It seems to be the case that a critic, if he or she is writing about the music of the Breton composer and polymath musician Yann Tiersen, must mention his famous score to Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s modern classic film Amelie. (Obviously, now I can say I’ve met the requirement.) While Amelie was a huge jumping off point for Tiersen’s many successes, to reduce the man to a cinematic name-drop is to do a disservice to the impressive music he has made following that admittedly stellar public breakthrough. As Benjamin Hedge Olson noted in his glowing review of ∞ (Infinity) for PopMatters, “Many people never bothered to dig any deeper or wait to see what this impressive Breton musician came up with next [following Amelie]”. Of course, for those who have stuck along for the ride, they’ve been rewarded with a collection of gorgeous, emotionally enveloping songs and records that reveal Tiersen’s impeccable ability to craft music that is cinematic in every sense of the word.
In his recent interview with PopMatters, Owen Pallett says of the descriptive tag “cinematic”: “Movie music is functional, it sets action that goes on in the screen, when I work with film directors I seek to make a good movie with them, not a good score independent of the movie. I have always felt that cinematic music is incomplete, when people use those words to describe instrumental music, it’s disrespectful.” While it is the case that much of Tiersen’s music, including many of the tracks on ∞, could serve as a “soundtrack for a non-existent film,” in truth his music confounds the notion that some music is “cinematic” while other music is not.
Whether it is a four-minute pop song or a classical symphony, music always has a cinematic quality to it, for good music always evokes images and feelings in the mind and body. Of all the art forms, music is one where representation is malleable, especially with instrumental music. One can hear Tiersen’s music and have the landscapes of Iceland evoked in her mind—which is easy to do, given that Tiersen wrote some of ∞‘s in those picturesque environs. Someone else may think of the streetlights in the French Riveria, as I did when I first heard the album. Tiersen’s songcraft, particularly on ∞, is an invitation into both the beautiful and the cerebral qualities of music, and an extremely rewarding one at that. Hearing his music, it’s easy to tell that his skill in pulling melodies and harmonies form out of his head and onto musical instruments is a wholly unique one. As Jose Solís put it in his recent interview with Tiersen for PopMatters, in listening to ∞ “you get the sense that he’s always connected to some metaphysical place from which he draws inspiration”—though, adding not but a moment later, “[in] talking to him you realize he has a more down to earth perspective.”
That perspective is now made all the more available to the public, as Tiersen has recorded a series of videos in which he breaks down ∞ track by track. Though artists in the age of the internet go through a great deal of interviews, rarely is it the case that an artist takes the time to piece apart a whole record on a song by song basis, which makes Tiersen’s commentary a treat both for his fans and those interested in his ethereal, meditative music.
Click “Play” to see the playlist all the way through; to skip to a specific track, click “Playlist” in the upper left-hand corner.
In another interesting turn of events, Tiersen sat down with a vinyl copy of ∞ and listened to it all the way through. Through the magic of YouTube, you too can also join along in listening to this wonderful record.
// Notes from the Road
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