This feature originally appeared in Songlines #117 (May 2016) p74. Download a pdf here.
Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the French composer and musician Yann Tiersen, ahead of his dates at London’s Barbican, about his Breton roots and how the natural world is the inspiration behind his current project (Photo: Katherine Rose)
For some, music is an outlet for what’s inside, echoing a musician’s emotions; for others music is a reflection of the environment in which it is created. And for others still, it is a combination of both – a channel for the emotions inside, which reflect the musician’s surroundings. This is what music is to Yann Tiersen.
The French composer, musician and pianist, best known for the soundtrack to the film Amélie, began composing not on piano or keyboards, but with electronic music. “From my beginnings I had the thirst to try many different things, and I spent days and days messing with samples. So it’s because of electronic music that I started to play or to use instruments.” Since then, it is for his charmingly elegant piano music that he has become well-known internationally.
“I think music is something that is really abstract,” he says when speaking about how he composes. “Music is something that goes beyond language; it’s more a vehicle for emotions. When I’m working, I try to avoid thinking too much and to have no intentions. It’s more a question of feelings and body instead of thinking, for me at least.”
When delving deep into his roots, it is clear that the music within him is influenced by his home in Brittany. He was born in Brest and has spent the last 15 years on the island of Ushant, France’s westernmost point. It is no surprise then that there is a strong Breton presence on his playlist. “We have a really beautiful vocal tradition. It’s quite unusual. We have, for instance, kan ha diskan, which is an a capella way of singing; they respond to each other to tell stories. So it’s two singers and one responds to the other. I think it’s a treasure.”
Kan ha diskan was important in the Breton folk revival and the Goadeg Sisters – Maryvonne (1900-83), Eugenie (1909-2003) and Anastasie (1913-98) – were its main champions. Tiersen has selected their song ‘Konskried San Nikolas’ for his playlist. “They used to be really famous in Brittany, and they are part of our glory.”
Another singer who has done much for the popularity of Breton folk music is Denez Prigent. He started learning folk music aged 14 and has gone on to make his name singing kan ha diskan and gwerz (a ballad that is characterised by its gloomy subject matter). In the early 1990s Prigent discovered electronic music, which he realised was similar to the folk music he was used to because it was primarily dance music, and he started incorporating it into his own compositions. This may be why his music particular resonates with Tiersen. Here Tiersen has chosen a song from his most recent album, An Enchanting Garden. The title translates as ‘The Three Messages of Death’, and during the course of the ten-minute epic, the subject of the song encounters three messengers who tell him his love has died of a fever. “It’s really beautiful… It’s about death and life. It’s a sad song.”
Also important to the Breton folk tradition is the anthology Barzhaz Breizh (Ballads of Brittany), which was published in 1839 by the song collector Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué. Tiersen has selected the song ‘Diougan Gwench’lan’ (Gwenc’hlan’s Prophecy’) – sung by Anne Auffret and Yann-Fañch Kemener – from this collection. Here the subject of the song, the legendary sixth-century bard Gwenc’hlan, sings about how he is not afraid to die, even after being imprisoned and having his eyes gouged out for not converting to Christianity, and makes a prophecy that he will be avenged. Kemener and Auffret sing in spooky, dissonant a capella, suitably eerie for the subject matter.
The Breton language shares many of the same roots as other Celtic languages and cultures. “There is a connection between Celtic countries,” Tiersen explains. “I grew up with [Irish] music along with traditional Breton music, and so it’s part of my youth. It’s part of a common culture.” Accordingly, he has chosen Irish folk group Planxty’s song ‘The West Coast of Clare’ for his playlist.
And for something completely different, Tiersen has selected the Icelandic reggae band Hjálmar for his final track. “When we were on tour [last year], I worked with Ólavur Jakobsen, who is from the Faroe Islands, and so we spent time listening to other music and he made us listen to this Icelandic band. I love this song and it’s quite unusual.”
But maybe the track shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as music from stark landscapes seems to suit Tiersen’s tastes. Last year he released a book of piano music inspired by his home and titled after the Breton word for his home island, Eusa. “I don’t like the word inspiration,” he clarifies. “The goal is more to try to draw a musical map of the island.” When asked how many volumes he expects to release he says “I don’t know. It’s a life project.”
Appropriately, Tiersen’s next project will be equally based in nature and location – an album that will be written and recorded entirely outdoors. “It will be recorded all over the world, in the wilderness, so it’s a long project.” The main inspiration came to him after a bike ride with his fiancée through the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park in California two years ago. “We were on a 12-hour bicycle ride in the forest. After six hours we realised that we were being chased by a mountain lion. Thank god a car came, and he was frightened by the car, but we carried on for six more hours without knowing if it was still there, still following us. It was quite an experience. It just made me think a bit more about ecosystems in general and our place within nature.”
With this in mind he plans to base his next album on natural environments. “I want to make some field recordings of oceans, and transform them through electronics; it will be the roots of the songs of my album. It doesn’t mean that I will use these field recordings, but the chord changes or melodies will be based on that. I’ll change the pitch and end up with some chords and chord changes, and then transform them into a piano piece. And then I will record this piece somewhere else in the world. So it’s like transporting the natural environment from one place to another, a confrontation of two ecosystems.”