French composer Yann Tiersen is known for his wordless, haunting pieces, which use traditional instruments as well as items not usually thought of as musical—such as typewriters and toy telephones—to produce evocative sounds.
Tiersen was born in Brest, a town on the Brittany coast of France, and grew up in Rennes, Brittany. Although he was not a good student in the traditional sense, his musical talent became apparent when he was still a boy, and he studied violin and piano beginning at age six. Later he trained to become a conductor.
"I Wanted to Have My Own Career"
Although he was classically trained, during his teenage years Tiersen became interested in rock. He told Jonathan Moskowitz in Interview, "The training gave me a good technical basis for writing songs, but after hearing rock music I realized I wanted to have my own career." He played in various post-punk bands in Rennes; at the same time, he wrote soundtracks for short films and plays. These works showed elements of the style he would later become known for, mingling classical flavors with a wide variety of unusual instruments.
In 1995 he recorded his debut album, La Valse Des Monstres, which included several of the pieces he had written for films and plays. Although this album and the one that followed it, Rue Des Cascades, did not receive much attention from critics or listeners, Tiersen was becoming known in his home town.
Most of his local popularity was a result of his energetic and entertaining live performances, in which he jumped rapidly from instrument to instrument and from one musical style to another. As a result of these performances he was invited to perform at the Avignon Festival in July of 1996.
Tiersen released Le Phare in 1998, and finally achieved widespread recognition from mainstream music fans. One track, "Monochrome," was widely played on French radio; Tiersen's work became so popular that his previous albums were re-released and became widely listened to.
As a result of this popularity, French film directors began using Tiersen's moody, haunting music in their work. One of these films, 1998's La Vie Revee Des Anges, by Eric Zonca, won two Best Actress Awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tiersen performed at a concert in December of 1998 called "Black Sessions," along with many guest stars; the concert was recorded and a live album, Black Sessions, was released in 1999.
His fourth album, 1999's Tout Est Calme, was a huge hit and brought Tiersen waves of attention from the media as well as from fans. The album included some rewrites of earlier songs, and had more of a rock 'n' roll feeling than his previous work.
In 2001 Tiersen gained more attention for his soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amelie. The film was the year's most popular in France, and was also successful throughout Europe.
After Jeunet heard some of Tieren's music, he immediately ordered copies of all of Tiersen's work and asked him to write the soundtrack. Tiersen, who was busy working on his album L'Absente, worked quickly, taking some material from his earlier albums and also writing new songs. The finished soundtrack incorporated a wide variety of instruments, including a toy piano and a typewriter. By July of 2001 the soundtrack album was on the top of the French charts, where it stayed for several weeks; during this period, it sold 200,000 copies. The soundtrack also won a Cesar Award. However, Tiersen told Michael Hubbard in Musicomh.com, that he is not swayed by these accolades. "I don't like this kind of ceremony. People from the same universe deciding to congratulate themselves is not such a good idea. It reminds me of being in school."
Tiersen also told Hubbard that he was surprised by the soundtrack's success: "We are always surprised when our work becomes successful, because when you work on a project you just think about the project rather than the commercial success."
On the heels of the success of the film and its soundtrack, Tiersen received rave reviews for his album L'Absente. Because of the success of the movie soundtrack, fans also crossed over to buy the album, and it sold over 100,000 copies. Tiersen told Moskowitz that the album was about "missing people, as well as taking negative energy and putting it to positive uses."
Tiersen also spent much of 2001 on a major tour, where he performed with two female singers and a string ensemble. He performed at several music festivals in France, and in the fall of that year he played at 15 different venues in France. In 2002 he moved the tour to London, where he performed at the Royal Albert Hall.
Also in 2002, Tiersen released C'Etait Ici, which included tracks by other artists. In 2003 he recorded the soundtrack for Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye Lenin, a film that was also very successful in Europe.
In 2004 Tiersen met Shannon Wright, a Canadian musician, and the two found that their musical tastes were similar. They worked and performed together, and released the album Yann Tiersen and Shannon Wright. In 2005 Tiersen released a solo album, Les Retrovailles, most of which he recorded on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. Several guest musicians also appeared on the album. Tiersen saw the project as an opportunity to exercise artistic and personal freedom, and he told Frederic Garat in RFI Musique, "I hate having to direct other people and tell them what they should or shouldn't be doing. So when you're all alone you don't have the same constraints." The process of creating and recording the music was filmed, and a DVD of the film was included along with the album. Tiersen told Garat, "I wanted to fix the moment, immortalize it on film as something freshly created with each of the different participants." He spent much of the rest of 2005 touring in France, Ireland, Japan, and Spain.
Tiersen described his writing style to an interviewer from Musicomh.com: "For me it is like a game. It depends … sometimes I can have a period where for one month I can have a favorite instrument." He added, "I don't have a precise idea when starting to write of which instruments will be used. It is a bit of instinct. I try to see what fits."
La Valse Des Monstres/Le Tambourin De Soie, Virgin France, 1995.
Le Phare, Virgin France, 1996.
Rue Des Cascades, Virgin France 1997
Tout Est Calme, Virgin France, 1999.
Black Sessions, Virgin France, 1999; rereleased, EMI, 2005.
Le Fabuleux Destin D'Amelie Poulain, Virgin France, 2000.
L'Absente, Virgin France, 2001.
Amelie: Original Soundtrack Recording, 2001.
C'Etait Ici, Virgin France, 2002.
Good Bye, Lenin!, 2002.
Yann Tiersen and Shannon Wright, Vicious Circle/Ici d'Ailleurs/Discograph, 2004.
Les Retrovailles, Labels, 2005.
Hollywood Reporter, March 5, 2002, p. 80.
Interview, October 2001, p. 120.
Music and Media, March 9, 2002, p. 5.
"Yann Tiersen and the Amelie Effect," Musicomh, http://www.musicomh.com/interviews/yann-tiersen.htm (July 4, 2006).
"Yann Tiersen," RFI Musique, http://www.rfimusique.com/ (July 4, 2006).