Saturday, April 5, 2008

Takemitsu on the piano

For most of my time playing piano as an adult, I've included something by Toru Takemitsu in my repertoire. Takemitsu composed for solo piano periodically throughout his life, and all of the published pieces can comfortably fit on a single CD. For a long time, I played his opus one, Uninterrupted Rests, a suite of three short pieces composed in the early 1950s. More recently, I've added Rain Tree Sketch II, which is, as it turns out, his last published piano piece, from 1992. Although forty years separated the composition of the two pieces, I have found similarities between them, with their vague and peaceful, floating harmonies, and plenty of space for resonance between the sonic gestures. They both are fine examples of his aural calligraphy that I mentioned in an earlier post, where Takemitsu uses the sounds to delimit silence, similar to boulders in a Japanese garden.

The three pieces in Uninterrupted Rests show three different mechanisms to specify the floating qualities. The first piece is unmeasured, but Takemitsu puts dotted measure lines to demarcate phrases or other breathing points. He uses the same device in Rain Tree Sketch II and For Away (composed in 1973), although in the later pieces he intermingles solid and dotted measure lines. No meter is specified, so the pianist must find a flexible, internal rhythm for the gestures. The second piece uses a more proportional notation, with short solid lines in each clef and the instruction that the lines delimit three seconds of time. This notation, which is also used in the 1961 piece Piano Distance, produces a series of discrete events that are related to each other only through their coexistence. Although Piano Distance is considerably more virtuosic than its counterpart in Uninterrupted Rests, the common approach between the two pieces produces an audibly similar rhythmic language. Finally, the third piece in the suite uses standard measures and meters, Takemitsu's only mature piano work to do so. In most recordings, one can actually hear a downbeat at the beginning of the measures, and the regular (albeit slow — there is a metronome mark of 38 for a half-note, slower than most metronomes will accommodate) pace contributes to the tranquil feeling of the piece. Takemitsu played piano, and it is likely that he composed Uninterrupted Rests to play himself (the same way that Cage composed certain pieces for himself, and certain pieces for David Tudor). He must have been fairly good — he played Bach's St. Matthew Passion on piano as a preparation ritual for composing.

Until I read Peter Burt's book on Takemitsu, I didn't realize the trajectory of his compositions, or that he returned to an earlier style later in his life. My initial exposure was through Roger Woodward's 1974 recording of Takemitsu's piano works, which included all of the solo piano works which had been composed up to that time. Piano Distance was written for composer and Xenakis pupil Yuji Takahashi, and the writing is considerably more virtuosic, more hard-edged, than the earlier work, while still retaining the pattern of gestures separated by silence. For Away, dedicated to Woodward, has detailed markings for all three pedals, although the delicacies of the middle pedal are lost in most recordings. The fast grace note passages and occasional drones remind me of Stockhausen's piano work Klavierst├╝cke IX (Takemitsu and Stockhausen spent a week together at a symposium in 1971), although the harmonic languages are completely different between the two composers.

Takemitsu produced a significant piano piece every few years through the 1970s and 1980s, along with the publication of some juvenalia and children's pieces. His last major piano work was Rain Tree Sketch II, a memorial for one of Takemitsu's great influences, the French composer Olivier Messaien. A couple of observations about Rain Tree Sketch II:

• Takemitsu had returned to a "sea of tonality" (his phrase) in the 1980s, and Rain Tree Sketch II centers on a D minor chord (but without any of the directional aspects of nineteenth-century tonality, as far as I can tell anyway). Interestingly, at important moments the D minor chord is arpeggiated and accompanied with high overtones, which sound to me like a gamelan. Burt suggests that For Away is one of Takemitsu's few pieces overtly influenced by gamelan music. While this may be true from a compositional perspective, it certainly doesn't sound like any gamelan music I've ever heard.

• Takemitsu notes in the forward that the piece takes five minutes, but when I add up all of the durations based on the metronome marks, it barely takes three. Unreliable metronome marks are only supposed to occur for the nineteenth century, but this variance certainly raises some interpretive questions. The two recordings I have of the piece take the opposite choices: Izumi Tateno plays the piece much more slowly than the metronome marks, taking 5:28, while Megumi Fujita (of the Fujita Piano Trio) follows the metronome markings more closely and takes 3:43.

• Like the first piece in Uninterrupted rests, Rain Tree Sketch II has a A-B-A form (actually, more like A-B-C-A). This was one of the first aspects that unified this piece and Uninterrupted Rests, and is fairly unusual in Takemitsu's compositions.

• It was the last in a series of memorial pieces, a set which included orchestral works for composer Morton Feldman and film director Andrei Tarkovsky and solo pieces for composer Witold Lutoslawski and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Burt suggests that the first in the series was the Requiem that he wrote in 1957 for Japanese film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who was Takemitsu's mentor in the world of film.

Burt's book makes it easier to follow the various threads through Takemitsu's compositions, and I have for some time immersed myself in his music. Unfortunately, much of his output outside of the concert music realm hasn't been released on CD outside of Japan, which makes it difficult for westerners to appreciate the breadth of his musical interests. I am grateful for his jewels that he wrote for piano, and at least these are well represented on recordings. There are myriad recital recordings that include one or more pieces by Takemitsu.  Many of Takemitsu's piano champions have released all-Takemitsu recitals, including Peter Serkin and Paul Crossley (both, unfortunately, out of print).  In addition to the 1974 recordings, Woodward released a live set from 1990; both are currently available.    And younger pianists such as Noriko Ogawa have taken him up as well. Even retirees…

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