Masters of MIDI: Jean Michel Jarre

Each day this week, to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the first synthesizer to feature MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) capability—the Prophet 600 by Sequential Circuits—TWTR will focus on an electronic music pioneer and one of their performances during the early days of MIDI in the 1980s. This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part series.

Jean Michel Jarre – “Rendez-Vous IV” (Live, 1986)

I remember MTV covering the events leading up to Jean Michel Jarre’s extraordinary Rendez-Vous Houston concert in 1986. This included interviews with Jarre that described something that seemed impossible—in some ways, even by today’s standards. Yet, he and his team managed to pull it off.

The story behind this sight-and-sound spectacle is rather long and started with the musical director of the Houston Grand Opera inviting Jarre to perform a concert in celebration of Texas’ 150th anniversary in 1985. After initially declining, Jarre visited Houston and agreed to perform after being inspired by the city’s skyline. Because that year also represented the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA asked Jarre to also incorporate that milestone into the show.

Jarre wound up working with several Houston-based NASA astronauts, including accomplished jazz saxophonist Ronald McNair.  It was decided that Ron would play the saxophone part on “Last Rendez-Vous” for the accompanying album and would record his part from space during a Space Shuttle mission. The video of McNair’s performance would then be projected onto large screens on the sides of Houston’s skyscrapers for the concert, which was scheduled to take place in April 1986.

However, McNair’s next shuttle mission wound up being STS-51-L, which ended when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members.

Devastated, Jarre nearly canceled the concert, but was motivated by the astronauts he had been working with, especially Bruce McCandless III, that the performance must go on—as a tribute to the fallen astronauts. So Jarre recruited Pierre Gossez to play the saxophone part on the album version of the track, which was retitled “Rendez-Vous VI (Ron’s Piece).” Kirk Whalum performed it during the concert.

Rendez-Vous Houston: A City in Concert did take place on April 5, 1986. Jarre, his band, an orchestra and choir performed with the city as a literal backdrop, with a giant screen placed on the side of a skyscraper and lasers and fireworks filling the night sky. The concert was attended by a reported 1.5 million people—at the time, a Guinness world record—and was watched by many motorists on I-45, which became a parking lot during the event. It was the worst traffic jam ever reported in Houston until Hurricane Rita in 2005.

As you can see in the video above, Jarre performed much of the concert on a specially designed semi-circular keyboard of light panels. While this may look like just a visual gimmick, the video below features some behind-the-scenes footage showing that this keyboard is indeed playable. Not only is it connected via MIDI to various sound sources, but it also was connected to triggers for the fireworks to ensure they were in sync with the music.

I decided to use “Rendez-Vous IV” for the post’s featured video because it’s a personal favorite of mine. Believe it or not, in the days MTV used to play music videos, the promotional video for this song quite a bit. It also played to my interest in space exploration as the video featured a tribute to the Challenger astronauts.

Although not featured in the video above, Jarre also used an instrument called a laser harp, which is a single laser beam split into several beams and connected via MIDI to a more traditional electronic instrument or sound source. Wearing special gloves to limit exposure to heat from the beams, Jarre would place his hands over the beams to trigger the sound, which could be further manipulated by the location and movement of his hands (you can see him play the laser harp at the 19:20 mark in the video below).

The video below is the packaged version of the Rendez-Vous Houston concert. It’s not the complete show, but it’s nearly an hour long and features enough highlights to give you a sense of what it was like to experience this amazing spectacle of sight and sound. Jarre went on to perform other similar outdoor concerts around the world.

The fact that all this was done back in 1986 is mind-boggling. If you look at the comments for these videos on YouTube, there are a number of people my age or older who don’t remember or never heard of this taking place and are also amazed that this kind of production was possible so long ago. I know these are tremendously difficult financial times all over the world, but 2016 will mark the 30th anniversary of this Jarre’s Houston concert. It would be awesome and emotionally uplifting if an updated version could be pulled off by Jarre in a few years.

Before you get to the bonus video below, here are some additional related links:

Rendez-Vous Houston: A City in Concert (1986)