listen to them in the right order.

When you’re on stage, you add a lot of other elements. How do you adapt your music for performance?

I have almost a dogmatic principle when recording an album in studio, that I never think about the performance or stage work because I think it’s a trap. I only did this for Rendez-Vous with Houston because it was really linked to the project. I didn’t think how to stage the watchers and all that. Otherwise, I think you’re limiting yourself to some extent when writing the music.

It’s very personal. It’s the way I feel. I like to find out what the performance is all about. Visuals are very important because acoustic instruments have been devised to perform and share music with other people. With synthesizers, it’s the exact opposite. These are instruments devised in studios and laboratories. How do you put them on a stage? That was the problem that I started with because it’s not the most sexy thing or exciting thing to stand two hours behind a laptop or synthesizer.

I went to visual elements to try to convey emotions within the realm of electronic music. I’ve been the first one to use giant images to project on buildings. These days, any kind of show, even in the rock world, are using these kinds of elements. When they started, the Rolling Stones or U2 were just a band using a few lights. Then after my first shows, rock bands started to have more visuals. For me these days when I look at all these EDM festivals, it looks like what I was doing thirty years ago.

For my last stage project, I went into it with a science fictional approach. I always am involved with 3-D and I wanted to use the tricks coming from traditional theater with layers of screens. The screens could be done semitransparently to create 3-D effects without glasses. This is the reason why this last tour was such a great success and why Coachella was well-received by the US media and the audience. It was different from what you see on the stage all the time.

I try to push the boundaries of technology. When I’m on stage, I try to have a type of Minority Report glass where I can do this interface to create sounds on this transparent glass.

Is there something on the horizon that you’d really like to incorporate into your recording or stage performances?

Artificial intelligence. Holograms. Holograms on stage don’t exist yet. Right now, you have fake video in 3-D but it’s not really holograms. It would be very interesting to perform a show in space but virtually, with holograms. The sky’s the limit for space exploration but also for performances. There’s also surround-sound full view, 3-D. It’s something I’m exploring at the moment and there’s also the VR world which I’m also passionate about. I think that field is a new way of performing.

Anything you’d like to pass along to our audience?

Yeah, I’d like people to follow TheWaveVR collaboration with my work. I’m also in contact with this company, RED, who developed these first 4K cameras used by James Cameron for Avatar and Gladiator. They’ve moved on to 8K. This month they're actually releasing smartphones in the US and their smartphone is going to be the first with a 3-D screen without glasses. You will be able to look at movies from your smartphone and film in 3-D. It's not science fiction. It’s today. I’m going to have a 3-D version of the graphics for Equinoxe Infinity involved in this project. When you believe you can have a device in your pocket that can film in 3-D without glasses, even Arthur C. Clarke didn’t predict that.

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