Jean-Michel Jarre embodies his mythical ‘Watchers,’ discusses the human relationship with AI and new album, ‘Equinoxe Infinity’ [Interview]
Jean-Michel Jarre has released Equinoxe Infinity, 40 years after his fourth studio album, Equinoxe. Both albums are about “The Watchers,” creatures that look towards the future, speculating on what they might find. As an influence to Daft Punk, Gesaffelstein, and many more, Jarre is known as a pioneer in the electronic, ambient, and new-age genres. Amid the release of his lauded Equinoxe Infinity LP, the French luminary sat down with Dancing Astronaut to talk about the about the album, his technological ventures, and Jarre’s hypotheses about the future of music and life as we know it.
Jarre has just arrived in New York — we settle in discussing the city and the ongoing press junket for the newly released record. The Grammy nominated composer describes the city’s hectic nature, though he seems at home with New York’s hustle and bustle.
What are you doing in New York?
I’m here promoting my new album, Equinoxe Infinity. I’m also involved in a virtual reality performance for the album on Saturday Dec 8 at [10:00 p.m. with Sutu from Australia who was involved in the special effects of the last Steven Spielberg movie, Ready Player One.
My partnership with @TheWaveVR will launch with a show by SUTU tomorrow December 8th 7pm PST. If you want to be part go to https://t.co/9UnQLoMWvZ or https://t.co/QdOdeDjnT4 for all details.
There will be a live stream on my facebook as well. pic.twitter.com/nKgmm9805q
— Jean-Michel Jarre (@jeanmicheljarre) December 7, 2018
December 12, I have a Q+A in the VR world. Going back to Europe to prepare for that.
Tell us more about the virtual reality performance. How does VR play into the album?
I’m very involved and interested by the possibilities of VR. It’s like Dancing Astronaut was drawn up as a concept for VR because that’s exactly who we are in the VR space. We’re inviting all these DJs to go into the virtual world and do their own remixes of the album. I wanted to explore all different technologies from virtual 3D, to VR, to 3D environments, and being spied on by artificial intelligence, one of the themes of the album.
Do you think a VR world is an easy next step for the entertainment arena?
Have you seen Ready Player One? The most brilliant part was when Stephen Spielberg re-enacted Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where the main character’s virtual avatar goes into the scene of the Shinning with the twins, and opening the wrong door, and all the blood rushes by him. This is where AI and VR are quite exciting for the future.
The reason why I did the album as a soundtrack of two possible futures with two different covers: one, expressing more peaceful, green, positive mood and the other one is more dystopian because I believe we all have that choice. That’s why the album finished as a question mark, for us to decide.
What made you come out with the sequel to Equinoxe now?
I’m not linked with the idea of it being a sequel of the first one. Both albums are about these creatures called “The Watchers.” I’ve always been intrigued by the artwork of Michel Granger, who designed the cover of Equinoxe. I’m intrigued by these creatures. What happened to them today, and what will happen to them in the future? The Watchers are whistleblowers both regarding environment and new technology. Technology is also watching us, in order to send us products that we don’t actually need, going deep into our product lives. I wanted to express a future where man and machine are closer and closer in our day-to-day life and how to cope with this. I imagine the soundtrack hitting two distinct futures represented on the album. This is why you have sunny, dynamic-pop moments and darker moments within the same piece of music.
The human voice and vocoder enters into the fifth movement and lasts through the seventh. Was this intentional? What was the idea behind “If The Winds Could Speak?”
We will be able to survive in 21st century only if we can evolve in good intelligence and good faith both within environment and new technology. These two factors are much more interdependent than we think. On “If The Winds Could Speak” my idea was to start with the human voice and processing them with granular synthesis, which is one of the most advanced synthesis we have. I wanted to create sounds that had elements of man and machine, begging the question of their differences.
I love the comment Dancing Astronaut did on “Robots Don’t Cry” because I could have called this track “Robots Don’t Cry, So Far” because I’m quite convinced that in the near future, artificial intelligence will be able to create original content, movies, music, stories, and this is not something we should worry about. Maybe we will re-position ourselves, as the creative person, to use these new parameters in different ways. So this idea of using the granularly synthesized human voice and creating it into something quite human is exactly the idea behind “If The Wind Could Speak,” “Infinity,” and “Machines Are Learning.” These songs are using human vocals, transforming it into granular synthesis, and then using the harmonic content of the sounds while still having that human touch.
You present an optimistic and pessimistic view on the album. Do you think human creativity is no more than just mechanics, or will human creativity be difficult to translate to AI?
Humans are just using 10% of our brains. AI can help us use the 90% left, which could open doors to creativity that we’ve never seen. This doesn’t necessarily have to be frightening. It can also be positive and very interesting. Maybe our brain, in the future, the education system will be different and act like a hard drive to simply access information. Maybe it gets stored in the cloud, using this information to react and making informed decisions. I don’t think AI will stop creation or creators at all, I think it will position us in a totally different context.
It sounds like we’re working in harmony with AI. This is an optimistic view of the future.
We should be optimistic by subversion. It’s very easy to be dark. We could go together in the studio, and in two hours, we could do a dark song. It’s much more difficult not to be dark. To try and be bright, and funny, and positive without being cheesy.
If you look around, the news channels get their views by exploring and exploiting the dark side of the world, where the positive side is not sexy for a lot of us and it’s quite challenging. That is one of the ideas for the project, to try and mix the dark and light side. It’s quite exciting in music when you can have happier positive moments hiding melancholy or the reverse.
Is there a movement on the album that describes your attitude towards technology and the future?
I would say that I think positively as a reaction to the darkness around. I’m not necessarily optimistic about the future, I’m just saying ‘I don’t know.’ It’s not necessarily going to be a Terminator dystopian type of world, but I think it’s interesting from an artistic project to explore that theme. “Robots Don’t Cry,” in one sense, is interesting because I used the Nanotron, one of the first electronic virtual studio technology instruments. I need to make the statement about technology that robots don’t cry so far.
The “If The Winds Could Speak” vocals have you question the sound’s humanity, and through the wind means going throughout time into the future. “Equinox Infinity” the final track, is an illustration about the idea of the journey towards the future with a lot of human sounds, nature sounds, machine sound, but it ends as a mystery. I took quite some time to create this track, which is mostly harmonious with elements that are not necessarily harmonious, and that can be quite disturbing and noisy at the same time.
You’ve been pioneer of new sounds your entire career. What do you think is sonic creation’s next frontier?
My next wish and project would be to establish a collaboration with AI. I wanted to create the “Equinoxe Infinity” track with AI, but it was not ready yet. The collaboration should be ready within the next few months, for my next project. The kind of AI collaboration I experimented with was an algorithm able to imitate a Michael Jackson track or Beatles track, which is not what I was expecting, or to fill the AI with a melody and it returns with variations of that melody, which ends up being quite straight and fairly boring.
Mathematicians love Bach because he had a very mathematical approach to music, so it’s the best for artificial intelligent recreation and variation. Today, in 2018, there are far more concepts that musicians have to add, like a groove to the rhythm. The right software is not there yet, but it’s coming soon. I’d like for us to challenge ourselves to help improve AI and not be scared of it for those reasons.
On the VR side, I very excited by developing alternative possibilities for creators.
Space has been a prominent motif in your work for half a century. Are there space themes in the album that relate to the connection between human and technology?
I’m a big fan of the Dancing Astronaut name. I was jealous because it’s a fantastic title for an album or a movie. At the beginning of my career, NASA asked me to integrate the 25th anniversary of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center into my Houston show celebrating Texas’s 150th anniversary on April 5, 1986. I worked with many Houston-based astronauts, including Ronald McNair, who was suppose to have played the saxophone on “Rendez-Vous VI,” recorded from space into the concert.
McNair unfortunately passed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, but I was urged to proceed in memory of the shuttle’s crew. It was a turning point of exploration as the world all of a sudden stopped exploring space.
Next year we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon, and it will be broadcasted on the German French channel, ARTE, to be the guideline of a quite trendy shows called “Winter Moon” that will link everything from people to the moon, and associations with the moon.
It’s very interesting talking about dancing astronauts. Because dancing astronauts is very relevant to what pop culture is about. Astronauts and the explosion of pop culture started at the same time. In the 1960s and 70s we were obsessed by space in music, in passion, in architecture. We were all kind of dancing astronauts, and it seems like that identity was lost a bit, but I think it’s coming back with movies such as Gravity, Interstellar, and all these Mars colonizing talks, so the future belongs to Dancing Astronaut.
Well, shucks. That’s quite the compliment. Thank you, Mr. Jarre.
With all this new technology making creation easier, it sounds like we have room for more exploration.
So true! Exploring space is not only exploring outer space, but it’s also exploring the virtual space. VR is exactly that. We are like astronauts exploring a virtual world. By the end of the day, putting your foot on another planet is not the same as going into the virtual world. Say hello to all the dancing astronauts.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.