Retrofuturism in French Electronic Music

A new collection provides powerful examples of French ambivalent modernity; at once futuristic, optimistic, erotic, humorous, restless, and apocalyptic.
Cosmic Machine Sequel: Voyage Across French

The recent release of the compilation Cosmic Machine: The Sequel (Because Music) highlights the breadth of innovation at work in the French electronic music that emerged out in the early ’70s in tandem with progressive rock. A follow-up to a similarly named 2013 collection, the 22-track album spans the ’70s and includes songs from Pascal Comelade, Heldon, Christophe, and Araxis.

The compiler, Uncle O, emphasizes the deeper history of French electronic music by giving attention to lesser-known acts that certainly influenced more acclaimed recent acts such as Daft Punk, Air, Etienne de Crecy, and Cassius. He positions earlier electronic artists within a cultural space between progressive rock, the French counterculture, and science fiction, noting how these delineations were porous in the ’70s.

Then, countercultural magazines such as Actuel, Métal Hurlent, and Parapluie shared a fascination with the potential of science fiction both to critique existing French society and to imagine a new one and with the ability of progressive and electronic music to bring young audiences together. This interplay fueled a robust period of French popular music that continues to draw attention from listeners seeking to understand this moment of cultural blending that dreamed of a utopia while fearing the impending doom of societal collapse.

The development of progressive rock in the wake of the student protests at the Sorbonne in 1968 was tied to the revolutionary aspirations of the French underground. Linked to similar movements across Europe and the United States, the French underground sought to reformulate the idea of revolution through a transformation in lifestyles, which included challenging the division of high and low culture through the creation of cultural hybrids.

Progressive musicians such as Magma, Amê Son, Gong, and Heldon fused elements of rock, jazz, and compositional music to inspire cultural change among French audiences and create a new form of popular music that would eliminate social boundaries in France. In combining these elements, progressive musicians hoped to inspire their audiences to take political action in conventional terms while at the same time acting out political change in the realm of culture.

Similarly, electronic music advanced out of many of the technological innovations of the ’60s, although in France there was a definite hierarchy of access for synthesizers. Composers such as Pierre Schaeffer (who appears on Cosmic Machine), Pierre Henry, and Bernard Parmegiani were part of the Groupe de Recherches Musicale, a collective that predated the current IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). Each created electronic pieces in the ’60s that showed an interest in popular music styles and presaged the kind of pop electronic hybrids of the ’70s that would culminate the commercial success of Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1977 Oxygène. Jarre, however, was as much a product of the French musical establishment, with a pedigree including a stint at the Paris Conservatory.

With the increased availability of new machines — for example, the Minimoog and the ARP Odyssey — in France beginning in 1970 musicians outside of the cultural elite could produce sophisticated electronic works. Much like progressive rock musicians, popular electronic music composers and producers leveled cultural distinctions between high art and low art through their music, often sharing audiences and ideas, especially in terms of the influence of science fiction in their work.

French science fiction has a long history predating the ’70s, most evidently in the 19th-century works of Jules Verne and the Lumière Brothers, but found a new vibrancy with bandes desinées (French-Belgian comics) in the pages of underground magazines such as Métal Hurlent. Here, artists such as Moebius and Philippe Druillet created vast fictional universes that expressed the anxieties of the ’70s — nuclear technology, ecological collapse, and the somatic allure of capitalism — that also envisioned a freedom of mind and body in these idealized spaces, often through the eroticization of female bodies. Both progressive rock and electronic music found harmony with these messages, whether in the space operas of Magma, the fantastical alien odysseys of Gong, or the cybernetic philosophies of Heldon. Science fiction not only offered imagery but also ideology for musicians to draw from for their sonic innovations.

The intersection of these ideas reveal how the French often struggled to reconcile technological progress with the existing notions of French culture in what Michael Bess has called ambivalent modernity. This collection provides powerful examples of this ambivalence, at once futuristic, optimistic, erotic, humorous, restless, and at times apocalyptic.

Opening with Pascal Comelade, who sits on the edge of serious composition and pop music, Cosmic Machine: The Sequel synthesizes all of these strands of French underground culture, revealing a broad range of sounds being coaxed from keyboards and knobs from the sublime to the buoyant. Richard Pinhas, appearing as a solo artist and under the Heldon and Video Listz names, understood electronic music as a method of deconstruction, a way of reaching what he called “a brutal state” in an interview in Actuel in 1975. Other tracks appear to follow Pinhas’ lead, as did other artists not included on the compilation such as Patrick Vian on his 1976 album Bruits et temps analogues, perceiving the cosmos as a place of struggle. Much of this electronic noise predicted the synth-punk sounds of Métal Urbain and Suicide.

Other artists, such as Rosebud, Nicholas Peyrac, and Christophe, offer a more tranquil version in line with the style of Kosmische Musik coming from West Germany, exemplified by groups such as Popuh Vuh, Faust, and Tangerine Dream. These artists used synthesizers to create minimalist and ambient music, markedly different from the style Pinhas favored and more interested in the escape into the infinite of space. The connections between different European scenes show a broader interest from both musicians and audiences in the futurist sounds of electronic music.

The last types of artists on Cosmic Machine are the French disco artists, who used the newly minted sounds to fashion a style that emphasized how technology transforms leisure. Tracks such “Pop Corn”, “Pepper Box”, and “Vadrouillard 3” all point to how the emergence of disco and dance music in the -70s went hand in hand with union of electronics and acoustics (especially drums, as in the music of Cerrone, who was not included on this collection). This combination was central to much of the serious experimentation going on in electroacoustic music composed in laboratories and research centers in France to explore the dynamic possibilities of technology, but in popular electronic music it signified a novel approach to creating popular music focused on the pleasures of the beat. Again, the style of French electronic dance music and its embrace of synthesizers were not unique to France, as evident in Georgio Morodor’s Italian disco symphonies and Kraftwerk’s German proto-techno, but the French were again at the forefront of this union between pop and electronic music.

The Cosmic Machine collection serves as a primer on how French musicians and audiences understood the potential of electronic music to transform the conventions of pop music, which by extension would transform society. This early alliance between militant youth and technology in the realm of pop was a product of its time, as young musicians were still operating under the influence of the utopian spirit of the late ’60s. The artists who aesthetically followed as part of what was labeled French Touch in the ’90s have very different political interests, despite sharing an interest in futurism, revealing how the porousness between progressive rock, science fiction, and electronic music did not endure long after the ’70s.

Jonathyne Briggs is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest. He is the author of Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music (read excerpt here) , 1958-1980 (Oxford University Press, 2015), which examines the relationship between the globalization of popular music and the development of social communities in France between the ’60s and the ’80s. He is currently working on a history of the politics of the treatment of autism in France since the ’60s, tentatively titled Perpetual Children.