This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 31 May 2019. To see the article in full, click here.
Known largely for his compositions for cinema, namely the whimsical film Amélie, Yann Tiersen is a composer whose music conjures dramatic visual imagery paired with a sensitive introspection. It gives the listener an ephemeral glimpse into the mind and heart of its creator.
Having felt this way about Yann’s music since the ‘90s, I jumped on the opportunity to see the composer in the flesh and in concert at New York City’s Beacon Theatre on a perfect, late-spring evening. What would this prolific, enigmatic composer be like in person, and playing his own music? Well, the experience exceeded my expectations.
Upon entering the gorgeous, neo-Grecian-style Beacon Theatre, dating from 1926, I wasn’t surprised to stumble upon a chic, predominantly European crowd whose mix of languages in quiet conversation paired nicely with the pre-concert playlist, featuring the Cocteau Twins (whose silver-throated lead singer Elizabeth Fraser collaborated with Yann on his 2005 album Les Retrouvailles), and other similarly dreamy music.
Just a little after 8pm, the theatre was plunged into darkness as a melodic, Northern English-accented voice soliloquised from the speakers about the dance between the hunter and the hunted, namely the wolf and the deer, that exists in nature. Man’s thought is to kill off the predator, tame nature, and afterwards exist in peace and comfort. Yet, that very action leads to an imbalance in the natural order, thus creating long-lasting chaos. The only real peace, beauty, and balance lies in the wild. This would be a theme harkened back to again and again in the concert.
Yann emerged alone from the wings, clad in casual black, waved at the audience, and seated himself behind the grand piano on stage. Lit by a single spotlight, the music began to pour from his fingers, entrancing the audience and suggesting images of sunny Paris streets. After two short songs, he pointed to a tape recorder in the centre of the stage, and told a charming story about meeting said tape recorder drunk in a pub in England. The tape recorder had been depressed after being forced to play the most horrid of pop music all its life, so Yann took pity on him, brought him on tour, and allowed him to play only nature sounds. The tape recorder soon lit up and begin to whir as the sounds of birds, laughter, and wind were issued from it, and Yann launched into Tempelhof, the first track off his most recent album All. And yes, this song was inspired by the Berlin airport of its namesake.
Before we knew it, Yann was joined on stage by three other musicians who quickly took their positions at soundboard, keyboard, and drums to finish the song. The audience was then thrown into a bath of white light and shimmering imagery of the sea, which was projected onto the screen behind the musicians as Yann took us through several songs from his new album. Now would be a good time to point out that All is very much inspired by Yann’s native Brittany, a region in the northwest of France with strong Celtic roots and its own native language, Breton. Most of the vocals in the concert were sung in Breton, and were rendered beautifully by the female and two male musicians onstage, with Yann himself joining in from time to time. To say the set was ethereal would be an understatement. The wash of sound produced by Yann and his clan – paired with the expert lighting design and projected images of sea, rock, and forest – truly made one feel as if one had gone back in time and discovered Celtic Brittany in its pure, original state. To hear words sung in an ancient language, only presently spoken by around 200,000 people, set to music so expertly crafted by one of the region’s native sons is an experience divine and powerful.
As the concert continued, Yann showed off his musical prowess by performing on piano, toy piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, and violin. I had no idea he played the violin so magnificently! The concert was also dotted with short anecdotes, including one story about the song Usal Road, inspired by the time Yann was chased by a mountain lion during a bike ride in California.
After nearly two hours, it was all over too soon. But the crowd rose to its feet, clamouring and whistling for more. After what felt like an eternity in the dark, the crowd erupted in even greater joy as Yann and his three companions took the stage once more for the encores. The final three pieces were indeed special, with the first being inspired by Brooklyn (just over the East River from the theatre), the second being a new piece not featured on the album and sung beautifully in Breton, and the third bringing the concert full circle to the opening monologue.
Throughout the concert, we experienced Yann’s mastery, an accomplished classical musician who uses inspiration from the natural world to create a refined, graceful musical offering. But in the final song, featuring Yann on screaming violin, we were thrown into a frenzy of clashing sounds, strobe lights, and deep vibrations. It felt as though we were touching on the very primal heart of Nature herself. It was a beautiful reminder that all civilization, all culture, all art is dependent on and a reflection of the untamable power of the universe.
Needless to say, Yann reflects it very, very well.