Yann Tiersen ∞ Composing the sound of Infinity
Interview for his new album Infinity – Read it on The GROUND Magazine
I think it’s great to be able to communicate with the world, it’s brilliant. On the other hand, economical globalization is the worst thing that happened to us. It’s horrible and the opposite of what we do as artists. I’m afraid that this situation will lead to the end of the world.
“Technically and legally I’m French but from where I come from, culture is really different compared to France” tells me Yann Tiersen about Brittany and the Ushant Island, the place where he finds himself for our conversation. It’s the place where he was born and one of the three islands that inspired his latest work, titled Infinity. From the secluded north-westernmost point of France, Tiersen continues to play and experiment with music, sailing away from the safe harbor and etiquette of the Amélie composer, the 2001 surreal film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The timeless, and French, soundtrack was heavily driven by the accordion and piano but it also featured a spinning bicycle wheel. It’s fair to say that Yann Tiersen has never been the typical kind of composer, in fact doesn’t see himself as such; he’s an anarchic musician and a visionary. Through his studio albums and countless collaborations, as the instruments he can play, he pushes music closer to our us, creating a universal soundtrack and language made of different moments, textures, sounds and noises. Everything life is made of.
For someone in the middle of rehearsal for his upcoming tour, Tiersen sounds relaxed and I immediately understand that his sensibility is the same as the one we feel in his music. As with every true musician, music is the only meaningful language worth speaking, the only one he knows to communicate. Nevertheless he needs to use words to tell me how good he always feels about going on the road, “We’re almost ready and the set list is finished”. The making of Infinity has definitely something to do with his peaceful state of mind; the album is so minimalistic to a point where, the first time I heard it, I found myself in front of an immense landscape where something esoteric was slicing the air. This feeling is remarkable if you think about the layered process involved in the creation of these sounds.
“I was pretty relaxed and excited to finish with my modular setup. I wanted to avoid all of that without ending up with just modular sequences, so I did something radically opposite. The starting point was completely acoustic and I played with the cliché kind of things let’s say, but why not?! I went to Iceland just with my toys instruments for two weeks and I recorded with the intention to transform everything afterwards, through the modular and computers. I’ve kept everything; even the bad ideas and I used those songs as a base for new songs. It was like doing remixes of songs that don’t actually exist yet, it was quite funny to do”.
The endless back and forth of the album, from acoustic to electronic and digital, and then back to analogue, is in line with Tiersen’s working ethic. His previous work, 2011 Skyline, already contained tracks from the recording sessions of 2010 experimental Dust Lane, in the same way Amélie‘s soundtrack was made of a selection of compositions from his first three albums and the then upcoming L’Absente. Such restlessness creates an ever changing sound, always open to new frontiers and fusions of classical, folk, and indie music. “After a long time, I had this idea to work with acoustic instruments. The last song from Skyline is Vanishing Point and I did it during the mixing with my computer. It’s made of samples from all the songs of the album so I was really excited about pushing things further for the next album. I like to transform things and maybe for the next album I could do the same but with free recordings during my travels. I could try to recompose the sound, manipulate it and try to make songs bases from that”.
Tiersen may be compared to contemporary composer Philip Glass or referred to as the Gallic Michael Nyman but none of these two smashed a violin at the age of thirteen to buy an electric guitar, like Tiersen did. His love for the punk culture will not only shape his avant-garde style but also affect is vision where there are no rules in the world of sound. Instinct and freedom of expression has always been more important for Tiersen than his classical training but he doesn’t see his artistic journey as a series of random shifts. “I think that my music is not really changing, it’s just evolving. I need to feel that what I’m doing is genuine as it was at the beginning and in order to reach that, I need to explore new ways of making music. This is the only way for me to be able to play music and let ideas or inspirations come to me”.
Infinity does not only represent a return to acoustic music as the base for a new textured sound, it also stands for a connection with Nature through songs inspired by stones, minerals and their infinite nature. “I live on an island and I see nature, especially stones and stony places, all the time”. Le Phare, his third album, was inspired by the light house of the island that through his rays of lights revealed to Tiersen hidden details of the land. This time around he goes beneath the land, using different languages trying to reach a universal meaning. Steinn is sung in Icelandic, Grønjørð in Faroese and Ar Maen Bihan in Breton. The closing track of the album, Meteorite, is a true piece of poetry reciting “my heart could be a stone or a sponge” as to express our carelessness or openness towards the wonders of nature and our lives. “I am a massive fan of Aiden Moffat and I asked him if he was keen to write some lyrics about stones. He came back to me with this beautiful piece and when I first heard what he did, I thought that Meteorite had to be the last song”
I would never dare to say something like “out of tune” to someone like Yann Tiersen but as it slips out of my mouth, he gives me permission to use it to describe the somehow distorted and haunting melodies of Infinity. Every track is as complex and layered as the geologic process that formed the Grand Canyon, and yet the outcome is at times introspective and at times joyous like the first single A Midsummer Evening. “Everyone chose it, I guess because it is the catchy one I don’t know!” he sincerely tells me about it before continuing “You can say out of tunes because I love out of tune things. There is this piano at the beginning of the song and I detuned and actually during the whole recordings it was out of tune. When everybody found out they just said that maybe it was better to tune it, at least in one point of the song. It was funny!”
Despite being tired of talking about Amélie, Tiersen’s contribution to it, as well as on 2003 Good Bye Lenin! and 2008 Tabarly, are all examples of how the music for a film can sometimes be remembered much more than the film itself. What Tiersen explains to me is that he’s now far away from those little streets of Montmartre and that Amélie girl played by Audrey Tautou. “Actually I don’t really see it as an important moment of my life. I am happy with it, it’s a good film to have my music featured in but on the other hand, it is really far from what my music is about right now. I am also really far from the Parisian scene and though I am proud of it, I’m also a bit embarrassed because Paris is almost a concentrate of what I really hate; I hate Paris and people always think about it when listening to that soundtrack so, it’s strange to be associated with that since it’s far from me”.
It seems redundant to ask him about a possible new soundtrack in the future; in fact the answer is no. Still, Tiersen gives me an insightful point of view on the relationship between music and images: “I have never been into soundtracks; my former music is not a language but something really abstract. Making music is a sort of DIY for me and I want to be free to experiment and play with music. I really need to have fun with what I’m doing and, on top of that, I think that it’s impossible to make music from images. This is why I don’t really like soundtracks”. I can’t allow myself to be disappointed by his statement because, even if another soundtrack won’t come along, I now understand what he means: every album he makes is a soundtrack on its own and it’s up to us to imagine the film we want to see as we listen. On Infinity, he outlines a few details like his love for Iceland “I felt at home the first time I was there; it smelled and felt like home with its impressive nature” and his fascination with stones and minerals. The rest is left for our personal discovery.
As I picture him with his toys instruments in Iceland, I ask him about his first childhood memory about music, and just like the lighthouse that inspired Le Phare, light symbolizes his first encounter with music. “I know that what put me to music was light actually; it was an exhibition happening somewhere and it impressed me. You had to walk through many lights and there was music so, the whole thing really struck me. My memory is blurred but I definitely remember the feeling”. Those lights keep on showing him the way and one thing is for sure: they keep his teenage sensibility alive. “The hardest thing about being a musician is to keep playing, even if it’s not working. Beside that it is actually a dream life!” he say with no filters “my life didn’t change that much, I live as if I was still 15 thanks to music and the fact that it’s my living. It’s true, I became a father along the way, but I didn’t really change me. Growing up doesn’t mean that you can’t do silly things anymore; actually I do more silly things right now! I’m more in peace with myself and I enjoy my girlfriend and kids. As you grow up you enjoy the real things a bit more”.
Tiersen is ready for another extensive tour and will be presenting Infinity for the first time in an intimate show in London, at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] and having the chance to travel the world, and gaining access to different cultures is for him the only good thing about globalization. “I think it’s great to be able to communicate with the world, it’s brilliant. On the other hand, economical globalization is the worst thing that happened to us. It’s horrible and the opposite of what we do as artists. I’m afraid that this situation will lead to the end of the world; people are not able to find their place and feed themselves in this world. If we are able to talk to each other, we can rebel to all this and I think it’s the only way to avoid going to war, and save ourselves”.
Does Infinity also represent the artist’s desire for escapism? Not really, it’s more of a reflection or, as Tiersen simply tells me, “Infinity is life itself. It’s quite an optimistic vision on things like unity and life”. The sound of Infinity is not meant to provide us with some philosophical answers. Infinity is the pursuit of life itself, with its unsettling sounds, outburst of happiness and magnificent wonders. The language of Nature is as universal as the different languages we hear on the album. Yann Tiersen is the mere, and master-composer of a positive moment that allows us to experience our own view on mortality and immortality. “It’s good to be positive at the end of the journey, or at least at a certain part of your life”
Infinity is released on May 19th via Mute Records
Tour Dates and Tickets Info on www.yanntiersen.com