Yann Tiersen, Live at the ICA London, May 15th
Eight o clock of a mid-May evening, the sun sets outside London’s ICA, The Mall commes le rues de Paris. Performing songs from, and starting the tour for, his upcoming album, ∞ (Infinity), Yann Tiersen pays a visit to London for an exclusive and – unsurprisingly – sold out show. The ICA’s venue is a room of modest dimensions, with matt black walls and in the air a thick scent of red wine. When the lights dim and silence falls, the first man to step onto the stage is a bearded Aidan Moffat, who, without a word of presentation or prelude, recites in a thick Scottish accent: “So here we are under London’s glass and granite arms as they reach for the half-moon…”. He’ll leave the stage, only to return at the very end – “…this is our story,” he says, “our movie. This is our rom-com, and it ends like this”. And this is the sole introduction to tonight’s show.
Accompanied by a talented group of six musicians, Yann Tiersen takes the stage and, sitting at his toy piano, opens his performance with a succession of simple notes – simplicity which, as the history of classical music can testify, speaks closest to the heart. Apparent simplicity which is often so distinctive of Yann Tiersen’s music. His hands move down to the keys of his piano, mirroring the same notes, accompanied by two female singers. The tone of Slippery Stones is as eerie as it is beautiful, slowly shifting into typically French melodies. And I find it impossible to write about his music without describing it as inherently dreamy.
Yann steps up to the vibraphone, leaving the microphone as one of the girls takes centre stage. She sings in Breton, though not quite singing as much as reciting poetry, as various bells chime, alternating and echoing back and forth. In Maen Bihan it’s as though church bells are tolling in the distance, the atmosphere is dark, the sounds sombre, to then shift into electronic rhythms and steady drumming, until the instruments take over completely. Much of ∞ (Infinity) is characterised by a striking and compelling contrast of ethereal vibraphone notes and the celestial chiming of bells, juxtaposed with the determined beating of drums and layers of synthesiser – and by sounds and arrangements which are distinctly French, and distinctly his. And so, soft piano chords give way to heavy guitar reverb, give way to melancholic violin notes and to a sweet chorus of voices; sounds so diverse and in infinite contrast, yet together resulting in an absolutely perfect equilibrium, as if there existed a secret algorithm through which it is possible to calculate this balance.
A Midsummer Evening (previously released as a single earlier this year) is perhaps the finest instance of such balanced antithesis. The first notes of the song are slow and spectral, and linger in the air as Yann Tiersen picks up his violin – whose bow is already frayed without even having been played yet. There’s the occasional beat of the drum and solitary chiming of a bell, but prevailing above all other sounds are the eerie violin notes. His expression is solemn, deep in concentration. As the music reverberates heavily, Yann takes a seat. First, the softness of rhythmically jingling bells, then his fingers fluttering on the keys of his toy piano – and suddenly, once the singers come in, the song opens up into an uplifting melody, with a slightly Simon and Garfunkel-esque touch.
In contrast to the layers of texture in A Midsummer Evening, Palestine – from an older homonymous EP, starts off with the bare minimalism of just a piano and a vibraphone, and the repeating letters of P-A-L-E-S-T-I-N-E, to move ever more decisively into a heavy progression of drumming and throbbing synthesiser reverb. Moving again ever gracefully from one extreme to another, Yann Tiersen continues to hold the audience’s attention at his mercy, with a fair selection of songs from previous years. He picks up a melodica and one of his musicians slowly joins in. The crowd stirs upon recognising the familiar notes of La Dispute, which features on the soundtrack to Amélie, a film which inevitably comes to mind when one thinks of Yann Tiersen, not only because of the part it played in bringing the musician to international acclaim, but because of how superbly its soundtrack acts as a presentation of his repertoire from the early years of his career. Another captivating convergence of styles and powerful crescendos that is the sublime Chapter 19 enthrals the crowd, to end on the words “there is exactly nothing”. In Rue de Cascades, the audience shyly and softly sings along.
On stage, Yann Tiersen generally keeps to himself, thanking the audience here and there, and occasionally addressing us in his French accent. There’s a perpetual, fastidious crackling coming from one side of the venue, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Instead, he sweetly smiles and tells us to pretend it’s all part of the music. Turns out Yann Tiersen is incredibly charming and quite handsome too – who’da thought it?
Almost as though part of a workshop, his various musicians revolve around the stage, picking up different instruments in turn, demonstrating a versatility on par with Tiersen’s. Another highlight from ∞ (Infinity), The Crossing, is reserved for the end of the set, as well as the end of the album. This time, that elaborate combination of tradition and experimental results in a song which is both cheerful and inspiring. The notes of its electronic outro linger delicately in the atmosphere, until the band has left, leaving the dimly lit stage to Aiden Moffat, who returns to end the night with “this kiss is goodbye”.
Sure enough, the applause and heartfelt appreciation of the audience brings Yann Tiersen back to the stage – in a moment of near-silence, a girl shouts “I LOVE YOU”. He stands alone under the soft lights, and plays a melancholic violin solo, which is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful. He holds a solitary, eternal note for the full length of the bow, and when only a faint vibration is audible, he throws himself into an agitated bowing of intense passion and raw fervour. Alone on stage, our attention to only him and his music, this moment is more intimate than any other, and quite possibly the most moving of the entire evening. The rest of his band then returns to his side, for an eloquent Lights, which with its chorus of delicate voices has something of Sigur Rós in it (coincidentally, the idea for the album was conceived in Iceland). It is on these notes that Tiersen and his musicians leave the stage, as the venue sinks into darkness, and into light again.
There’s a handful of contemporary musicians whose music could be described as timeless – eternal, even. And when it comes to these selected few, our deepest desire is for them to continue to create touching song after touching song, brilliant album after brilliant album, and so to infinity. There is no doubt that Yann Tiersen lies amongst these, and that ∞ (Infinity) is yet another addition to an already deeply compelling and exquisitely varied collection.