Yann Tiersen Is Writing Music to Save the Planet and He Welcomes Your Help
In 1978, a crude oil carrier ran aground three miles off the coast of Brittany, France. The ship split into three pieces and poured 4,000 tons of oil into the Celtic Sea, causing what was, at the time, the largest oil spill in history.
Ushant (Eusa, in Breton), a small island less than six square miles off the coast of Brittany, was heavily affected by the pollution. As the southern limit of the English Channel, Ushant is strategically positioned along an important shipping route, and many cargo ships travel by it every day—one of the reasons that the island's Phare du Creach is one of the strongest lighthouses in the world.
"[Ushant] is quite an important place with all the ships coming from the South to Northern Europe," Yann Tiersen told me by phone two weeks ago. The French composer and multi-instrumentalist lives on Ushant, and he remembered well the deleterious effects of the oil spill. Though the memory remains, Ushant has since emerged from the devastation as a well-protected biosphere, and its beauty and natural awareness are the heart and soul behind Tiersen's latest project: the sheet music book turned record, EUSA.
Tiersen is best known for his score for Amelie, the brilliant 2001 French film that was nominated for five Academy Awards. For his musical contributions, Tiersen was awarded both the César Award for Best Music Written for a Film and the World Soundtrack Academy award. The album also charted in many countries, even reaching the number one position on the French Albums Chart.
The Amelie score is devastatingly beautiful; a minimal tour de force led by quintessential piano track "Comptine d'un autre été – l'après-midi." Tiersen's compositions have garnered comparisons to such seminal minimalists as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Erik Satie. These plaudits come despite having received no classical training beyond the age of 12; in fact, he does not even consider himself to be a composer.
Chiefly, Tiersen is a multi-instrumentalist, inspired by punk, industrial music of the late 80s, and other rock-oriented sounds. "I grew up with drunken Boston bands," he told me. "After a while, listening to people riffing around with tools and making music with noises strangely put me back into artistic stuff." That 'artistic stuff'—an undersold epithet for compositions that are reductive, contemplative, and unassailably elegant—is also some of his most effective.
Three of Amelie's minimalist tracks ("La Dispute," "La Noyée," and "Sur le fil") were lifted from Tiersen's breakout album, Le Phare (in English: The Lighthouse), an effort that was inspired by Phare du Creach and recorded on Ushant. "I was amazed how the rays of lights from the lighthouse revealed some hidden details of the land," Tiersen after the album's 1998 release. "How we can rediscover something we have everyday, just in front of us, by a light pointing on it."
This is minimalism at its purest: repetition and the introduction of change in very subtle gradations. It is the profound reveal of the slow evolution. EUSA takes cues from this idea, and it, too, was recorded on Ushant—in fact it's practically an embodiment of the island. "Ushant is more than just a home—it's a part of me," Tiersen explained in the EUSA press release. "The idea was to make a map of the island and, by extension, a map of who I am." Each of the album's tracks is reflective of a specific location on Ushant, and field recordings of actual island sounds are interspersed throughout the record, all referencing touchstones of Ushant's natural beauty.
The "natural" impetus for EUSA first occurred two years ago during a 12-hour bike ride with his wife in an uninhabited area of California. For much of the ride, the couple was chased by a mountain lion. "I just thought, 'oh wow, I'm here in California and I'm so stupid. I'm on a bike. I'm a typical tourist. And I just meet this cat who might be hungry and I can die because of that. Just because I don't know where I am. I don't know how the place works,'" he said. "I was really afraid and then I think it changed my life, in a way. After that I thought, 'ok, the most important thing is to know where you are and what the ecosystem around you is made of.'"
Soon thereafter, Tiersen returned to Ushant and conceived a project in which he could share his ecosystem and, in turn, bring listeners closer to the ecology that makes it so special. "I think the future is to focus on our small piece of land and share it with the others," he said. "It's sharing tradition and culture so we can understand each other more, so I just tried recording on the island and then I juxtaposed piano tracks with it."
Initially the project was intended to be solely a book of sheet music, but Tiersen wanted a way to integrate the field recordings into live performance, so he did a 50-minute piano improvisation based on those recordings and then cut it up into passages. These segments are the Hents (the Breton word for "path") that exist between nearly all of the record's ten location tracks; they are the paths that, en masse, connect our map.
Where Le Phare is a sonic representation of Ushant's hidden details, EUSA is the hidden details. Birds and nature sounds, captured during the field recordings, are part of the record and can be found throughout. "I didn't choose the content. For instance there is one [song] called 'Penn ar Lann' where you can hear crows pecking at my recorder," he told me. "I would set my recorder on a location without any involvement. I wasn't even wearing headphones, because I needed to be neutral and do this recording and then I would juxtapose the piano part with it."
Tiersen used these sounds to guide his composition, reaching deep and invoking some profound connection between himself and the island. "I was thinking about these things because I live on the island. I grow my vegetables. And I'm in the middle of that and that's what I wanted to share through music. Of course the influence of the surrounding island was really important, but I was just enjoying as well—the place that I live and the nature," he explained. "When I do music it's not conscious. This idea to juxtapose the piano tracks with the field recordings and center the work around nature—this kind of political statement [is conscious]. But when I do music, I just let the music make itself."
Through Tiersen's minimalist lens, the resulting piano music captures each location's distinct essence. He shapes poignant characters with lilting right-hand melodies while forging rich harmonic progressions with the left. He gives tones and stories to the agents of Ushant—the birds and their brethren—and incorporates part of himself, too, becoming another of its agents in the process.
"What we are is always relative to where and when we are; our sense of self is made up of what we feel to be our home," he wrote in a particularly eloquent portion of the press release. "So—I am the granite stones of my house which were once rocks in the sea, I am 'gwalarn,' the northwest wind that blows over the island of Ushant and all over Brittany, I am the sheep's wool, I am the smell of the moor, I am the dead trees and the ones still standing, I am my music and my music is all of this."
Minimalist piano music, with space and sparseness that mimics the simple profundities of the island, is an excellent facilitator to these feelings, but it's too abstract to fully demonstrate the accompanying political statement and its environmental undertones. "To find this living meaning is really important. I think we forgot. We just live in cities with asphalt everywhere and with nothing underneath because everything is killed by this stuff," he said. "I think as human beings, we're not supposed to live like that… I hope we can feel the wilderness while listening to the album."
Tiersen recently launched a contest that invites fans and musicians to create interpretations of the tracks from EUSA. Three winners will be selected, one each for Best Overall Performance, Most Interesting Location, and Best Non-Piano Performance. Hopefully the renditions imbue the Ushant spirit with the interpreter's own ecological surroundings, in turn creating a veritable network of connectedness that spans the globe and helps awaken us to our connection with nature. As corporations and climate change naysayers continue to gamble with our environment at the expense of our future, this is a worthy exercise indeed.
In a twist of fate, the disastrous oil spill of 1978 resulted in unprecedented protection measures taken for the island. Ships no longer pass so closely to Ushant's borders, and the threat of an oil spill floats many miles further away. Still, the threat exists. So, we should all heed Ushant's recovery as an exception, not the rule. Nature can't survive an unlimited number of oil spills. We won't always have the opportunity to follow the map back to the way it was before. Watch this video of Tiersen playing "Porz Goret" on a piano in the bucolic Ushant moors and think about how important it is to preserve these spaces. Very soon, they could disappear forever.