01. Coral Island
02. Water Music
03. Vocalism Ai (Love)
Conductor – Hiroshi Wakasugi
Orchestra – Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra
Soprano Vocals – Mutsumi Masuda
Text By [Poem] – Makoto Ohka
I can remember the first time I listened to Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. It was his piece Archipelago S, written for a large ensemble, and it was back in 1993 in Vienna. He was one of the featured composers in that year's Wien Modern new music festival. (That was just three years before his death in 1996, at 65.) Oliver Knussen conducted the London Sinfonietta, and Takemitsu himself was there, a benign presence despite his disagreement with Knussen over Brahms's orchestration. "You wouldn't want to learn orchestration from Brahms," Knussen said, or words to that effect. Takemitsu replied: "I wish I could orchestrate like Brahms." Coming from two composers so sensitive to the subtleties of instrumental colour, they must have both been right, but it was Takemitsu's music that made the stronger impression on me.
Archipelago S – just like the guitar concerto To the Edge of Dream, another of the highlights of his residency – was music that had paradoxical qualities: it seemed to be in a permanent state of ethereal evanescence, shimmering and suggesting rather than stating directly, and yet its impact was absolute, definite and unforgettable. It was music that sounded strangely similar to Debussy and Olivier Messiaen in its harmonies and textures, yet very different in its effect. Instead of Debussy's sensuality, there was something crystalline and objective in the way Takemitsu's music unfolded; instead of Messiaen's visionary spirituality, there was a sense of space and detachment in Takemitsu's pieces, even if some of his musical language sounded similar. The question for me was: how did these pieces come to be?
Takemitsu's compositional journey is fascinating because his relationship with western music and his native musical traditions shows just how limiting are the categories of east and west when it comes to thinking about music's development in the 20th century.
Born in 1930, Takemitsu spent his childhood in China, and fell in love with western classical music when he heard it on American forces radio in Japan after the war. "My first teacher was the radio," he has said. Conscripted into military service as a teenager, for many years he thought of Japanese traditional music as a symbol of the bitterness battle. "I hated everything about Japan at that time because of my experience during the war," he said. He described how, in an effort to teach himself more about the western music he was hearing but about which he knew so little, he would walk through the city listening for the sound of a piano, whereupon he would "ask to touch the piano for five minutes. I was never refused!"
Takemitsu's enthusiasm saw him investigate electro-acoustic music in his early 20s (this was roughly the same time that Pierre Schaeffer was doing a similar thing in Paris), which led him to compose music in an explicitly modernist idiom. He was crazy about the Viennese School composers at the time. An encounter with Stravinsky, who had heard his 1957 Requiem for Strings and taken the young composer out to lunch because he admired the piece so much, was one catalyst for his musical life.
Another of Takemitsu's influences was the music of John Cage in the early 60s. Takemitsu began to explore aspects of indeterminacy in his work (the improvised sections of From Me Flows What You Call Time, for example, are down to this approach – even if Takemitsu's controlled aleatoricism has more in common with Witold Lutoslawski than Cage). But it was also thanks to Cage's Zen-inspired ideas about music and the world, Takemitsu explained, that "I came to recognise the value of my own tradition".
The other seismic moment for Takemitsu was seeing a performance of Bunraku puppet theatre and, a couple of decades after the war, opening his heart at last to the beauty of his homeland's musical traditions. "I got a shock … I suddenly recognised I was Japanese."
From the 60s on, Takemitsu's musical project would be to combine elements of Japanese music with the western modernism he loved so much. The blend is apparent in pieces such as November Steps, composed for biwa (the Japanese lute he studied intensively), shakuhachi and orchestra. The effect is more profound than a fuzzy fusion of styles; Takemitsu uses the timbre and texture of the two Japanese instruments to make the whole orchestra breathe and glow with gossamer lightness, something he continues in a later work for the same instruments called Autumn.
But the real substance of Takemitsu's Japanese heritage can't be reduced to an instrument, a colour or even a harmony. There's something more fundamental about his understanding of music; something that informs his work whether he's writing for solo piano, a film score for Akira Kurosawa (he wrote music for more than 100 movies), a string quartet or a concerto. It's something expressed by the Japanese word "ma", which suggests the concept of a void that isn't empty, an absence that is really a presence, a space between things that is full of energy. It's a principle that underpins Japanese gardens, with which Takemitsu often compared his music. "My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener. Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture." And yet it's also a way of thinking that is by no means exclusive to Takemitsu in contemporary music; it suggests the same circular, non-hierarchical sense of structure and time that composers from Anton Webern to Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti to Steve Reich have explored.
The idea of a meaningful void is worth keeping in mind when you're listening to music Takemitsu wrote in the last two decades of his life. His pieces are rarely long (From Me Flows What You Call Time is among the longest, at around half an hour), they are seldom fast and rarely overtly demonstrative – but they do weird things with time. Listen to his piano concerto, Riverrun (the title comes from Finnegan's Wake), or Quatrain (scored for clarinet, cello, violin, piano and orchestra) or his violin concerto Far Calls. Coming, Far! (another Joyce-inspired title), to experience what I mean. There's a lot to get to grips with in his output: as well as the catalogue of concert pieces, there are those film scores (start with Kurosawa's Ran), as well as music for radio, theatre and television.
Takemitsu was a useful – in fact essential – composer. He was and still is an inspiration for the Japanese composers who have come after him, and he has made his musical aesthetic part of wider culture, too. I'm listening to his Visions for orchestra right now: in its simultaneous sense of scale and intimacy, its heightened but never cloying colours, and its sensuous objectivity, it sounds like music that should be at the heart of orchestral programmes and listeners' imaginations everywhere.