Tuesday, March 4, 2008
For some time I've pondered how to write about Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose scores have been ready to hand on my piano for several years, and whose music continues to grow in personal importance. I first heard his music from the stunning fourth side of a two-LP set by Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where the headliner was Olivier Messaien's Turangalila Symphony, released in 1968. Although I'd never heard of Takemitsu before, his November Steps, a quasi-concerto where two soloists played biwa and shakuhachi, traditional Japanese instruments, quickly became one of my favorite pieces. I sought out his piano music, and even managed to locate an obscure Japanese release of his music for Gagaku, the traditional Japanese classical music, along with a record of his electronic music and some chamber music.
I now realize this was a skewed introduction, as Takemitsu wrote relatively little music for Japanese instruments, solo piano, or electronics. But clearly something about his music spoke to me, and the more I learn about it and listen to it, the more deeply and personally I feel it, and the larger he grows in my personal pantheon.
English-language readers are very well served by an exemplary book about Takemitsu's music written by Peter Burt, and a short anthology of Takemitsu's essays has been translated as well under the title Confronting Silence. Most of the essays are quite short, and the set includes articles ranging from biographical and philosophical to more technical articles about music. In a sense, they were like his piano gestures. There was enough to contemplate in one or two articles at a time, best left to resonate for a couple of days before returning for the next. We can only hope that some of the additional literature about him in Japanese, as well as more of his own writings, are translated in the near future.
One of the most defining characteristics of Takemitsu's music is how gorgeous it is, simply in terms of the sound. He wasn't guided by systems or outside scaffolding, although he knew what about various structuring techniques and used them when he wanted. His composition is more intuitive. He wrote not only concert music, but a lot of music for film, television, and the theater. Although much of this music remains unpublished, several CDs of film music have been released (but only in Japan — some of these CDs go for more than a hundred dollars on Amazon). A lot of the music borders on pastiche, but it demonstrates Takemitsu's mastery of orchestration, using effects that often showed up much later in his concert music.
His staging often has ritualistic elements that set it outside the concert music norm. I was fortunate enough to see the percussion group Nexus perform his percussion concerto, From me flows what you call Time, with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra (who doesn't get enough credit for all the 20th century music they program). The five percussionists were each dressed in a separate color and had their own sets of instruments located at all points around the orchestra. Two of the players in the front corners controlled huge arrays of chimes that were hung from the ceiling, at some distance from the stage, with long ribbons colored the same as their outfits. Nexus describes this setup in some detail in a PDF at their web site. None of this comes across in the recordings, but his scores for larger ensembles often have some kind of stage direction which will make their live performance even more riveting than a typical orchestral concert.
His music also appeals to me because it's generally slow, and, at least in the concert music, doesn't follow any of the standard formal models that are prevalent in most western concert music. No minuets, scherzi, or rondos here. While I wouldn't go so far as to call his music static, to me it sounds like Japanese calligraphy looks — sonic brush strokes with little recurring elements, suspended in a resonant field for peaceful contemplation. Several of his works take inspiration from gardens and nature, not in any imitation like in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, but with a more introspective approach, often explicitly like walking in a garden. Burt goes into some detail on his close encounters with John Cage, whose influence gave him permission to continue down a path uniting eastern and western musical influences (as Cage did with his lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism). But his later music shows a gentle and romantic streak, balancing sound and silence beautifully and inexhaustibly.
I will write more about Takemitsu's piano music in a future post, as well as more about his wild, modernist streak that I missed the first time around, but which shares many common themes that I've written about elsewhere, with aleatoric and graphic scores, mobile forms, as well as more about his complex relationship with nature. A considerable amount of his music is available at emusic, and some of the early Japanese releases are available at the DGG web shop.