Probably instigated a year prior to Ólafur Arnalds’ Island Songs project but released around the same time, French multi-instrumentalist and composer Yann Tiersen’s new endeavour also associates heartfelt compositions with places on a small island. Much smaller than Iceland, Ushant (in English), Ouessant (in French) or Eusa (in the Breton language) is a tiny 15 km² rocky and windswept island off the coast of North Western Brittany. One hour ferry-ride away from the mainland, Eusa boasts 862 permanent dwellers. Originally released in December 2015 as a book of sheet music, Eusa is a collection of ten new compositions for solo piano (Mute – 30 September 2016), all related to specific locations around the island.

Yann Tiersen - Eusa (2016)
Yann Tiersen – Eusa (2016)

Even though Yann Tiersen is very much associated with piano music – especially through his soundtrack work – solo piano is not that prominent in his discography. To date, he has collaborated with dozens of singers, “toyed” with countless musical instruments and widely experimented with orchestration or electronics. His last trilogy of records Dust Lane (2010), Skyline (2011) and (2014) feature plenty of guitar and a more post-rock sound. Surprisingly enough, Eusa is Yann Tiersen’s first collection of solo piano music.

The musician’s connection with the island of Eusa goes back many years. Born in Brest in Brittany, the musician has always been a regular visitor either on family holidays or renting houses there to record music. His third and fifth albums – Le Phare (1998) and Les Retrouvailles (2010) respectively – were both conceived or partly recorded there. His permanent base ever since, Eusa has become the focal point of his latest album.

A sense of place

Twenty years ago, jazz Breton pianist Didier Squiban ferried a piano from the mainland across to the small neighbouring island of Molène to perform and record in the local church. The recordings were released in 1997 as Molène. “This was a dream come true” said the pianist at the time, “performing in the middle of the sea and on my instrument traditional airs from Brittany as well as improvisations inspired by the place”. In the same spirit, Eusa is also a collection of solo piano music inspired by an insular landscape.

It seems very important to me, especially at this point in time, to know the place I live in – its ecosystem – and to reconnect with the land. At the moment, my work revolves solely around this idea.

Accompanying the original Eusa sheet music book is a series of ten pictures and ten field recordings captured at each locations. The idea was to associate each location with a composition, thus turning Eusa into an acoustic mapping of the island. Very much like a poet or a writer absorbing the character of a locale, the musician channels its unique energy to articulate it again with his own vocabulary.

When the book came out, only one video was released showing the musician perform “Porz Goret” on location. Spurred by the positive feedback from live performances of the pieces at concerts and on tour, Yann Tiersen went into London’s legendary Abbey Road studios to record the ten pieces live on a Steinway grand piano in perfect acoustic conditions.

Some of the original field recordings were also reworked to provide short ambient transitions or “paths” (“Hent” in Breton) between each piece and over which the musician improvises on the piano.

Learning the language

Reconnecting with the land also coincided with a new connection with the Breton language for the musician. Although born in Brittanny where the language is still spoken, Yann Tiersen wasn’t born in a family of native speakers nor did he attend a bilingual school. Living on a small island where the language is still very much alive, the musician felt the increasing need to learn it and signed up for Breton classes in Brest through an adult education course between 2015 and 2016.

Breton is spoken everywhere here. When I started to learn Breton, place names around me suddenly made a lot more sense. Gradually, I was able to understand how or why certain places had such a name.

Introducing and concluding the album, two tracks (“Hent I” and “Hent VIII”) feature spoken words taken from two poems by Breton language poet Anjela Duval (1905 – 1981). Born in a small farm, Anjela Duval only learnt to write in her late 40s and started writing poetry aged 55. Her poems in Breton expressed a deep rooted sense of place, a love of nature and a prescient concern with environmental issues brought about by the advent of mechanisation and technology in rural Brittany. The poems are read by singer songwriter Emilie Quinquis (aka Tiny Feet), Yann Tiersen’s partner.

A wider audience discovered Anjela Duval in 1971 when she was the subject of a full-length documentary about regional storytellers on national TV. During the interview, the poet remembered a time when every field, every grove and every feature in the landscape around her had a name. All this detailed lore has been gradually forgotten due to the passing of the older generation. As well as that, many natural hedges or boundaries were levelled during the intensive land consolidation between the 1960s and 1980s to make way for larger plots.

In this respect, the small island of Eusa has been a very fertile ground for the composer. With powerful melody lines, minor key signatures and subtle variations, most new compositions seem to express a longing for this lost wisdom, maybe granting familiar places with a new meaning in the process.