Before Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin found worldwide success through the release of their critically acclaimed album Moon Safari in 1998, they spent their days at a French university studying architecture and mathematics, earning an education they couldn't have expected would end in a famed musical career.Then again, it's not impulsive music they make. Rather like scientists formulating theories, Dunckel and Godin—together known as Air—use the left side of their brains to arrange musical compositions that flow like beautiful equations and end in perfect, universally understood solutions. "Music is a sort of mathematics that you can hear," Dunckel said over the phone, his rich French accent oozing images of art and culture. "Math is an arrangement of sounds, and clever composers can make them beautiful and attractive."For Dunckel, music and science—the abstract and the concrete—were equally important components of his education. When he was three years old, his mother taught him to identify musical notes. As an adolescent, he attended a Parisian musical conservatory school and later studied to become a math teacher at university. "I was not very good at school, except in math," he laughed.
Dunckel understands that when pieces are set carefully in a pattern, the result can be, like many of Air's intricate songs, enlightening. Air's layered collection of texture and sound—both organic and electronic—is arranged just so; the calculated yet unexpected result feels akin to seeing the light. "I have to follow specific rules and patterns," Dunckel said. "When you first have a musical idea, it's very pure and nothing follows it; you have to work your brain to find the other parts."
Godin and Dunckel formed Air in 1995 and released their first collection of synth-driven spacey electronica on an album called Premiers Symptômes in 1997. Inspired by progressive Krautrock, the retro affects of '70s Moog, and the moody disposition of brooding soundtracks, Air meticulously crafted a sound all their own, relying heavily on determination and patience. "There are so many musicians and ideas all over the planet," Dunckel said. "It's a lot of work to concentrate to make music so it's dense and not boring."
Moon Safari—the most retro, fun, and infectious of the six albums Air have released—brought Godin and Dunckel global success and prompted director Sofia Coppola to request that Air compose the soundtrack for her film The Virgin Suicides. In 2001, Air followed the emotional, lucid soundtrack with 10,000 Hz Legend, a decidedly cold, beat-fueled electronica album made in the winter. Committed to never taking the same approach twice, Air continued to reshape their sounds with Talkie Walkie (2004) and their newest offering, Pocket Symphony, a subtle, unobtrusive collection of soft instrumentals threaded together by a droning, Ohm-like consistency."We were interested in a Zen sound," Dunckel said. "And in the universal feel of Indian and Japanese music. We discovered that we could reach our goals using traditional Japanese instrumentation. It's not a matter of sound as much as it is the shape of the music," he added.
If Pocket Symphony were a shape, it would most certainly be a circle: Its warm, meandering arrangements return, time after time, to their origin, where an energy—a love, a light—pushes the ethereal songs to go forth with grace and consistency, rather than bursts and breaks. "There is a strong flavor of love flowing throughout," said Dunckel.
Dunckel and Godin have spent more than half their lives working voraciously to open their minds—left and right—to musical evolution. From album to album, composition to composition, they have transcended expectation, learning new ways to solve the same puzzle: To grasp that space where pieces fall perfectly together, where notes are arranged just so (to touch the hearts of people everywhere) and where solutions and revelations graciously appear out of nowhere, mid-Air.