Sunday, 4 December 2016

Taking in Oxygene

I first heard Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene album as a child, in the early 1980s. I was perhaps four or five years old, and I had never heard music like it before.

It was the record that my father was playing. I remember asking my dad what the music was, and his reply was: “Oxygene”. Like many, I would mis-pronounce it as “Oxy-gene” for a long time – it took many years until I realised that the title was in fact, simply the French spelling of oxygen. The realisation that this music came from another country, made it all seem even more enchanting and exotic.

But back then, I remember being utterly entranced by the sound of the album – I couldn’t hear any recognisable instruments… to me it sounded organic, more like some kind of naturally grown sound that was emitting from the stereo.

However, this wasn’t just music – it was something much more sensory. My young artistic imagination was already hard at work – Oxygene part 4 transported me into the sky among the clouds; Oxygene part 3 sent me to a vast snowy expanse with a glaring winter sun, and most significantly of all, Oxygene part 2 propelled me out into space.

At home, I was surrounded with books of space imagery and science fiction art, and from a young age, I was addicted to Doctor Who. I obviously made a connection between the electronic sound of Oxygene and the iconic Doctor Who theme music. Watching Peter Davison running around battling aliens, saving the Earth and traveling to other worlds felt like the right match for this kind of music.

However there was one particular piece of artwork, which hung on the wall at home, that for me, was the perfect fit with Oxygene, and that was a large framed print of British space artist David A. Hardy’s Stellar Radiance. This painting was my window into another world, with its rocky alien terrain and huge burning sun. The warmth and atmosphere that I felt radiating out of the painting perfectly matched the sound of Oxygene and in my young mind, the two became inseparable.

Looking back, it is no surprise that I became obsessed with science fiction, space and electronic music – and it is this which led to me creating both my own science fiction artwork and composing my own instrumental electronic music.

In the last ten years, I even became close friends with David A. Hardy, who is still creating astounding and inspiring artwork – and in our small world, both Hardy and Jarre knew Arthur C. Clarke – my favourite SF author. So I found it very rewarding that both science fiction and art led me back to Oxygene.

It was actually a long time until I rediscovered Oxygene. In the mid-1990s, as a student with no money, I picked up a second hand copy of the album on vinyl. By that point my musical tastes had defined themselves and I knew it was time to reconnect with the album. I seem to recall that this was the first time I had heard parts 5 and 6 in full, and also the first time I had seen Michel Granger’s haunting cover artwork. It was then that I realised it was not an album about space at all, but about the environment and the Earth.

Everything about the album still fascinated me, right down to the tracks not having individual names, but simply part numbers. This transcended music – it was more like an ever-evolving abstract painting that you could hear. And all those years later, it still instantly took me to another place and state of mind.

My rediscovery of Oxygene was perfectly timed, as the following year, Jarre released the sequel, Oxygene 7–13, which proved to be the catalyst for my discovery of and obsession with all of his music. I remember seeing the promotional video for the Oxygene 10 single on TV and it sounded fantastic – modern, yet still distinctly part of the same soundscape.

Oxygene 7–13 was the first thing I bought with my very first paycheque after starting my first job at a local newspaper, in September 1997. I still remember getting home and putting the CD on for the first time and being blown away. That album became the soundtrack to that point in my life, and very soon I found myself discovering the rest of Jarre’s music. Oxygene 7–13 was not any kind of remake or reimagining, but a continuation of the first album, but also it felt like returning to a special place that you haven’t been to in a long time, and seeing what has changed.

Several years later, I would find myself in the suburbs of Paris, regularly visiting the woman who would become my wife. On many occasions in France, I found myself tracing Jarre’s footsteps, visiting the neighbouring towns of Croissy-sur-Seine and Bougival as well as the Eiffel Tower and the futuristic-looking complex of La Défense – two locations where Jarre had held record-breaking concerts. My time in Paris only cemented my admiration of Jarre’s music, and also brought me closer to it.

I started creating my own music in 2006 – and the influence of Oxygene is never far behind. As an artist, I find making music no different to painting; one uses sounds, the other uses colours. So it didn’t matter than I had never had a music lesson in my life – this was more about sculpting a soundscape that could transport the listener to another place or be completely open to interpretation.

One special event for me was the chance to see Jean-Michel Jarre in concert, when he performed the entire Oxygene album live for it’s 30th anniversary in 2008. Jarre’s show at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the most memorable and personally moving shows I have experienced – to hear the album performed in full alongside tracks from Oxygene 7–13 was very special indeed.

Fast forward to 2016, and the welcome surprise of Oxygene 3 – the final part of the trilogy. After a year of so many sad and depressing things from the loss of cultural icons to harrowing terrorist attacks, it is the small pleasures in life that we appreciate more. Music heals, it brings people together, it lifts moods and it makes you think. And in the case of Jarre’s music, it is a constant source of inspiration.

I was left incredibly moved by the first listen of the new album, but after just a couple of days, it’s much too soon for me to delve deeper into it – there is so much to explore. But even after only a few listens, there is no denying this new masterwork, and an album more than worthy of sitting alongside its predecessors.

All three Oxygene albums have a timeless quality to them, and a highly engrossing, organic sound. When you consider every sound on these albums came from cold, hard machines, one can only applaud Jarre’s intricate genius of producing such emotive music. Oxygene has always been a sensory experience, transporting you through a whole spectrum of moods and emotions, through hot and cold, dark and light.

This is the kind of music that makes you feel grateful to be alive and to be able to enjoy our planet with its stunning skies and wonderful landscapes. In many ways, Oxygene somehow manages to bring you closer to that sense of appreciation, from the wonders of nature to the simple ability to take in a breath of fresh air. And yet with it, we are also taken right back to the original album’s environmental warning, reinforced by the slow, burning scream that we hear on Oxygene part 20 – at the very end of the series.

So what does Oxygene mean to me? All of the above, and much more. It feels very personal; it is music I have grown up with, and that has shaped my own creative decisions – it is music I cannot be without. Sometimes Oxygene will take me right back to childhood; other times it feels forward thinking and music to intensely enjoy at 38, just as much as I did when I first heard it. Granted, this style of music takes a certain taste or frame of mind to fully appreciate. And nor are these throwaway “pop” albums; you cannot be content with just the one track in your collection (such as how Oxygene part 4 turns up on endless “chillout” compilation albums). These are not albums to be played passively. No, this music has to be listened to with dedication and experienced as a whole – an epic, flowing soundscape to explore and become utterly absorbed in.

To each and every fan, the album (and indeed the whole Oxygene series) means something different – yet we all share the same admiration for it. I’m grateful to have been able to enjoy it and share in its journey.

Merci, Jean-Michel.


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