He did not see his father again until reaching the age of 18. For the first eight years of his life, Jarre spent six months each year at his maternal grandparents’ flat on the Cours de Verdun, in the Perrache district of Lyon. Jarre’s grandfather was an oboe player, engineer and inventor, designing an early audio mixer used at Radio Lyon.
He also gave Jean Michel his first record player. From his vantage point high above the pavement, the young French boy was able to watch street performers at work, an experience he later cited as proving influential on his art.
Jarre struggled with classical piano studies, although he later changed teachers and worked on his scales. A more general interest in musical instruments was sparked by his discovery at the Saint-Ouen flea market, where his mother sold antiques, of a Boris Vian trumpet violin.
He often accompanied his mother to Le Chat Qui Pêche (The Fishing Cat), a friend’s Paris jazz club, where saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, and trumpet players Don Cherry and Chet Baker were regular performers. These early jazz experiences suggested to him that music may be “descriptive, without lyrics”.
He was also influenced by the work of French artist Pierre Soulages, whose exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris he attended. Soulages’ paintings used multiple textured layers, and Jarre realised that “for the first time in music, you could act as a painter with frequencies and sounds.”
He was also influenced by classical, modernist music; in a 2004 interview for The Guardian, he spoke of the effect that a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had upon him:
This is where Stravinsky created it in 1913, and it was a huge shock. I also saw the last concert by the great Arabic singer Om Khalsoum. She is the goddess, the Maria Callas of the Orient. Then I heard “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles, and I realised that music can talk to your tummy. I was so impressed by the organic sensuality coming from Ray Charles’s music – there was no intellectual process and it was great.
As a young man he earned money by selling his paintings, exhibiting some of his works at the Lyon Gallery – L’Œil écoute, and by playing in a band called Mystère IV. While he studied at the Lycée Michelet, his mother arranged for him to take lessons in harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Jeannine Rueff of the Conservatoire de Paris.
In 1967 he played guitar in a band called The Dustbins, who appear in the film Des garçons et des filles (fr). He mixed instruments including the electric guitar and the flute, and tape effects and other sounds.
More experimentation followed in 1968, when he began to use tape loops, radios and other electronic devices, but joining the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in 1969, then under the direction of Pierre Schaeffer (“father” of musique concrète), proved hugely influential. Jarre was introduced to the Moog modular synthesizer and spent time working at the studio of influential German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne.
Jarre’s 1969 release, “La Cage”
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In the kitchen of his flat on Rue de la Trémoille, near the Champs-Élysées, he set up a small recording studio. It included his first synthesiser, an EMS VCS and an EMS Synthi AKS, each linked to Revox tape machines. For a 1969 exposition at the Maison de la Culture (Cultural House) in Reims, Jarre wrote the five-minute song “Happiness Is a Sad Song.” His first commercial release was in 1969 with La Cage/Erosmachine, a mixture of harmony, tape effects and synthesisers.
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