In 1982 Jean-Michel Jarre published his double album “The Concerts in China”. In those days I had a run down Crumar Performer string ensemble keyboard. It was all I could afford. Full of longing en not a little bit of envy, I looked at the pictures on the inner sleeves of this album and read the liner notes. Fairlight, OBX A (Oberheim), Taurus (Moog), Prophet 5 (Sequential Circuits), and many other illustrious names from the world of synthesizers tickled my imagination. I tried to recreate the sounds of this album with my Crumar. I used borrowed guitar pedals to mangle and beef up the meagre sounds I could get from the beaten up instrument. But I could never reach the level of detail and refinement that I heard on these records.
It was much later that I understood, that equipment was an important part of the puzzle, but not the only one. Jean-Michel is not only very well versed in sound creation, he is a good composer as well. Music runs in his blood as his father was the composer Maurice Jarre. Although Maurice Jarre wasn’t around much when Jean-Michel grew up, having divorced his wife and moved to the US, he probably left the genetic imprint of music composition on his son.
The Concerts in China double album is full of intricate sounds and subtle sonic sprinklings of 1980’s synth royalty. It is easy to forget that these days you could make an album like this with just a laptop and a good quality audio interface. Provided you have the musical skills to put it all together. In those days however, it was a huge undertaking to link all these temperamental pieces of electronic gear together and make them work together. Don’t forget: this is a live album! I have no doubt that some editing in the studio has occurred before the album was released, but still, these concerts did take place. It must have been a nightmare to get all the VCO‘s and VCF‘s to perform their duties every night. Some of the synthesizers mentioned earlier were notorious for sounding different every time you turned them on and some of them had to go through lengthy tuning regimes before use.
Beeps and gurgles
Listening back to this album now, I am even more amazed at what I hear. There are so many sounds, melodies, counter melodies and little playful beeps and gurgles to unpack that I hear new things every time I listen to this album. And I have listened to this album A LOT!
The blending of the (then) ultra modern synthesizer driven sounds with traditional Chinese instruments is also very interesting. It turns out that some of the sounds the Chinese orchestra produces are not a million miles away from the electronic sounds. Some Chinese instruments have an almost electronic sound of their own. Which is surprising, given that some of those instruments have been around for thousands of years.
The only criticism I could level at this album is the cheesiness of some of the rhythmic elements. I sometimes get a polka-feel from some of the rhythms. But that s purely a matter of taste. If you happen to love polka, you’re not going to agree with me. I would love to get a more rock feel from these tracks, some of the sounds absolutely warrant it.
Spits and spats
All in all I have great admiration for this album and I still love listening to it. The 1982 pressing I have has been played many, many times and that is reflected in the spits and spats that sometimes crop up. But at the same time, given how many times it has done the rounds, it still sounds pretty good. As a time piece and as a masterclass in electronic music making, this album still has legs. Even after all these years.