At different points in the movie Gallipoli one or both of the two lead characters run, and each time the two heroes run the music that accompanies them is by Jarre: Oxygene II. At the time I first watched Gallipoli while on holiday in New Caledonia I had never heard anything like that music, and I desperately wanted to hear it again. By chance it was playing in a shop in Noumea the next day, and I pointed it out to my mother who was also struck by it. I’m not sure if she asked the shop assistant what the music was or not, but whatever happened, by the time we were back in New Zealand we had either forgotten or never knew the name of the composer.
It is incredible to me that we hunted down the music. I remember going to a record store with my mother and trying to explain to the woman who worked there what kind of music it was. Somehow she managed to decipher my probably monosyllabic descriptions and produced the album Oxygene. It was love at first sight because at the age of ten I thought the album cover was about as cool as you could possibly make an album cover, and when we got the cassette home and played it a whole wonderful imaginary world unfolded in my head.
Music is a very emotional thing for me. It really has to take me somewhere. The two albums that stood out for me in the 80s were Purple Rain and Welcome to the Pleasuredome because both of them seemed to take you on a journey, and be attempting – however imperfectly – to connect up each of its songs in a way that suggested a larger idea. Now I wonder how much listening to Jarre and opera as a kid had to do with my desire to escape into music for longer periods of time than a three minute single would allow.
Opera was probably the first music that I really heard as a child. My mother had cassettes of Puccini’s greatest hits, and Verdi’s arias, but she also had full works by Bizet and Wagner (I’m not kidding about the Wagner). Her father was a fan of operatic singing and had a lot of very old records that we inherited but which were unplayable on modern record players, and which we one day passed on to a family friend with a wind up gramophone.
What was remarkable to me about these arias that my mother sometimes played was their emotional intensity. Some of the Puccini arias are so overwhelming in their emotion that I find it hard to get through them without welling up. Full operas have unsurpassable power. I realise that opera leaves a lot of people cold, and even to people who love it opera is a somewhat bemusing and inexplicable thing. I certainly can’t explain it to you, but it triggers strong feelings in me.
It therefore makes perfect sense to me that the other major musical moment in Gallipoli, aside from all the Jarre, is operatic: an aria, the aria, from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. It comes the night before the boys of the Lighthorse go over the top to “glory”. When the commanding officer sits in his sandbag bunker alone and plays the aria it is so poignant because it seems to be all the fragility of civilisation’s achievements pitted against the inevitability of barbarism’s victory.
I have a small box of cassettes that my grandfather made of himself singing hymns, and light opera songs. He has a good voice, and there are at least four of these tapes with handwritten lists of all the titles in a cursive script. I am sure that music was a place he could escape to, and I wonder where it took him. How far away could he get when he sang, or played opera arias? I suppose that my mother might have some idea. There is very little of my mother’s father left to me: perhaps two indistinct memories, some photos, and a box of cassettes of him singing. I am happy to have all of those things, but most of all I think I am happy to have him left to me as a voice in song.
Which is a curiously intimate memento for a person I barely remember, but it is one that makes me feel connected to him. In general I am disconnected. Looking at photos like the one above is strange; they’re photos that I am in but that may as well be of a different person in another country. They do not cause my memory to rise in response. There is a blank space where a memory should be.
But with the idea of him sitting down at a table one day with a tape recorder and singing songs I do feel a tie. I have spent a lot of my own time sitting at the table with a tape recorder and a guitar singing songs. At the time I was readying myself for stardom, but now I wonder if these tapes will one day be pulled out of a drawer and played by a distant grandchild with a kind of embarrassed fascination.
Which is probably how I should feel about Jarre. A lot of his music has dated. Cathy dislikes him. She makes faces at me when I delicately balance a Jarre album on my fingertips as I transport it to the stereo. I reverently bought quite a few of his albums again, because I had owned almost all of them on cassette and these tapes had long since perished. I am only slightly ashamed to say that I have eight Jarre albums. Of those eight I am prepared to still stand behind three: Oxygene, Zoolook and Concerts in China. All three still take me on journeys. All three still transport me.
The opening track of Zoolook used to so enthrall me that I made up an imaginary screenplay to accompany it. As I recall, my Zoolook screenplay began in a huge alien starport with slow, docking ships covered in lights. I think the reason that Zoolook still sounds good is that Jarre used a lot of real instruments on this album, and at times this music manages to sound like a pretty funky, world music band.
Concerts in China takes me on a more literal journey to (ahem)… China. It’s actually a sort of early greatest hits album, but a lot of the songs sound a lot better on this album than they do on the original Equinox or Magnetic Fields. I think this is because they are played live, and don’t have as many unrealistic playing speeds and effects. Jarre also managed to capture the exoticism of China, as well as the ennui and dislocation of travel, which gives the whole a kind of poignancy.
Oxygene though is best. Even though it is the oldest, and uses the simplest musical machines, it has the most powerful hold on me because it was the first. I can’t tell you where Oxygene takes me, and anyway, you probably have never heard it or, if you have, like Cathy, you would probably find it mostly laughable. So I can’t tell you what it is, that place it takes me, but I can tell you what that place isn’t. It isn’t a mortgage, or Monday morning at 8.00 am, or doing the dishes late in the evening.
It is, I suppose, an imaginary place of escape where I might meet you, my friend, when you let yourself drift to the place of your dreams, or – perhaps – where I might see the ghost of my grandfather singing like Caruso.