French Touch: A journey through French Electronica

16 Mar/ 9 Apr 2017: Red Gallery, 1-3 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3DT

Curated by Ernesto Leal of Red Gallery and Noise of Art’s Ben Osborne, this exhibition will for the first time collect together photographs, artwork, documents and films that surround the story of France’s electronic music. The archive includes photography by Olivier Degorce, Eduard Hartigan, Prisca Lobjoy and Johann Bouche-Pillon 

 Most people usually begin the story of techno, electro and electronic music in general in the USA or Germany - or, erroneously, in the UK.

France’s electronic music heritage goes back at least to the inter war electronic experimentation of Maurice Martenot, Luigi Russolo and Edouard Varese. Russolo had performed in Paris in 1914, where his music had been more warmly received than in his native Milan. After being injured out of the First World War, he returned to develop his new form of music amongst Paris’ avant-garde artistic community. Here he started soundtracking silent movies with his self made instruments, which he tried to sell into Hollywood. His efforts were overtaken by the arrival of the talkies, but his influence lived on. His last concert was commissioned by a Varese, the Parisian born electronic composer who resettled in New York and is now considered the father of North American electronic music.

In the late 1920s Martenot invented his early prototype synth, but perhaps France’s most globally significant early electronic music period was in the musique concrete era - pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in the late 1930s and early 1940s. 

Musique Concrete made use of new technology, such as magnetic tape, that had been developed during World War II, and grew out of an inter war notion that music of the future would be made specifically for being played on the radio. Indeed Schaeffer developed his ideas at Studio d’Essai de la Radiodiffusion Nationale - which had been the centre for the Resistance in French radio and was responsible for the first radio broadcasts in liberated Paris, in August 1944. 

French  photographers contributing included Olivier Degorce, Edouard Hartigan, Domonic Turner and Jean-Luc Bouchart,.

French Touch features contributions from members of the public, as well as DJs, artists, photographers and key figures in the story of French electronic music - including Laurent Garnier, Jack de Marseille, Black Devil Disco Club, I:Cube, Gilb’r, Antinote Records, Jayhem (Kojak), Chateau Perché, Pierre Henry, Jean-Jaques Perrey, Jean Jacques Birgé , Jean Michel Jarre, DJ Paulette, Isabel Guilet, Lo Recordings and more.

French Touch Red Gallery_L'Hopital St Louis Paris 1992_ Olivier Degorce_header.jpg

Although other places followed (notably in Japan, Italy, Germany and the USA), Musique Concrete established Paris as the global centre of tape music. In fact, it was in Paris that Germany’s most famous electronic pioneer, Stockhausen, became a disciple of Schaeffer and Henry. You only have to consider Stockhausen’s link to Can and Kraftwerk, and Kraftwerk’s influence on Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker and Juan Atkins, to connect the genesis of today’s electronic club music to Paris.

French electronic music influenced a generation of tape loop artists across the globe in the 1960s - with Jean Jaques Perry, The Beatles, the San Francisco Tape Music centre, White Noise and BBC Radiophonic Workshop using Musique Concrete techniques to bring electronic music into the mainstream. French electronic music took different paths in the 1970s,  as musicians experimented in sub genres, such as the music of the conservatoire, epitomised by IRCOM and Jean-Jaques Birgé, the space disco of Space, Ceronne and Black Devil, the experimental art-pop of people such as Bernard Sjezner, or the more prog influenced pop of Jean Michelle Jarre.

When acid house and techno first exploded in the late Eighties, some of the biggest names on the European scene were French. Laurent Garnier, one of  the leading early acid house and techno DJs, was playing The Hacienda and Manchester raves from the beginning. And DJs such as Gilbr and Jack de Marseilles introduced the new music to French radio and clubs. By the early Nineties this vanguard of DJs, producers and ravers had created a scene that nurtured some of the biggest electronic music acts in the world. French DJ culture came into it’s own.

France’s original club culture had grown out of its artistic communities that had frequented it’s bars, cafés and dancehalls. During WW1 American jazz bands, such as 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment band, had toured across France and built a strong enough local following for many of the black musicians to decide to take up residency in Paris. The area around the lower reaches of Paris’ traditional arts quarter in Montmatre for a while became known as Black Montmatre.

But it also saw France’s own cultural ethnic groups, both from Europe and French colonies, mix their sounds into jazz formats. Perhaps most famously, the guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grapelli formed the first real French jazz band - the Jazz Hot Quintet - creating the gypsy jazz sub genre.

This fed into a strong tradition of world music in French culture. And by the 1990s a new crop of independent labels were fusing France’s traditions in hip hop, disco and African music with electronic music. Independents such as F Com, Versatile, Yellow Productions, and majors such as Virgin and Barclay, shone a light on a new school of producers. Artists such as Daft Punk, La Funk Mob, Chris the French Kiss/ Bob Sinclar, Cassius, Etienne de Crecy, Daft Punk, Air, David Guetta, Justice, Mehdi, Sebastian and many more, became global stars.