Of the many musical ways, one can explore minimalism, Yann Tiersen‘s approach has stayed closest to the neoclassical style. From his EMI days in the late 1990s, music later appropriated for the film Amélie to his current stint on Mute Records, the French sonic sculpture wove his textures with delicately effective piano. If any electronic components were to be had, they politely sat in the background, enhancing the music only when necessary. After close to 30 years, Tiersen has built a sturdy legacy with music that takes after Philip Glass had the legendary composer used a little fancy outboard gear instead of wind ensembles.
Now, less than ten months after his previous album Kerber, Tiersen is throwing us all one massive curveball with the strangely titled 11 5 18 2 5 18. This time, the electronics are not hiding in the background, providing subtle shading. They are running the show – all of it.
The album came about because Tiersen was invited to participate in a German synthesizer festival called Superbooth. Having some extra time to himself in his home studio on the island of Ushant, Tiersen began experimenting with his modular synthesizers. His samples reportedly went through numerous mutations to get to where they are now. As Mute puts it, this process was “creating entirely new tracks unrecognizable from their original versions”. Frankly, the instrumental work of labelmate Martin Gore is a better point of reference because 11 5 18 2 5 18 doesn’t sound like anything else Tiersen has done lately.
Shifting styles is one thing; pulling off a quality release while shifting your style is another matter. So if you’re wondering if Yann Tiersen is up for the art of the great crossover, be assured that he is. 11 5 18 2 5 18 sounds like the man has been dabbling in deeply abstract instrumental synthesizer mood music for decades. The track titles themselves are just as baffling as the album’s title, but it’s the results that count. So once you learn to differentiate “11 5 18. 1 12. 12 15 3 8” from “16 15 21 12 12. 2 15 10 5 18”, the album will bloom for you like a lily. The longest title is saved for last, “13 1 18 25 (6 5 1 20. 17 21 9 14 17 21 9 19)”. This is a reworking of the song “Mary” with QUINQUIS reinterpreting the vocal performance. Whether it’s eerily haunting or beautifully sublime, you could make a strong case either way.
Opener “11 5 18 2 5 18” lasts over 11 minutes and certainly packs a lot into the space available. There are soft glitches, synth tones that sound like early Depeche Mode recently re-recorded, zips, blips, and tiny trills that hit you sideways out of the mix as it builds up steam. In addition to having some charmingly strange noises burble from the combination of “11 5 18. 1 12. 12 15 3 8,” it’s also another piece that highlights the small joys of minimalism. When couplets are stuck in a loop with one another, the listener’s attention could wander anywhere from the bottom three notes to the middle-register sighs that get them there. Sit through the loop enough times, and your attention can travel from one cycle to another and back.
“16 15 21 12 12. 2 15 10 5 18”, a track that premiered before the album’s release, feeds the piano through more than just a few startling pitch bends and staticky tremolos. But does the melodic content ever get lost? If you’ve followed Tiersen’s career for any stretch, you already know the answer to that question is a resounding No.
11 5 18 2 5 18 is the best of both worlds. Not only is Yann Tiersen melodically reliable, he’s also a gifted arranger and tasteful experimenter. There are plenty of strange bends and odd noises on this album, yet none of it feels out of place. All of the beauty and weirdness strive toward the same ends. Honestly, he should do things like this more often.