Program: Yann Tiersen

French composer and multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen creates fragile, evocative compositions filled with achingly beautiful melodies. Although he is perhaps best known for his music on the award-winning soundtrack of the film Amélie, that only scratches the surface of his rich musical output. His recent album Kerber (August 2021) finds the piano set in a beautifully textured, highly immersive, and thoughtfully constructed electronic world. His new album 11 5 18 2 5 18 was released on June 10 of this year via Mute on CD and digital platforms. A limited edition clear double vinyl with etching follows on September 30. 

A companion piece of sorts to Kerber, 11 5 18 2 5 18 delves even deeper into synthesizers and electronic programming. Tiersen uses Kerber as a sampling bank to build a whole new recontextualized world. The new album was born from experimentation in the studio ahead of a performance at Superbooth, Berlin’s modular and synthesizer festival. With more time than usual to prepare for his live set, Tiersen found himself in his Eskal Studio on the French island of Ushant. Where Kerber took a more nuanced and subtle approach to the electronics, 11 5 18 2 5 18 brings the listener into new sonic spaces. 

Breton-born artist Yann Tiersen has been involved in music for most of his life. He started learning piano at the age of four, took up violin at the age of six, and received classical training at musical academies in Rennes, Nantes, and Boulogne. At the age of 13 he chose to alter his destiny, breaking his violin into pieces, buying a guitar, and forming a rock band. Growing up in Rennes gave Tiersen the perfect musical education in the form of the city’s annualRencontres Trans Musicalesfestival, showcasing acts like Nirvana, Einstürzende Neubaten, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, Television, and Suicide. When his band broke up a few years later, instead of hunting for new musicians, he bought a cheap mixing desk and an eight-track reel-to-reel and started recording music solo with a synth, sampler, and drum machine, poring over the grooves of old records on the hunt for loops and orchestral strings to plunder. 

“One day I thought, instead of spending days on research and listening to tons of records to find the nearest sound of what I have in mind, why don’t I fix this fucking violin and use it?” Through the summer of 1993, Tiersen stayed in his apartment, recording music alone with guitar, violin, and accordion, guided not by the classical canon but by intuition and his vision of a musical anarchy.  

By the end of the summer of 1993, Tiersen had recorded over 40 tracks, which would form the bulk of his first two albums, La Valse des Monstres and Rue des Cascades. Six years later, these records would find a much larger audience when several tracks, along with music from his Le Phare, would be used on the soundtrack of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amélie (2001). Le Phare went on to sell over 160,000 copies, confirming Tiersen’s status as one of the most pioneering and original artists of his generation and commencing a run of successful albums like 2001’s L'Absente and 2005’s Les Retrouvailles (with guests Stuart Staples of Tindersticks, Jane Birkin, and Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins). 

In 2010, Tiersen signed with Mute and released the first of a series of albums with more of a band presentation. Dust Lane introduced synthesizers to his recordings. “I have always tried to incorporate vintage electronic sounds that I liked in my music, but for the exception of the [early electronic keyboard] OndesMartenot, it never happened until Dust Lane.”  Then Skyline (2011) followed, continuing his collaborative work with appearances from Ólavur Jákupsson, Peter Broderick, and Efterklang, to name but a few, and in 2014 he released Infinity, an album that built upon toy piano recordings electronically manipulated to provide a base for the rest of the instrumentation.  

2016 saw Tiersen’s first solo piano release, EUSA, a move into more minimalist contemporary sounds. The album gave a musical map of Ushant, the island he has called home for the past several years, with electronically manipulated original field recordings of the natural sounds on the island creating a subtle drone that runs throughout. This was followed in 2019 by All, recorded at his newly built studio on Ushant, exploring his connection with nature, his attachment to place, and his love of language. 

In 2019, he revisited some of his catalog with a collection of 25 newly recorded tracks from throughout his career. Portrait featured collaborations with John Grant, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals, Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), and Blonde Redhead. It gave Tiersen a chance to open a new chapter in his work with Kerber (2021), his most overtly electronic material to date. True to Tiersen’s nuanced and subtle approach, this isn’t a U-turn-like thumping piece of dance music but instead a beautifully textured, highly immersive, and thoughtfully constructed electronic world.  

Tiersen explains, “You may get this intuitive thinking of, oh it's piano stuff, but actually it's not. I worked on piano tracks to begin with, but that's not the core of it; they are not important. The context is the most important thing—the piano was a precursor to create something for the electronics to work around.”