In the Philharmonie de Paris on an overcast Tuesday afternoon, Jean-Yves Leloup is pondering why what may be the most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled about the history of electronic music is taking place in France’s capital. “I don’t understand why the Germans or the British didn’t do it before,” he shrugs. “But we have a history of electronic music in France, from musique concrète to Jean-Michel Jarre to Cerrone and cosmic disco, the French touch with Daft Punk, now some EDM pop stars.
“Maybe we gravitate to electronic music because it’s not too rock’n’roll orientated, which is the property of Anglo-Saxons. The French have always been told that they can’t sing in English very well or that French doesn’t sound good with rock’n’roll, so I guess that’s the thing. It’s a bit of a mystery for me – I’m French, so it’s hard to have an outside perspective.”
It’s not just that it’s hard to collect his thoughts about France’s longstanding love affair with the synthesiser, it’s quite hard to make them heard over the sound of the Electro exhibition itself: the entire space is shaking with four-to-the-floor beats and pummelling sub-bass. It’s also quite dark in here, the hall filled with projections and UV lighting. That’s the whole point, nods Leloup, the exhibition’s curator and a self-confessed old raver. “Raves were beyond a sociological phenomenon. There was something happening aesthetically – lights, smoke, an ocean of bodies. I didn’t want to imitate it, but I wanted the sensorial feel when you visit. We didn’t want to do a boring historical exhibition where you have to gather specific objects and memorabilia. We’re not trying to educate people.”
Two years in the making, Electro is a pretty overwhelming audiovisual experience. There are installations courtesy of Daft Punk (the lifesize models of the duo accompanied by a squawking robot baby was mobbed by excitable schoolchildren the afternoon I visited); 3D films by Kraftwerk; a five-hour soundtrack from DJ Laurent Garnier that pumps through visitors’ headphones; sculptures made of vinyl records arranged to mimic the SoundCloud waveform of dubstep producer Benga’s 2012 track I Will Never Change; statues of Giorgio Moroder and Brian Eno (the latter depicted reclining on the floor, presumably in the throes of dreaming up ambient music); and a couple of fantastic pieces by Parisian “architectural and digital designers” 1024. One is a vast audiovisual light installation called Core, on which 20,000 LEDs pulsate in time to Garnier’s soundtrack, the other a “dancing cube”, which looks as if it’s made of scaffolding posts and keeps lurching into life with a series of alarming clanks. “It’s a kind of dancing robot, a geometric form that’s become a little more human,” says Leloup. “It’s one of the themes of the exhibition – the poetic relationship between man or woman and machine.”
But, for all its son et lumière overload, at the exhibition’s centre is a genuinely remarkable collection of objects that tells a story noticeably longer than the exhibition’s sub-title – “Kraftwerk to Daft Punk” – suggests. There are ancient synthesisers that resemble telephone switchboards or vast pieces of wooden furniture, dating from an era when electronic music was almost entirely the province of classical music’s avant garde, an intellectual pursuit conducted in “research studios” that resembled laboratories.
Fascinatingly, it turns out the earliest experiments in what came to be known as musique concrète were conducted during the second world war by composer Pierre Schaeffer in a radio studio also used by the French resistance: he later founded Paris’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales, where Jean-Michel Jarre was briefly a student.
The latter’s Moog synth is on display, amid a plethora of studio equipment donated by Jarre. As Leloup points out, its arrival on the market more or less spelled the end for the research studios. “The studios invented everything – how you worked a sound, transformed it, synthesised it. But, around 1967-68, the Moog starts to be used by rock and pop musicians and most of the research studios were totally obsolete, very quickly. Pop musicians were creating more progressive music than they were.”
But it’s with the arrival of disco, then house music, that the exhibition really gets into gear. It offers up everything from vast collections of flyers from Chicago’s early house clubs and 1988’s Second Summer of Love, when the irresistible cocktail of acid house and ecstasy was unleashed on the UK (eagle-eyed British visitors might notice among them a rare promotional card for the Hug Club, the near-mythic pre-acid-house London night where punters took ecstasy, then lolled around on the floor listening to old soul records) to a room devoted to Detroit techno, where cartoon strips depicting the city’s Underground Resistance collective as vengeful robots dedicated to returning techno music “to its rightful place of origin” rub shoulders with videos of the city’s high-speed local street dance, jit.
“That was a real theme of the conversations we had with the guys from Underground Resistance – we had to cover urban street dance,” says Leloup. “It’s how music is sometimes lived in Detroit. There aren’t many venues or clubs, people are dancing to the music on street corners, and the way they dance is clearly coming from the swing era, an African-American tradition.”
Elsewhere, there are extensive photo galleries and films covering everything from queer clubbing to the fetishism attached to vinyl collecting to the crumbling interiors of abandoned clubs to free parties. One screen shows a Tumblr of female, transgender and non-binary musicians and DJs called Visibility, assembled by a group called female:pressure to challenge perceptions of male domination of electronic music. As if to underline their point, across the room, projections of their groundbreaking forebears, Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, are beamed against the wall.
Some of what’s on display has an intriguingly French slant, not least the stuff about illegal raves. In the wake of the legal fallout from the notorious Castlemorton rave – an illegal 1992 free festival that lasted for five days – and the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act, which banned such parties, a number of British free party soundsystems fled the UK for the continent. Some of them, including Spiral Tribe, fetched up in France, where their activities proved hugely influential. Today, Paris is home to a thriving scene of clandestine parties hosted in abandoned buildings and under motorway flyovers, staffed by people too young to recall the furore caused by Castlemorton, let alone the orbital raves around the M25 of the Second Summer of Love.
Like the dimly lit goings-on inside Berlin’s infamous techno mecca Berghain – represented in the Electro exhibition by a scale model of the club by the artist Philip Topolovac, titled I’ve Never Been to Berghain – today’s raves seem to represent a kind of escape from the pressure of constant social media surveillance. “The music is less important than in the past. The location is everything, it’s very raw,” says Leloup. “Everything is permitted inside – there’s a desire from younger generations to have a total liberty of behaviour, from sex to drugs. You can be naked. You have a lot of women dancing topless there now, because all these parties are considered safe places, a reaction to the way you can feel attacked, if you’re gay or a woman, by social media or by politicians, a way of gathering people safe from harm.”
One area of electronic music noticeable by its absence is EDM, the supersized US take on techno, house and dubstep that finally succeeded in breaking dance music to a mainstream American audience in the noughties. There’s an argument that EDM was really a French invention – Daft Punk’s performance inside a gigantic, glowing pyramid at the 2006 Coachella festival is regularly credited with first introducing dance music to a US rock audience, while Parisian DJ/producer David Guetta pioneered the crossover between pop, R&B and house by making singles with Kelly Rowland and the Black Eyed Peas – but its stars are nowhere to be seen. Leloup insists he tried. One section of the exhibition explores DJs and producers’ attempts to protect their anonymity by wearing masks while performing. Leloup says he contacted mask-sporting EDM stars Deadmau5 and Marshmello, but got no response. “Those people,” he says drily, “don’t seem to be interested in art.”
You scarcely miss them amid the bombardment of sounds and images. There is, apparently, vague talk of the Electro exhibition touring, tweaking its contents to suit the countries it visits. It’s hard not to hope that happens. If it’s not quite as exhilarating as finding yourself in the middle of a packed dancefloor at 3am, it gathers together a vast amount of information, presents it in a thrilling way and, in the process, gives the lie to the idea that electronic music is visually unappealing, the province of, as the time-worn phrase puts it, “faceless techno bollocks”.
“Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, Underground Resistance, even Jean-Michel Jarre, they meld graphic design, video, music, live performance. They gather people together so that they can be independent,” says Leloup. “They have an auteur approach, their own world. Guy-Man and Thomas from Daft Punk say that Daft Punk is like a fiction, a movie that they’re directing every day. Ralf Hutter from Kraftwerk has this phrase he uses: what Kraftwerk do is ‘a total work of art’.”
Electro: From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk is at the Philarmonie de Paris until 11 August.