French composer Jean Michel Jarre and whistleblower Edward Snowden, two enigmatic figures for starkly contrasting reasons, have collaborated on “Exit,” a track off the electronic music pioneer’s upcoming new LP Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise. For the pulse-racing cut, the composer travelled to Russia to work with the former NSA analyst, who remains in exile after leaking classified documents detailing how the United States and other countries are spying on their citizens.
In this exclusive video to Rolling Stone, Snowden discusses his love of electronic music, Jarre’s influence on the genre and why he collaborated with the Oxygène composer.
“I’ve always appreciated electronic music. The melodies that I remember with most fondness are actually from video games where they generate 8-bit music, and those kinds of chiptunes have really made a resurgence in modern musical culture today,” Snowden says in the video. “And I think people like Jean Michel are the ones who really popularized that and made that possible for us to appreciate it as more than just sounds, as more than just background, but as actual culture.”
Speaking to Rolling Stone, Jarre says he reached out to a journalist and mutual acquaintance he shared with Snowden who eventually put them in contact. “We connected quite easily through a trusted friend of Edward’s,” Jarre said. “I think that Edward was surprised to receive my invitation to collaborate on a musical composition, to voice his message via another media.”
For Jarre, Snowden’s refusal to turn a blind eye toward the U.S.’ spying program reminded the composer of his mother France Pejot, a key figure in the French Resistance during World War II. “I thought a lot about what she told me when I was a kid, saying that when society is generically something that you can not accept, you have to stand up against it,” Jarre said. “Edward Snowden became a modern hero, not by saying ‘stop,’ but to be careful regarding the (ab)use of technology.”
Over the course of a few videoconference conversations, Jarre and Snowden laid the foundation for their collaborative track, including its frenzied, anxious tone and Snowden’s message within the song. “Obviously the spectre of surveillance heavily looms as soon as you find yourself in direct contact with Edward,” Jarre told Rolling Stone. The collaborators eventually met up in Russia, where Snowden has been seeking asylum, to complete work on “Exit.” “I was surprised, ” Snowden admits in the video. “It was certainly not something I was expecting, as a engineer [and] someone who’s not really cool.”
Jarre added that it was Snowden who gave “Exit” its name. “You have a choice and ‘Exit,’ whether it’s used as a noun or a verb, is something which we pursue,” Snowden said of the track. “It’s something where we direct ourselves. It’s about an action which may change everything from where we are to another direction, a departure to somewhere else.”
On the musical side, Jarre said of composing “Exit” at his Paris studio, “I wrote a speedy techno track evoking the constant and hectic production of data and the obsessive quest for more information. I then linked the music with this mad hunt and chase in order to get hold of people like Edward Snowden. One of the recurrent themes of Electronica 1 & 2 is the ambiguous relationship we have with technology. On one side we have the world in our pocket and on the other side, the world is spying on us constantly.”
The double-edged sword that technology presents is a central theme and the “core message” throughout “Exit.” “Technology can actually increase privacy,” Snowden, with his voice subtly and eerily modulated, says on “Exit.” “The question is: Why are our private details that are transmitted online, or why are private details that are stored on our personal devices, any different than the details and the private record of our lives that are stored in our private journals.”
Later on the track, Snowden warns over an icy drone, “Saying that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different that saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. It’s a deeply antisocial principle because rights are not just individual, they’re collective. What may not have value to you today may have value to an entire population… If you don’t stand up for it, then who will?” After a layered, frantic interlude by Jarre, Snowden concludes by again asking, “If you don’t stand up for it, then who will?”
Snowden is one of a “dream team” of collaborators and guests that Jarre assembled for Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise: Primal Scream, Gary Numan, Hans Zimmer, Cyndi Lauper, the Orb, the Pet Shop Boys, Peaches, Julia Holter and more contribute to the album, the follow-up to 2015’s similarly all-star Electronica 1: The Time Machine. (When Electronica 2’s track list was first announced, a mysterious “E.S.” was listed as the guest on “Exit.”)
Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise is out May 6th. Those who pre-order the album will receive an instant download of “Exit” as well as the Peaches-featuring “What You Want” and opening track “The Heart of Noise, Part 1” with Rone. After a summer performing at a handful of European music festivals, Jarre will embark on an international tour starting October 4th in Cardiff, Wales.
“Music works across language, music works across borders, music works across all cultures,” Snowden says in the video. “Music, as with all art, is one of the only ways that we can create bonds and bridges between human hearts that are beyond semantic understanding, and that is reason, more than anything else, why we need music.”