[12 June 2009]
This evening was akin to stepping into Chicago’s Art Institute and finding nothing but contemporary art exhibits on display. Or perhaps a more appropriate association would be visiting Paris to take in the usual sights and being shown a Paris not found on any postcards. For those who attended Yann Tiersen’s Logan Square Auditorium concert expecting to find the whimsical charms of albums like L’Absente and Les Retrouvailles were in for a surprise. While some people welcome such a turn of events, and even find the experience enhanced by the jolting departure from expectations, for others it proves an unfortunate disappointment; they either don’t like what they see or they simply do not enjoy surprises. Such proclivities matter little in regard to what you receive, but more so in how it is perceived. It is not with the intention of affirming the obvious that this statement is made, but rather to offer up the only possible explanation for anyone who left the venue disappointed.
The audience would not have to wait long to receive a dose of what the evening would hold. It began with Tiersen walking out on stage with his backing band, strapping on an electric guitar, and releasing some detached, wavering sounds into the air. According to the set list sitting on stage, the opening song was titled “Dark Stuff” and it delivered on precisely that theme. It was a lush, distorted instrumental piece that loomed heavy throughout the entire room and would continue to point the way for the better part of the night. The entire set was laden with these thick, pulsing instrumental pieces which were bent towards creating a darker ambiance than any of his solo studio records have done. While initially drastic, the songs soon proved they were not as much of a deviation from his musical approach as one might think. Much in the same manner that the emotion of love is so closely related to that of hate, Tiersen took his music from a feeling of light and delicate to something more stern and heavy, yet its core still maintained all the wistful, hypnotic playfulness that makes his music so enticing. Instead of whiling the show away to the plunking of piano keys and violin one got lost in a haze of dense, distorted guitar.
French composer Yann Tiersen is best known in this country, and sadly may be exclusively known by most, for his work on the soundtrack to the film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, or Amélie. To be fair, this proves an excellent starting point to begin a journey into Tiersen’s music, so long as it is not an ending point as well. The soundtrack captures much of the lively melancholy that can be found throughout all of his work and the Amélie soundtrack is actually a mixture of new songs for the film and old songs picked from his earlier albums. As the story goes, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet heard one of Tiersen’s songs one day and immediately ordered his entire back catalogue, then promptly asked Tiersen to handle the soundtrack. Of course now it would seem quite impossible to even fathom a better musical fit for the film.
While Tiersen’s presentation had definitely changed, rendering some songs unfamiliar at first, many were a simple reworking of tracks from past albums to fit the night’s format. One of the best examples of this, “La Terrasse” from Tout est Calme, was altered from a delicate, swirling piano piece into full on driving rock. The band played several songs from Tiersen’s last studio album, 2005’s Les Retrouvailles, such as “Kala”, “Western”, and “A Secret Place”, while still managing to touch upon a wide range of his other work. Backed by a handful of musicians adept at filling in the space left by Tiersen’s shimmering guitar sound, the additional players used everything from bass, drums, flute, keyboards, and a ukulele to accompany his songs. Meanwhile Tiersen himself, a well established multi-instrumentalist, remained surprisingly resolute with his guitar, putting it aside only a couple of times throughout the evening.
While the live performance could not be considered an accurate representation of Yann Tiersen’s recorded music, there were clues to the evening’s evolution all along—they were just subtle. First, there was his fitting score for the film Good Bye Lenin!, which proved Tiersen’s music was as suitable within the cheery optimism of a colorful Montmartre as it was within the bleak, muted streets of East Berlin shortly before the Wall came down. Next, there was Tiersen’s 2004 collaboration with Shannon Wright. The self-titled album is a collection of beautifully understated, creaking tracks, which have a penchant for sounding sinister, yet sinister in that way an old house, which can be admired for its craftsmanship in the light of day, takes on a menacing, haunting tone at night. There was also the 2006 live album, On Tour, which was practically a template to the performance. And finally, there was Tiersen’s appearance on stage. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a My Bloody Valentine T-shirt (which may have been the most telling indicator as to where he stood musically), he hardly looked the part of a man who could captivate a crowd with a violin.
He did, however, eventually trade in his guitar for the violin mid set. What ensued was a solo instrumental piece which brought everything in the room to a halt. The piece dipped and slowed and then built up again to the point where one could practically feel the tension of the strings as the bow slowly dragged across them, screeching their plight out across the quiet room. It was about as beautiful a moment as a live show can produce, but ironically also served as a painful reminder of “what could have been” to those longing for more of this side of Tiersen’s repertoire.
The show ended with Tiersen’s most well known song, “La Valse d’Amélie”, but like much of the evening it was given a new face and bared only a mild resemblance to the original. As a rock show the set was entirely fulfilling and even deepened the sense of wonderment that surrounds Yann Tiersen musically. Yet, considering how rare an appearance it was for us stateside and given the nature of the performance, it was difficult leaving without some vague sense of needing more.