'I wanted to go beyond stereo': Inside Oxymore with Jean-Michel Jarre

Electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre recently participated in two intimate spatial audio playback sessions – hosted by L-Acoustics – of his latest album Oxymore, answering questions on the record itself and the role immersive audio has to play in the future of recorded music. Headliner rounds up some of the unique insights offered by one of the industry’s great innovators…

One of his most ambitious musical projects to date, Oxymore was conceived as an immersive piece that can be listened to in 3D spatial, binaural and stereo formats. Made using L-Acoustics’ L-ISA Studio spatial audio mixing software – and mixed by Hervé Déjardin - the album was inspired by fellow French electronic music icon Pierre Henry, with Jarre describing it as “an extremely conceptual work”. Henry was perhaps best known as a pioneer of ‘musique concrète’ – electronic music based on the manipulation of sampled sound. Jarre and Henry had planned to collaborate on Jarre’s Electronica album, but Henry sadly passed away before the project was complete.

However, following his death, Henry’s widow passed on the stems that had been made in preparation for the collaboration to Jarre, with those same stems being put to use on the material that would make up Oxymore.

Here, we delve inside this immersive auditory experience and serve up some of Jarre’s most insightful comments from those from those Oxymore L-Acoustics listening parties…

How important was it to you that this record work not only in settings like this, but also in club environments?

It's an interesting question because I never thought of that as a priority. The big challenge is to get the dynamics right - the bass and drums and all the low-mids. By exploring this whole issue, I thought that it would be interesting to start from the basics of musique concrète - electronic music being quite noisy and abstract - and going to a more groovy, club feel; going from dark to something more festive or more dynamic. And I wanted to play with this idea of oxymorons and the contrast between some darker and brighter parts.

Musically, with Oxymore I also tried to cover the different periods of electronic music. In electro at the moment, lots of people are influenced by the ‘80s. I think this album is not ‘80s at all. It's more ‘50s and, I hope, contemporary. I tried to cover all these different eras. For instance, with the track Brutalism, I really thought about the beginning of Burning Techno, a big bang when Berlin techno felt linked to the fall of the Berlin Wall. So, there is this brutal, violent, dark, dynamic maelstrom of sounds. Every track is, in a way, linked to a period of electronic music, for me.

How different is the process of composing today, compared to when you started your career?

For centuries, our relationship with music has been a focal one. When you are composing for a symphonic orchestra, you visualize the symphonic orchestra in front of you with strings and things and whatever. And after that, the clever guys in the middle of the 20th century invented stereo, and stereo is unusual. Stereo doesn't exist. It is fake, it doesn't exist in nature. When I am talking to you, I'm talking in mono; a car passing by is in mono, and it's the space around us and the human ears which are actually creating the perspective, audio-wise. Ironically, technology these days allows us to go back to a natural way of listening to sounds, and I'm absolutely convinced that in the very near future, this is the way we're going to be listening to music because of the development of metaverse and the virtual worlds of VR and XR. I think young generations and beginners in music are very lucky to live today. I'm saying this because it's not something that a lot of people have a tendency to say – it’s usually that yesterday was better and tomorrow is going to be worse. That is not the case. The fact that suddenly you can explore music composition in a totally different way is very exciting.

What are your thoughts on what can be done musically in the metaverse?

I have always been interested in VR, and Covid was an accelerator for all these VR possibilities. Of course, when we are talking about immersive and virtual worlds, everybody is thinking about visuals, but we forget that the sense in human beings that is most sensitive to immersion is hearing. The visual field is 140 degrees, the audio one is 360 degrees. I think that the development of all these technologies for musicians is a great opportunity.

Would you advise new artists to start thinking about making music in stereo or spatial aspects?

My advice for young beginners today would be to start straight away with immersive sounds. It's like if you were asking me about stereo, do you think it would be important to start with mono? What's great for young beginners today is that they are able to open doors on virgin territories. I would recommend they explore all these new ways of dealing with sounds and create their own styles. I think that hip-hop and the rock of the future will be very interesting and it's going to generate totally new styles of music. I'm absolutely convinced of that.

What are the biggest challenges you face when composing music in this way?

It's totally different to composing in a traditional way. I believe the fact that you can deal with the space around you makes the creative experience totally different, because you can play with audio objects and place them all around you. I wanted to go beyond stereo; we need to be in the middle of the orchestra. We also have to think differently in terms of where to play this kind of 360 degrees mix. That, of course, is challenging. I want to experiment with how this music can be played live.

What is it that still drives you as a music creator?

It's quite mysterious. It can be a case of being curious, and I think that as long as your health and your body is carrying you, you can go forever. It's a big privilege compared to any other job in a sense. And it's a big privilege to be able to share your music with people. For people to be interested in what you do is something unique. You should never forget that.

I don't want to be too philosophical about it, but I'm always a bit disappointed when I see some artists saying, ‘Yes, I did this, but I don't want to do interviews. I don't want to talk to people’. I think it's a huge privilege.