Jean-Michel Jarre’s music reaches far and wide. Its universal language of alien sounds appeals to millions, and transcend genres and borders, as this group of creative Croatians show.
Throughout the years, the music of the French synthesizer pioneer has been re-recorded, remixed, covered, reinterpreted and «mutilated» by thousands of musicians, fans and even professional artists. On Youtube, you could listen to Jarre covers for the rest of your life and never hear the same song twice. Fans and record labels have released CD homages, tribute bands have performed concerts, and even Erasure copied Jarre’s circular light keyboard in one of their videos (an idea Jarre might have gotten from Star Wars, by the way).
However, one such tribute to the Gallic maestro stands out. In the small central European country Croatia, the 6 member band Sudar Percussion has devoted years to Jean-Michel Jarre, in a project that now culminates in a CD and a special concert on February 11th. The twist? Sudar Percussion, as the name indicates, is not a band of fast-finger synthesizer heroes, but highly skilled percussionists. Sudar performs Jarre music with percussive instruments such as xylophone, marimba and vibraphone. Formed in 2010 by five musicians who attended the same percussion class, the ensemble shortly thereafter launched a professional career and started to play in the biggest festivals in Croatia and abroad. Their album Eat suite (2014) was nominated for the best instrumental album award in Croatia and was a double winner at the Independent Music Awards in USA.
Today the band has six members who are all formally trained within classical and jazz music. The idea of recording Jarre’s music with instruments far removed from the original instrumentation came a couple of years ago from the band’s producer, Branimir Mihaljevic, who is a big fan of Jarre. For the band’s artistic director, Goran Gorše, the idea was really unusual but still interesting; it was a challenge they had not taken on before. The first attempt on a specially arranged Jarre track was the global hit Oxygene 4, 40 years after its release. Goran remembers their first performance of the classic: -It was a test song to see how we felt about playing JMJ music and how will the audience react. On the first concert that we played Oxygene 4, in 2016, when we started to play we heard from the audience one man screaming «Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité» and it was like a scream from the generation of Jarre. After that we realized that there is so many people older than ourselves who would react to the music. The video for the song premiered on the symbolic date September 16th, 2016, which was the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone layer. The Sandra Mihaljevic directed video was shot in the medieval fortified town Medvedgrad, outside Zagreb.
Since then, Sudar has arranged several Jarre songs for their project, which includes recording most of them for a forthcoming CD. Jarre’s music, however, was written for abstract sounds and computerized rhythms, is that not a problem when your studio has completely different instruments? – Well, the music of JMJ lends itself well to percussion. All the synth sounds, sequencers, arpeggiators are basicaly percussive loops. The hard part was to transform these constant repetitions of motifs to make it interesting. When you play it on a machine you use filters, envelopes, effects etc, and on [our] instruments we use dynamics, colours of instruments, agogics. In the begining it was difficult, though. It was a good idea in our [minds] but in the rehearsals it didn’t sound good. All principles that we knew before this project didn’t work. Somehow, songs didn’t sound right. After a few months of hard work we were preparing to record three live songs in the studio. During this period we changed some members and we were researching how to interpret songs, and finally we got that chemistry to play it, Goran explains.
When making home-made cover versions, using MIDI files from the internet is one way of adding the necessary data to the arrangements. But analogue percussion instruments don’t accept MIDI, to put it mildly. Also, care had to be taken in reflecting the human aspect of the compositions. Goran explains the mindset behind the transcription: -The songs that we arranged are not only covers. In terms of melodies, colors, expressions, those things are also [the work of an author] and we are trying to express some of our own feelings with them. There are many composed parts, intrumental solos etc. MIDI files are useful just to shorten the transcription process but our arrangements are much more than that.
The wide tonal and melodic capabilities of different percussion instruments notwithstanding, Sudar also employs other instruments at times. From Slovenia, the ensemble brought in a choir to add to Souvenir of China and Rendez-Vous 2. For Ron’s piece, Darko Sedak Bencic from Croatia was asked to play a trumpet solo in place of the saxophone originally performed by Pierre Gossez on Jarre’s album. Bencic is a highly skilled and university trained musician, which is also the case for the Serbian violinist Stefan Milenkovich, who played with Sudar on Revolution. On the same track, Bozo Vreco from Bosnia & Herzegovina contributes vocals. A former archaeology professor, Vreco specializes in a regional genre of folk music. -For Revolution, we wanted to unite three ex-Yugoslavian nations, and three completely different styles of music and interpretation, to send a message that we need to accept differences. Differences are richness, not argument for wars, hate or homophobia, Goran says.
Even so, Sudar is a modern ensemble and they do include contemporary technology in their instrumentation. The electronics are taken care of by music arranger Nicolas Sinkovic, sometimes assisted by band buddy Filip Mercep. The original concept of the Jarre project was to make everything the acoustic way, but for stage performance it was decided to combine tradition with the new. A special system was worked out in order to keep everything live, while adding electronic backup and touches through the use of plugins, MIDI controllers and software synthesizers like NI’s Absynth and Massive. The arrangements were written in Avid Sibelius, not only to display the score for the other musicians, but also to integrate electronic effects such as filters and envelope changes. -For the first time I had the possibility to combine classical percussion and the classical approach with contemporary electronic production. In that moment I realized that this is what I want. And that it has infinite possibilities. I could write anything and musicians who read notes could play it, Nicolas explains.
The software also allows for synchronization between electronics and human musicians. Emphasis has been put on avoiding flesh & blood artists becoming robots dictated by a metronome, by leaving space for each musician’s personal interpretation. The software also plays a part in facilitating interaction with the concert’s stage visuals. At the heart of Sudar’s electronic system is Ableton Live (also a current favourite of Jarre), in which session view is used to launch clips or prerecorded samples. VST synths and effects are triggered/played with Alternate Mode’s MalletKAT (a hardware MIDI percussion controller), Ableton Push (a controller with 64 pressure sensitive pads) and Roland’s Octopad (electronic hardware drums). A StudioLogic keyboard provides traditional keys whenever necessary. Software also adds effects to live marimbas, vibraphones and Goran’s voice. Nicolas combines his electronics skills with tubular bells, glockenspiel and gran cassa (big bass drum), but the band has not used any hardware synthesizers yet. Recently they acquired a vintage Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 and will probably employ it in performances in the future. However, for certain smaller concerts, Sudar performs every sound from a simplified, acoustic setup.
A total of 16 songs have been arranged for the upcoming concert, of which 13 are Jarre compositions which have also been recorded for the upcoming CD. The whole Jarre project started with more or less random and intuitive selections of songs, but then the members started to think about choosing songs for a concert. Eventually, the idea of making a conceptual story on stage was born. In the classic Jarre tradition, a visual media concept was concieved, to premiere on February 11th at Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall in Zagreb, Croatia. The 1800 seat hall is sold out, such is the interest in the band and its music, no doubt helped by the Jarre project and the promise of a multimedia spectacle with specially designed scenography. The centrepieces are two hexagonal six-meter constructions that symbolize the earthly sphere today and in the future, in particular as it resembles the Oxygene logo. Screens will display a video by Davorin Ercega, who guides us through a story of humanity as we experience ourselves in the hope of a better future. Rich light effects designed by Darko Mihaljevi is also part of the production. The show’s director and script writer is Peða Gvozdi. -Sudar Percussiom will turn the hall into a multimedia illusion, and leave visitors breathless. We believe it will be a really special event with lots of emotions and excitement, Goran says as he pitches the concert. The idea is to tour with concerts for April already booked in the region, but plans are also afoot for international stages.
Concert track list:
Intro (original composition)
Touch to Remember + outtro (original composition)
Souvenir of China
Sudar Sequences (original composition)
Magnetic Fields + special drumming
One might think that an orchestra that has spent a large portion of the last 2-3 years playing Jarre songs are made up hardcore fans, but in reality, until recently musical director Goran did not count himself to the fan base. He had of course heard some of Jarre’s albums before Oxygene 4 started it all two years ago, but other band members were the real fans. However, as the decision was made to make a bigger project out of it, Goran truly connected to Jarre’s work, and not only for playing the special arrangements. The whole team went to Jarre’s Electronica concert in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2016, and it was there Goran heard his favourite, Glory. As he is also a singer, Sudar added the track to their roster.
Sudar Percussion is not only about Jarre, though. While the majority of the tracks at the upcoming concert will be Jarre, the band, or ensemble, or orchestra, is not a Jarre cover band. Their debut CD was all original music, and another project was their interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (which Jarre also interpreted in the past, coincidentally, with hard rock guitarist Patrick Rondat), in collaboration with a string orchestra. And when Sudar was joined by Ink Experiment Duo recently, the theme was progressive and space rock, inspired by the unconventional and eclectic musical approach of Frank Zappa. The concert concept Watchers of the Skies features music by Zappa, Genesis, Pat Metheny, Led Zeppelen, Yes and King Crimson in an unusual setting for two marimbas, two vibraphones, bass guitar, percussion and drums. The mentioned Jarre themed album will also have some additional original tracks.
Over the years, Sudar has performed over 100 concerts and played at more than 50 festivals across Europe. Today there are six fixed members; Goran Gorše (artistic director), Filip Mercep, Nicolas Sinkovic, Robert Batelic, Adriano Bernobic and Aleksandar Vešic, all of whom play a variety of instruments, following extensive university studies in Croatia or abroad. All the members are also part of other bands, teach music at various schools and universities, or play instruments in classical orchestras. The hard work seems to have paid off – the band has not only been recognised by Jarre’s catalogue publisher BMG, but the word in town is also that Jean-Michel himself has expressed appreciation for the unusual interpretations. Goran even has hopes for a future collaboration between the two creative forces.
A final greeting to the Jarre fans, Goran? -Thanks to all who follow our work. We try to do the best of ourselves. If you like our music, follow us on social media and spread the word. Stay tuned for new music and upcoming concerts. And of course, love each other, live in peace and work on yourself.