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May 8, 2012

Scotty Does Know

It was a middle-aged Frenchman, dressed in flannel and jeans, who brought home the message of our day: Electronics are taking over music. Not just electric guitar and keyboard but synths, Auto-Tune, and multiple pedals graced the stage Friday at Chicago’s Metro Theater as musician Yann Tiersen took the stage from the ambling but pleasant opening band, Felix.

Famous for his soundtracks to movies like Amélie (2001), Tiersen is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in the same vein as America’s own Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird. At 41, young but still of another generation than most of the concertgoers, he does not seem to have any nostalgia for the acoustic age, instead embracing music’s supposed new shift towards an electronic sound. But rather than succumbing to this digital age, Tiersen was able to seamlessly blend two worlds, the acoustic and the electronic becoming almost indistinguishable.

As the lights came on to illuminate Tiersen and his band, the group had already delved into the relentless synth arpeggios and rapid-fire instrumental exchanges that would wind their way into every song of the night’s set. There were no lyrics, no singing, for a good five minutes. When the opener ended, Tiersen himself, previously standing in profile and anonymous among his bandmates, stepped forward to thank the audience, sweaty but obviously energetic. The crowd immediately warmed up to the musician, his laid-back demeanor mixing perfectly with the never-too-rousing music.

Following his instrumental introduction, Tiersen and co. moved onto a song from his 2010 album Dust Lane. Like the previous song, the frantically-played synthesizers provided a constant electric buzz in the background, highlighting the now three on-stage guitars. Tiersen had moved onto vocals, but only tentatively. He sang solo into a microphone above his own keyboard, simply spelling out the song’s title, “PALESTINE.” A backstage screen displayed each letter as he intoned it. But even this was not quite singing; his real-time, deft sound manipulation turned every sung letter into a metallic echo of his real voice.

It was not until the next song, “Ashes,” that singing appeared in unfettered force for the upbeat chorus. But Tiersen, obviously not trained in (or fond of) singing solo, placed the majority of the vocal burden to his band members, singing only when he electronically distorted his voice. He finally retrieved one of his guitars, lined up against a background amp, to play a few tracks from his earlier albums like the Amélie soundtrack, proving his impressive musical talent wasn’t reserved for only keyboards and electronics.

But when Tiersen picked up his violin, the concert, previously a group effort with multiple talents, turned into a solo show. The band went offstage, and Tiersen proceeded to play an intensely hypnotic, Philip Glass-worthy series of dancing scales and arpeggios. Hunched over and turned to the side in concentration, he looked devilish in the stage light, appropriate for his lightning-speed playing; the audience was engrossed. He did not stop even when the band reentered after his solo, instead transitioning into the next set of songs from his newest album (released in April), Skyline.

The band barely had to be convinced to do an encore. Hardly three minutes after their initial exit, the ensemble came back onstage, a tired but eager Tiersen taking a swig from a beer before starting again. Although more acoustic instruments graced the stage than before (one band member even brought out a bass clarinet), the electronics were given more prominence. As Tiersen played relentlessly at his violin, another member manipulated his strings’ sounds, melodies flying off into metallic echoes. The bass clarinet’s deep, reverberating notes mixed perfectly with the layered synths and guitars.

Of course, this mixing of acoustic and electric is nothing new, even in Tiersen’s strand of artful songwriting. But what Tiersen did Friday night was not embrace one over the other, or simply juxtapose the two. Instead the disparate sounds became one; he moved from synths and effects pedals to violin so seamlessly it was hard for the audience to keep track. Layered guitars blended into and augmented the background drones.

A few songs into the concert, Tiersen turned toward the microphone with a wide smile. “I’m going to play a love song next,” he said. “It’s called ‘Fuck Me’.” His wry, ironic attitude fit his treatment of his music. Nothing was sacred; he subjected his violin to as much distortion as his voice. But at once it was also transcendental. The blending of two worlds created something new, a sound the continental musician accepted not with zeal for a digital future but with as much regard as a folk singer to his guitar. That new world is as much an instrument as anything before, and Tiersen is subtly telling us that not much has changed. Just listen; it doesn’t matter if what someone’s playing is plugged in or not.

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