Nervous mutterings about the death of the music industry may be premature, but the age of the CD is almost certainly coming to an end. Vinyl, with its tactile glamour, provided its own ritual, from the excitement of placing the needle on the groove to studying the cover artwork in detail. CDs merely perform the function of holding music, and now iPods can do that so much better. The future, if Jean-Michel Jarre is to be believed, lies in a new technology that allows a return to the vinyl experience of pure listening.
"I always dreamed, when I started writing music, to find a way of immersing yourself in it," says Jarre, who has just made the world's first record in 5.1, a five-speaker surround-sound system that has so far only been used for movies. Jarre has taken some of his most famous tracks, Equinox and Oxygène among them, and re-recorded them for Aero, the album that he claims he has been waiting his entire life to make. "This is not a technological trip but a physical experience, which is what music is. It is sensual, or sexual even, and music has the ability to let you create your own movie. Stereo could never give justice to this experience. Now you can be in the heart of the sound."
Jarre's Paris pied-à-terre, in a very smart block under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, seems designed with the sole purpose of providing an environment for this experience. Apart from a bust of Beethoven that was commissioned by Hitler and stolen by the French Resistance en route to Berlin, there are no ornaments in the living room. A row of plastic chairs, surrounded by five speakers, faces a large plasma screen. We take our seats and let Jarre's music assail our senses while the screen holds an image of his girlfriend's eyes, which were filmed in real time as she listened to the album.
"Our senses have changed, even though our emotions have not," says Jarre, who looks remarkably young for a man who has been making music since the 1960s; perhaps an electronic image of his deteriorating face is locked deep in some computer vault. "At the beginning of the 20th century, people were crying in front of silent movies, but if Ridley Scott made a black-and-white silent movie now, he wouldn't find a distributor. So the evolution of our senses is dictated by technology, and during the CD era, we lost our emotional link with music. CDs are not as good as vinyl, and you buy one in the supermarket along with the yoghurt. When I was a kid, an album was something. Finally we can return to the sensual warmth of vinyl with 5.1."
Jarre insists that the technology is only a means to an end, although the technology meant that everything had to be re-learnt. "When you make your first album you are a virgin, and you dream, for the rest of your life, of going back to that purity," he says. "With this I was a virgin again because everything was new and nobody had done it before. Soon I'm doing the first concert in 5.1, in Beijing in China, in front of the Forbidden City and near Tiananmen Square. This is an experiment and we do not know how it will work. It is a virgin concert."
Jarre can trace his musical awakening to seeing a performance of Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring at the Théatre de Champs Elysées when he was a child. "This is where Stravinsky created it in 1913, and it was a huge shock. I also saw the last concert by the great Arabic singer Om Khalsoum. She is the goddess, the Maria Callas of the Orient. Then I heard Georgia on My Mind by Ray Charles, and I realised that music can talk to your tummy. I was so impressed by the organic sensuality coming from Ray Charles's music - there was no intellectual process and it was great."
Another big influence was Pierre Schaffer, the Parisian grandfather of electronic music and the inventor of musique concrète . "He was the first guy to say that music is made not only of notes but also of sounds, so you can record the sound of anything - the rain, footsteps - and turn it into music. Now every band is using musique concrète. That is what samples are. Pierre Schaffer, who was my master, began this line of a very influential style." Further down this line are Underworld, a key electronic band of the rave era and Jarre's favourite of recent years. "They should be admired for creating a live experience with electronic music," he says. "Watching people sit behind laptops for two hours is the least sexy experience in the entire world, so I look to opera for inspiration. I use the tools of my generation - lights, electronics - to follow the opera tradition, and Underworld did that too. The musicians are not on show: it is the experience that counts. The performer is only one aspect among other media."
Jarre, it seems, was a raver before his time, hijacking an unlikely venue, projecting films on the walls and making the light show as important as the music. What he is hoping for now is a shot in the arm from the new technology for a new generation. "I really love Orbital and the Aphex Twin, and they share the same spirit as me. We will see people like this moving out of the CD era and exploring the possibilities of 5.1. The record industry is not in trouble because people are less interested by music, but because music has been sold as if it were washing-up powder: something functional and disposable. Piracy is not the problem; that is merely a product of the way the industry has gone. We need to move into a new age, in which music can perform the deeper functions that it once did again."
Jean-Michel Jarre: 'Our senses have changed, even though our emotions have not' Photo: Pete Millson