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Jarre, Jean-Michel

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(1948-)  Synth player and showman originally from Lyon, France.  Jean-Michel is the son of clasical composer Maurice Jarre, but the elder Jarre left the family when Jean-Michel was five years old, and the two seldom spoke after that.  As a young adult, Jean-Michel acquired a taste for experimental music; he wrote and performed several pieces of music relying mostly on tape studio techniques, although he was also an early adopter of the EMS VCS3. He also did some work composing commercial jingles and background music, and played guitar in a rock band.

In 1976, he performed and recorded the album Oxygene in his home studio, mainly using his VCS3 and whatever other analog synthesizers he could get his hands on, including some unorthodox choices such as the Eminent 310U organ-string synthesizer combo. The sound of the album was quite distinct from almost any music being performed by any other performer at the time. It took some time to find a label willing to release the work, but when it was released, it sold spectacularly well despite little radio airplay. Oxygene was a change from Jarre's early work, in that it relied heavily on interplay of melodies and harmonies with some sound effects; it is sometimes regarded as being an early masterpiece in the ambient genre. However, Oxygene also set up a conflict that has persisted throughout Jarre's career, in which he has alternately embraced and rejected the Oxygene aesthetic, sometimes whipsawing his audience with the abrupt changes from album to album.

Jarre's next album after Oxygene was Equinoxe, continuing in the Oxygene vein, but for his 1980 album Magnetic Fields, he largely turned away from the analog synths in favor of the Fairlight CMI. Using the Fairlight, he re-introduced some of the musique concrete techniques from his early work, and he also took advantage of the Fairlight's sequencing capabilities to incorporate some electronica stylings. Through much of the '80s, he would go back and forth between the two styles.

Jarre inadvertently became involved in the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986. He had written Rendez-Vous with plans to perform it live in Houston during the Shuttle flight 51-L; astronaut Ronald McNair was to have performed a live saxophone part during the concert, which was to have been downlinked and mixed with the concert audio. Challenger exploded during ascent and everyone aboard, including McNair, was killed. Another astronaut, Bruce McCandless, urged Jarre to go ahead with the concert, and he did so with part of the work renamed for McNair.

Jarre's recorded output slowed down after 1990. By this time he had become well know for his extravagant live shows, some of them performed outdoors for extremely large audiences. (In his career, he has three times performed before an audience exceeding 1 million people.) Jarre's live shows became known for their spectacular lighting, pyrotechnics, and stage performances. One of trademarks of Jarre's live shows is his performance on the laser harp, using a high-powered laser with which Jarre must be careful not to burn himself. Jarre continues to do extensive touring, but he has not recorded an album of all new material since 2007.

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