Interview with Michel Geiss (I)


Michel Geiss
Michel Geiss

Everybody knows Michel Geiss in the Jarrefan world. How many times we dreamed with make an interview with Michel Geiss? Now, the dream is a reality. We have not more to say. Let Michel Geiss speak!


First of all, let me tell you that I have been long-time reluctant answering questions about my work with Jean-Michel Jarre in a public way. Why would I answer questions as a collaborator? Usually, as a rule, a collaborator has to stay in the shadow of the main artist. However, after having hesitating for some time, I decided going on. My thinking was that I could share the unbelievable personal adventure I experienced, working with such an intriguing and exceptional composer/musician as Jean-Michel Jarre.

 – For those who do not know you, who is Michel Geiss?

I am a musician, freelance Sound Engineer, with a background in electronics, for which I got high school diplomas. I also have a strong interest in medicine, mainly in ear acupuncture, having freely provided many people with ear needling. Among others, Jean-Michel was one of my victims, but if you look at the news, it seems that he survived to my treatment! (smile)

– How were your beginnings in music and sound engineering?

I started learning music theory at the age of 8. Then my choice was to learn accordion playing, just because I was attracted by its sound. Later, I was rewarded in competitions with cups, the usual path… And earlier I also played harmonica. In a way, accordion was an extension of the harmonica, as an accordion is a set of harmonicas in a box! It mainly meant that I was attracted by music at an early age. And when I had developed my knowledge in electronics, I built a small additive synthesizer (apart from a radio transmitter and radio receivers). Later on, I had the idea of designing a new kind of hardware synthesizer. It eventually became the GeissEnveloper.

Incidentally, when we were working on Chronology, Jean-Michel decided using an accordion sound on Part 6. As he was looking for an instrument, I called my friend Claude Cavagnolo, one the most famous accordion makers in France, who lent Jean-Michel the accordion you can see on videos.

 My learning of sound engineering was my training on the job, while working with Jean-Michel Jarre, until he entrusted me with the task of mixing his album Chronology, and then, the FOH sound direction of “Europe in Concert”. To me, sound engineering is closely related to music and both need training. As an example, to me, mixing is part of a musical process, an extension of the composition. Classical composers wrote their scores as full mixes, in choosing both the instruments, their expression, and their number. A multitrack recording is like an orchestra and you have to know how to manage all that! Electronic music is more difficult to mix than acoustic music, as each of the tracks has no natural frequency content. For example, a pad sound can contain both low, mid and high frequencies, whereas in the mix part of its content can blur other parts. When mixing Chronology, I had to drastically cut into frequencies to make the mix as clear as possible.

I consider that the musician’s tool is his instrument, whereas the sound engineer has many tools, be them in hardware or software form. During my years as Jean-Michel’s collaborator, I also completed my knowledge in reading books and magazines on audio, which is called self-learning…

– What was your first contact with JMJ and how began your collaboration?

When I was working in a big company as an electronics designer, I had access to American magazines. In one of them, I discovered information on the first ARP instruments, and was truly fascinated. I immediately ordered the ARP 2600 user’s manual, which I fully translated by hand, just for myself. At that time, I was a member of the American based “Audio Engineering Society” (AES). When I felt I knew the subject fairly well, not only I wrote a detailed article on sound synthesis based on the 2600 in a French magazine on audio (Le Haut Parleur), but I also offered the AES to do a presentation of the instrument in one of their meetings, which was accepted. I was lent the instrument by the French importer, “Pianos Hanlet” for my demo. It went well, and when I had finished my lecture, someone came to me and said: ” I know a musician who, I am sure, would like to meet you”. A few days later, the telephone rang. I hung up and heard “Hello. My name is Jean-Michel Jarre. I have been told that you are one of the very best specialists on the ARP 2600 in France. I would like to meet you.” Then he invited me at his private apartment in Paris, where the same instrument was sitting in a room. I explained him all I knew about the use of this strange and new machine at that time. This meeting, while he was not famous as a composer yet, nevertheless was decisive regarding my next 20 following years!

My presentation of the VL-1 and VP-1 for Yamaha (left Manager Yamaha Music France)
My presentation of the VL-1 and VP-1 for Yamaha (left Manager Yamaha Music France)

– It’s enormously appealing the abysmal difference of quality between “Deserted Palace” or “Les Granges Brulées” and “Oxygene” in just over three years. Even some people claims that, due to this great difference in sound from the early JMJ works with “Oxygene and “Equinoxe”, this two discs were composed by you! and not by JMJ himself!!! Something to say about this? And do you have some theory about this radical change in the quality of JMJ sound in such a short space of time?

It’s amazing what you can see on the web! Just because there is such a difference in sound, doesn’t mean anything in terms of composition origins! When you discover a radical change of the menu in your usual restaurant, do you immediately think that the chef has changed? Let’s be clear, once for all. I am not the composer of Oxygene and Equinoxe! While I am not against some conspiracy theories in politics, I will not give any tiny piece of credibility to that one! Pure untruth! Furthermore, a friend of mine just told me that he had seen on the web the assertion that I am the author of “Les mots bleus”! Amazing! Why not an affair with Charlotte Rampling! (LOL).

My explanation regarding the change of sound is very simple. Before Oxygene, Jean-Michel only worked with very basic equipment, mostly a Revox 2 track recorder and an EMS VC3 or AKS synthesizer. He was not wealthy enough to buy more equipment. But when he decided to start his instrumental main project Oxygene, he managed to finance the purchase of a second hand 8 track recorder and a few more instruments. And keep in mind that even if the recordings of Oxygene were made at home, the mix, obviously an essential step in the process, was entrusted to Jean-Pierre Janiaud, a very good sound engineer, at “Gang” a professional Parisian studio.

There was not such a professional collaboration on the earlier projects, such as Deserted Palace, la Cage, or Les Granges Brûlées. At this point I find it remarkable that Jean-Michel made such an album as Deserted Palace, only using one instrument! And the sound is really good! To me, the album would deserve a full release on CD, not only excerpts! Putting that in the current context where there are so many software instruments available, it raises a question: is creativity linked to a limited amount of available tools? You guess what my opinion is!

– Do you remember the first time you heard “Oxygene”? I mean the pre-mix or first recorded ideas that Jarre  showed you.

It was when I joined Jean-Michel at his studio in Paris while I was at Barclay Studios. Obviously, I was hearing Oxygene while working on the project. I had not been invited to the mixing at Gang Studios, and I discovered the finished record when Jean-Michel showed it to me later. Then, later on, I was highly impressed hearing Oxygene being played in open air, when there was a barge parade with many barges slowly traveling along the river Seine. I was there just to watch the show, as it was explained that it would be spectacular not knowing more about it. I was near Place de la Concorde. The crowd was massive and people were huddling together. There were powerful sound systems on the barges. Many different kinds of music were played. At a moment, I was hearing part 6 of Oxygene in the distance, slowly coming closer and closer. Very strong impression, as I had worked with Jean-Michel on that music earlier!

– About “Oxygene” Jarre told once that there are some pieces discarded and not included on the album. What can you tell us about this? Are there more pieces of other discs that Jarre would not use or even recycled for later albums?

I am not aware of any discarded tracks from Oxygene. Sometimes, Jean-Michel put aside some ideas, which he developed later, but I cannot say more about that.

– In “Oxygene”, “Equinoxe” and “Magnetic Fields” you were briefly credited, but we know that your work was very important in these albums… what exactly was your role?

Oxygene was the start of my collaboration. At that time, I was working during the day in a big studio complex in Paris, “Studios Barclay”. When I was employed at Barclay studios, I was there as a technician. On the upper levels there were the recording studios, whereas I was in the workshop. My body was downstairs, but my mind was upstairs! I felt really attracted by the music engineering side, but was not really interested by the equipment I was left. In fact, I found my equilibrium when I joined Jean-Michel at his studio at the same period. Every day, when my day at the studio was finished, I joined Jean-Michel in his own studio to work on his album at his request, until I had to catch the last train back home. I remember he called me every afternoon, asking me if I could join. It was back in September 1976, when I returned in a very good physical condition from a bicycle and camping trip of 1 200 kilometres, from Paris to Grenoble, which was quite helpful to help me resist fatigue, as I started my other work early in the morning!

That was my first admission as a sound and music collaborator in a studio, which I enjoyed a lot! Jean-Michel also sometimes was asking me my musical point of view on several occasions. I also programmed specific sounds on the ARP 2600, such as the theme sound of Oxygene IV, or the waves sound in part VI. It was a close relationship, in which I felt I was in my right place, much more than being a specialist in electronics before I met him.

With Jean-Michel, for Oxygene, my main role was recording him while he was playing his instruments, as he needed someone to do the job.

At that time, he also wished expanding his limited range of instruments to get new sounds. I was a frequent visitor of music exhibitions, both in Paris (Salon de la Musique) where I enjoyed Francis Rimbert shows with excellent music demos and a lot of humour and in Germany where I visited the Frankfurt Musik Messe since the early years. Consequently, I suggested having a look at the RMI keyboards, sold in France by Piano Center in Montreuil. He said “OK, let’s go!”. While driving his Jaguar, he said to me: “Listen to this!”. What he was playing was the music of “Clockwork Orange” by Walter Carlos. I felt that music quite strange and frightening!

When we were in the music store, he discovered the 2 instruments I suggested: the RMI Harmonic Synthesizer, and the RMI Keyboard Computer, the later using cardboard punch cards as its sound memory. The Harmonic Synthesizer had a truly distinctive sound, had an arpegiator, and proved later to be a key element in the album, notably in Oxygene IV.

Whereas my work on Oxygen was a part time occupation, later, Jean-Michel offered me to work on a full time basis on his next project “Equinoxe”, which was a further development to our earlier collaboration. I remember those years as a fantastic musical and creative experience, and I enjoyed very much working with Jean-Michel. It was even more than a full time collaboration, as I was even sharing a good part of his personal and family life, being fully available as his right hand man!

Working in such conditions cannot be compared with other album recordings for which people compose songs, hire a producer or a sound engineer, book a studio, record and mix, pay the bill and go! Our long hours spent in his studio were fully part of the creative process, which cannot be the case in a commercial studio, where the clock is running and bookings usually cannot be extended! Jean-Michel early understood that sound was a major element for his music. Consequently, much of the time we spent in his studio was devoted to creating sounds.

He was really friendly, had a lot of energy and a lot of humour. I felt he had a quite unusual dimension. You know, success doesn’t come from nowhere!

A 10 Euros ticket I got as I was recording trains for Magnetic Fields
A 10 Euros ticket I got as I was recording trains for Magnetic Fields

For Magnetic Fields, it was different. As I was busy on another project (an album of Jean-Philippe Rykiel), I was much less involved in the album. Nevertheless, I helped as much as I could. As an example I went in railway stations recording sounds of trains. One more anecdote. As I was taking serious risks recording trains passing by half a meter away on a metal bridge, 50 meters above the ground, a railway agent shouted at me with a angry attitude, and drove me to the railway station, where he gave me a ticket of 60 french francs (around 10 Euros), writing as grounds “Was recording the noise of trains with a recorder and microphones for the Jean-Michel Jarre album. “.

Later on, Jean-Michel called me to mix Magnetic Fields 2 in his Croissy studio, from midnight onwards, until late in the morning. The mix is the one of the finished album.

– How do you feel having worked in an unique album like Music for Supermarkets?

I feel that I contributed to a clever marketing idea! The staging was excellent, with a pressing mould destroyed by a blowtorch before bidders! The vinyl record was sold in an auction. Obviously, such an idea, as well as the show, attracted the press. It was back in 1983, July 6 at Drouot Auctioneers in Paris. My role had been limited, as I only recorded ambient sounds in a supermarket: It was near Jean-Michel house and studio, in Croissy sur Seine. The supermarket was called “Champion” at that time, I believe. I had used a digital PCM-F1 portable digital recorder.

– There is something curious related to “Music for Supermarkets”. As you may know some parts of that album were used later in “Zoolook” and “Rendez-Vous”, in this last the “Fifth Rendez-Vous” –a piece where you play the Arp2600 and the Matrisequencer-. So the question is did you played some instruments in “Music for Supermarkets” album? If yes, were these rescued parts of “Music For Supermarkets” re-recorded for “Zoolook” and “Rendez-Vous” or taken directly from the same original recording?

As far as I can remember, I have not played instruments neither in “Music for Supermarkets”, nor in Fifth Rendez-Vous. I am unable to answer your question about any rescued parts, as I was not much involved in those recordings. What I can say is that Jean-Michel played the first part of Fifth Rendez-Vous on a Seiko DS-250 synthesizer, which I had discovered in Paris at our French music exhibition and suggested to Jean-Michel.

– In “Revolutions” (the track) you also participated as vocal singer, right?

The voices in Revolutions come from two sources. One is Charlotte Rampling’s voice, saying “Revolutions” in a vocoder. The other words were electronically generated. For the later, I had bought a voice synthesis card plugged into an Apple II computer. Loïc de Montaignac had programmed the Apple II on my request to get the specific text to speech result.

Not related, apart from that, it had been one of my ideas suggesting to Jean-Michel working with Hank Marvin in Revolutions. I was a big fan of the Shadows since longtime and attended one of their concerts at the Olympia (Paris) with my best friend of that time. As I discovered on a CD I purchased a version of Equinoxe 5 played by the Shadows, I used that pretext to do my suggestion to Jean-Michel, who had been quickly convinced.

The Shadows' Equinoxe 5
The Shadows’ Equinoxe 5

The Docklands concert in 1988 had also seen the artistic coordination of Franck-Luc Dancelme, whom I introduced to Jean-Michel back in 1981. Franck had a company owning “Panis” the glass slide projectors. Back in 1987, after other big events, Franck had conceived a giant show on Place de la Concorde named “Place aux mémoires”.

– You made a great remix of “Chronologie 8”. Sadly this remix is not available in official albums or compilations, just only in a very scarce, hard to find and very expensive promotional CD single. A videoclip was filmed with this new version. Tell us about this remix.

At that time, I had so many things to do that it’s difficult to remind. I also like this version very much. The sequence adds a lot to the song, which to me has been improved. Few people know that I also had made a remix of London Kid, which was not been released as a single.

– From “Rendez-Vous” to “Chronologie” you were credited as artistic collaborator and over the fan community exists a real controversy about this role, but what exactly was the role of “artistic collaborator”? Between your duties of artistic collaborator was also to compose a melody or specific theme for the alubm or all the compositional work belonged to JMJ?

Vast question! The mention of “Artistic collaborator” was a way for Jean-Michel to thank me for my global role. It also meant Jean-Michel knew that I understood and shared his vision of his music, and I was doing my best to develop and support his creativity and projects, in the whole sense, even beyond artistic work.

As an example, when we were making Equinoxe, he was recording some of his musical ideas onto a small cassette recorder, as an audio scratch pad. Once, he said to me “This is not good enough. I’ll discard that one”. I said: “You are wrong Jean-Michel. It’s a good one. You should keep it!”. And it became Part 7 on the album! Lately, he said to me “Your advice was right! I was ready to throw it to the bin!”.

As another example, from Equinoxe we had creative discussions on the choice of the album titles, trying to choose the most appropriate one, regarding the music style of every album.

Therefore, his meaning of “Artistic collaborator” was his way to give me credit for my understanding and support of his projects, both musical and conceptual.

Further to your question related to my duties, it may be surprising, but I can tell you that I had no real duties, except doing my best to make his projects happen in the best way, both artistically and technically.

As another example, let me tell you another story. When we were beginning recording the first notes of Equinoxe, we were starting using his new updated recorder, which became a 16 track from the earlier 8 track version. The new version was made from second hand components. When we tried to erase useless tracks, we were strongly and unpleasantly surprised to discover that part of the original sounds was remaining on the tape, being only partially erased! Therefore, we were advised that a company could provide the tools to fix it. Jean-Michel and I drove to the address and we came back with strange but simple things. When I understood how to use that, I sat in his kitchen and began polishing the guilty recorder’s erasing head on the marble table, replaced it, and guess what… It worked!

One more story. Back in 1978, as Jean-Michel and myself were in his Croissy house, at the occasion of the yearly “Fête de la carotte” (the carrot fest) we were watching a fireworks display from his garden, fired from the other side of the river Seine. He said to me: “Keep it for yourself, Michel. I’d like to do a surprise to Charlotte (Rampling) for our wedding : a firework display, over the house. Could you get their phone number?” I seized a bicycle and rushed to the firing place and was given a business card of the company, named “Eurodrop”. Then Jean-Michel silently organized the event, in relation with Eurodrop’s manager, Daniel Azancot. The wedding display went very well and was really amazing, with multiple colour bombs exploding over our heads, me being in close contact with nearby locks, trying to avoid an unwanted but possible fire display of a petrol transportation barge passing-by! Some time later, Daniel was chosen by Jean-Michel to organize such Jean-Michel mega firework displays as those of La Concorde, Houston, Lyon, and La Défense…

I also consider that part of my artistic collaboration was to use my training and knowledge in electronics to build new instruments or modify existing ones to adapt them to his musical concept.

In that respect, when he told me that one of his wishes was to get a sequencer based on a matrix, I started thinking and designed the Matrisequencer 250, which he immediately accepted as soon as I finished it. And it became one of the main instruments in Equinoxe. And then, later, it was the Rythmicomputer.

Another side of my collaboration was to oversee such processes as cassette and CD manufacturing and mastering of albums. For the later, I have been working in Paris (Dyam Music), and in New-York, where I met such great mastering engineers as Ted Jensen and Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound and Masterdisk. A useful experience when I had to decide on a new job.

– What is your favorite album of JMJ? And your favorite song?

It’s a difficult choice! Whereas I like most of his albums, my personal taste goes toward the first ones. I feel really in phase with the music of Oxygène, Equinoxe, Magnetic Fields, where I find analogies with creative painting, transposed to electronic music. Oxygene 7-13 was in a similar vein. To me, there is a lack of that kind of vision in electronic music nowadays. Anyhow, I have to admit that my preferred one in that regard is Equinoxe. And what a chance to have been working beside Jean-Michel on that one!

At Jean-Michel's studio left to right Michel Geiss, Gerald Ano (house keeper), JMJ, Paul Jarvis
At Jean-Michel’s studio left to right Michel Geiss, Gerald Ano (house keeper), JMJ, Paul Jarvis , Patrick Pelamourges

– There is a very important person that you knew in those years: Fancis Dreyfus. What was your relation with him?

My relation with Francis Dreyfus has been occasional, sometimes at his office, sometimes at Jean-Michel or another studio, sometimes at one of the concerts. I felt that Francis had a dimension. I was impressed by his caliber and sense of grandiosity. He was bearing that in his self. More recently, I had a moving moment with Francis, when Danièle Feuillerat offered me to join at the office. I spent a moment with Francis who hugged me and recalled me things of the past. It was the first time I had such an emotional moment with him since my early days with Jean-Michel. A short time later, I was shocked to learn that he passed away. I am sure Francis had been fully aware of my role with Jean-Michel.

Concerts in China: discussing with Jean-Michel
Concerts in China: discussing with Jean-Michel

– Curiously enough, the concerts in China, which are among the most popular in the Jarre of the 80’s, is one of the biggest mysteries in the JMJ fan community. Except for the official video (heavily edited) and the double LP (which contains much study work), we have little information on these concerts…  can tell you us about your experiences there? As many people suspect the tracklist for the two concerts in Pekin were different to the tracklist of the three concerts in Shanghai? Do you remember or do you save the tracklist of the five concerts in China?

The Bejing and Shanghai concerts happened in october 81. I started rehearsing a few months earlier in Jean-Michel’s studio in Croissy with the musicians. Well… For those concerts, I was in charge of the FOH (Front Of House) mix. I remember that the track list was more ore less open to changes from the moment we left for China. It was more than 30 years ago, so it’s difficult to remember the details. I even remember having been notified by Jean-Michel a new track listing as the audience was entering the stadium in Bejing! The live radio broadcast on Europe 1 starts at the beginning of the Beijing concert with Equinoxe Part 4. Then there was the Chinese orchestra playing “Fishing Junks”. In the second part of the broadcast there were Magnetic Fields 5 (The last rumba), Magnetic Fields 2, the laser harp, and Oxygene 4 ending the concert. Europe 1 radio broadcasted the main parts of the concerts. I keep a recording made by my father at that time.

02- Concerts in China - The chinese musicians
Concerts in China – The chinese musicians

I have one anecdote but Jean-Michel already told it several times. Before living Croissy, he decided to take his coffee machine to China, as he knew that none would be available there. A special flight case was designed to host the said machine. We were lucky being able to drink coffee in Bejing, while preparing the first concert. But as soon as one Chinese worker had a taste of the beverage, it was the start of the end, as more workers came to the machine and had their coffee as well. In a very short time all the coffee stocks were empty! I have to say that before that episode, I was seeing the same workers only drinking plain hot water!

And as Jean-Michel’s place on stage was designed with fluorescent tubes above his head, Dominique Perrier was calling it “la crêperie”! And when musicians were asked to say a word to the audience, Dominique dared saying loudly “En chantier d’avoir fait votre plein d’essence”, a French word game, which had been fully and literally translated into Chinese anyway by the presenter!

There was on stage a truly bizarre instrument, covered with mirrors, flanked by headlights, rear-view mirrors, a registration plaque saying “Electronic Nights” in Chinese. It was in fact an Elka X705 organ, fully customized for the concerts. Perfect for the Last Rumba!

As a last anecdote, when we did the three concerts in Shanghai, I played a short piece of a famous French traditional piece, “Sous le ciel de Paris” from the mixing desk standing on a platform, at a moment during the concerts, with astound Chinese turning their heads towards me while the stage lights were switched off and an giant Eiffel Tower projected with laser beams! That was an idea of Jean-Michel!

Playing accordion in Shanghai during the concerts
Playing accordion in Shanghai during the concerts

– As a professional of sound, which is your opinion about the live sound of those concerts?

The quality of the sound system which I had suggested was very good and soft sounding, with the Bose 802 speakers, unlike the usual staked speakers available at that time. At first the sound mix was far from ideal. Jean-Michel, Dominique Perrier, Frederick Rousseau and Roger Rizzitelli were in charge of feeding my mixing console with their own mix, consisting of many different sound sources, which I couldn’t control from my desk. And the sound mix improved from the first concert to the last one, as they were better controlling their setup. Finally, the last concerts were sounding much better. Anyway, the music played on stage would have needed more rehearsals, in real conditions. Not the best concerts I have attended so far.

Concerts in China - The stage with the Bose speakers
Concerts in China – The stage with the Bose speakers

On my side, before we left, I had to imagine an unusual sound system, considering that no good sound equipment was available locally, and the air transportation cost of standard heavy sound systems from France would have been a fortune. Consequently, instead of using the usual speakers, I suggested taking a set of 88 much smaller Bose speakers and stacking them close to the stage (44 on each side), with the addition of 4 smaller sets of 8 located at the back for quadraphonic sound effects (such as the ping-pong balls bouncing from front to back and back to front). The full system, a total of 120 speakers(!) worked well. Even Mark Fisher, the stage designer who had worked with such acts as Pink Floyd, AC/DC and U2 was surprised with the sound quality!

Concerts inn China : in the bus with Bernard Dulau
Concerts inn China : in the bus with Bernard Dulau

– You made the mix of “The Concerts in China” album. There is not much information about which parts of that album are live recordings and which studio additions. Could you specify it?

“The Concerts in China” album was mixed by René Ameline at Ferber Studios. Jean-Michel knew René since longtime. I was not involved in the album making, nor in the mix, so I cannot elaborate on additional parts. Anyhow, what is already known is that “Souvenirs of China” was composed after the concerts.

2 replies on “Interview with Michel Geiss (I)”

[…] First of all, let me tell you that I have been long-time reluctant answering questions about my work with Jean-Michel Jarre in a public way. Why would I answer questions as a collaborator? Usually, as a rule, a collaborator has to stay in the shadow of the main artist. However, after having hesitating for some time, I decided going on. My thinking was that I could share the unbelievable personal adventure I experienced, working with such an intriguing and exceptional composer/musician as Jean-Michel Jarre. Read more… […]

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