Sunday, February 27, 2011

Recording Ambience: Jarre's "Oxygene" Thirty Years Later

I am not the most devout fan of Jean-Michael Jarre, but I know his work.  I used to hitch a ride to school with a guy who would listen to “Magnetic Fields” and “Oxygene” regularly and my dad was also a fan.  When the CD player showed up in our house in the mid-80s, “Rendez-vous” was one of the first things that hit the tray.  In general, though, Jarre’s work was too soothing for my teenage ears, and by the 80s his image had turned a little cheesy.  He mostly went in one ear and out the other at the time.  There were, of course, exceptions:

Recently, though, as I listen to Ratatat or the “TRON: Legacy” soundtrack, Jarre keeps coming to mind.  I think that his contribution to electronica is under-recognized, so this week, I decided to take the bull by the horns and listen to his breakout album “Oxygene” critically, perhaps for the first time ever. 

A caveat - Jarre wasn’t that great of a keyboardist, but I don’t think that piano technique was his priority.  He was a synthesist, and as a craftsman of recorded ambience, he was quite the innovator in his day.  When “Oxygene” was released in 1976, there was no ProTools or Ableton, and computers ran on little paper cards.  Jarre was working with 8-track recorders and ARP synthesizers, and considering these tools, it’s a testament to his exploratory vision that the ambient depth of “Oxygene” is so impressive.  Its spooky sci-fi vibe is organic and immersive in a way that subverts the technological conditions under which it was constructed.  It’s actually a pretty innovative ambient achievement.

Unfortunately, the “ambient” label would not come to exist for another twenty years when bands like Enigma started to have some success in the late 90s.  As a result, Jarre ended up in the 80s “New Age” bin more often than not.  In 2007, however, he re-recorded a “live” version of “Oxygene” using vintage keyboards, complete with attendant video clips:

Considering that your phone could probably automate what all four of those guys are doing while downloading an app in the background, this performance may seem a little archaic.  If, however, you can imagine a much younger Jarre in an early 70s apartment studio multitracking this whole mess by himself, I think it deserves quite a bit of credit.  

Back to the original question: why does so much of my current listening remind me of Jarre?  I think that my early exposure to Jarre laid the foundation for my understanding of electronica’s ambient potential.  Contemporary synthesists construct ambience as a matter of course, but I seem to be particularly attracted to artists that use actual keyboard sounds like the ones that Jarre used.  His brand of “imaginary space opera” from this era provides the perspective from which I currently listen to electronic music.


  1. As a huge fan of electronica this was eye opening. I'm convinced I'm the only person still left who is providing business to electronica labels, but listening to this track sounds like something that could have been released last year. I hear so many elements in this music that are still in the genre today. Plus, just thinking about all those vintage synths in one room crushes any experience I ever had in a late night bender to Guitar Center (where you leave all your credit cards at home and turn up the synths so loud you drive everyone from the store). Great post!

  2. Thanks! I could not embed it, but the whole "Jean-Michel Jarre in Your Living Room" concert is up here (and in better quality):