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Guest Post: Steven Watson on Takemitsu, part 2

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Title : Guest Post: Steven Watson on Takemitsu, part 2
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Guest Post: Steven Watson on Takemitsu, part 2

 Philosophy and Method

“I gather sounds around me and mobilise them with the least force possible. The worst is to move them around like driving an automobile." – Takemitsu

Takemitsu's writing about his own music contains very little technical information. This attitude may be partly explained by his musical education, or lack thereof. He can legitimately claim to be self-taught. While he had some help from older composers, notably Yasuji Kiyose, he had little formal musical training. Two of his most formative influences were Messiaen and Cage, and while he borrowed many things from their music, he followed neither of their rigorous compositional styles. When you think he might be about to develop the music in any traditional or systematic way, he usually then does something else. He had a freer, intuitive style. He had no problem calling his music "Romantic".

Unlike most composers, Takemitsu never held a teaching post. His career was financed by composition for film in particular – and he took cinema very seriously, not merely as a way to earn money. He also wrote a detective novel and even made appearances on television as a celebrity chef! Takemitsu had a wide range of interests, and this was evident in his approach to composition. His music was never narrowly abstract. The titles of nearly everything he wrote refer to something other than music: rain, wind, dreams, trees, gardens etc. For him, music could not be abstracted out from the world. (One sees Cage’s influence here, as well as Takemitsu’s increasing engagement with Japanese traditions.) 

During Takemitsu’s most experimental period, from roughly the late 50s to late 70s, Takemitsu followed the examples of his peers in playing around with various novel methods of composition. But he did so without strictness or ideological commitment. He later commented that “if a work depends on technique it will be picked bare by nature, its bleaching bones left to become part of the landscape." He was excited by new systems and methods, but was sceptical about how they are used – concerned that they do not merely become ends in themselves. “Composers have been too steeped in techniques, trying to grasp sounds only through their function within the system.”

For example Takemitsu experimented with musique concrète, but, as Peter Burt writes:

While Schaeffer laboured for hours over his steam-train and casserole sounds in an effort to ‘abstract the sound from its dramatic context and elevate it to the dignity of musical material’, Takemitsu seems to have delighted in offering his listeners sounds drawn more or less recognisably from the natural world.

An example is Water Music (1960), which sounds like a digital reimagination of Japanese percussive instrumentation. If I recall correctly, as part of the composition Takemitsu wanted to record the sounds of stones being dropped into some beautiful Japanese pond or water fountain, say, but this didn't work out, so he ended up using the sound of water dripping inside a lavatory:


He stopped experimenting with electronics after a time, but the experiments helped cultivate his interest in timbre. His skill in using timbre, especially in orchestral writing, would develop greatly, with his later orchestral works being particularly fine examples, as you’ll soon hear.

But back to stones..!  Takemitsu was greatly interested in stones from his childhood onwards. This is not an uncommon fascination in Japan; stones which excite such interest and meditation are called suiseki. It was part of Takemitsu’s love of the natural world. (Another peculiar experience of nature that he later wrote about was going mushroom-hunting in a Japanese forest with John Cage – which is quite an image.) The influence of the natural world manifests in various ways in his music. For example one of the most common motifs he uses is the SEA motif (Eb-E-A). In his later works, in which his music was the most unabashedly lyrically, he employs what he called a “sea of tonality”, a rather vague term that probably refers to his use of multiple tonalities at once, or perhaps the rich, wavy textures of the orchestral works in particular. 

The structure of his music can resemble a garden: arranged in careful ways as if creating a garden of complementing musical ideas, rather than music that is developed through a narrative and transformed into something else. Music from earlier in the piece may be repeated with little or no alteration. Moments can happen suddenly, without preparation. There is no sense of travelling, of progressing from A to B. Almost all his music is somewhere on the scale of lento to moderato, and usually much closer to the lento side (he once said that “Japanese people have no sense of allegro"). Listen for example to one of Takemitsu’s last works, Spirit Garden for orchestra (1994):

When discussing his 1977 orchestral work A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, Takemitsu touches upon method and form:

My interest in manipulating numbers is not directed at creating music theory. On the contrary, by using numbers I want to integrate music with the real, changing world. By means of numbers I want to see more clearly those unpredictable, formless images within me that, perhaps prepared over a long time, suddenly emerge in a dream. Through the absolute simplicity of numbers I want to clarify the complexities of the dream. Since I am not a mathematician I react to numbers quite instinctively, and I feel that when they are grasped instinctively, numbers become more cosmological.

In my music there is no constant development as in the sonata; instead, imaginary soundscapes appear. A single element is never emphasized with development through contrast. The listener need not understand the different operations discussed here. Actually I have my own theories of structure and systematic procedure, but I wish to avoid overemphasizing these. My music is composed as if fragments were thrown together unstructured, as in dreams. You go to a far place and suddenly find yourself back home without having noticed the return

When thinking of music, I see symbols on flat paper and grasp them as notes. But in the case of my music, unless these notes are performed and take shape in sound they have no significance. If only correct theory exists, then sounds do not have their own being. For me, sounds are the essence, and all theoretical systems exist with these sounds in mind.

This again brings us to Cage’s influence, and Takemitsu's interest in the relationship between sound and silence. For Takemitsu silence was not nothing. The Japanese have a concept of silence called ma, and for Takemitsu this was “a deep, powerful, and rich resonance that can stand up to the sound." Toshio Hosokawa, a composer in the generation after Takemitsu and in many ways a successor to Takemitsu, said that:

Sound and silence are not different for me. I hear the silence in a sound, and sound in a silence. They are connected together. I think that deep sounds contain a deep silence, and also deep silence contains deep sound. Silence and sound are not opposites. Takemitsu thought this also.

It is in Takemitsu’s later works that he realised all these musical ideals best. It’s often said, or assumed, that x composer’s mature works are their most profound – and it’s often rather less than true. But in Takemitsu’s case I think it is true. Takemitsu’s transition into his later phase was not dramatic or radical like Penderecki’s, for example. Rather, it feels more like Takemitsu has done all the experimenting and working out and is now settling into his musical style. In the final two decades he had returned almost entirely to traditional notation and instrumentation; it was during this time that most of his works for orchestra were written. He no longer held back that lyricality that had always been in his works, but was often tempered by, say, Webern-esque pointillism or aleatoric experimentation (enjoy those works though I do). He embraced totally his love of sound for its own sake. Takemitsu had long wanted to “carve away the excess” in his music, and by this point he had in my view succeeded, creating works of profound textural clarity and colour. He achieved an equilibrium between sound and silence. The music became happier, more consistent, more contented – this is in line with some of his suspicions of mere self-expression (“Does one express himself through his own suppression? Or is the reverse true?") Though a self-described Romantic, he had little interest in emoting. His music had in some ways become more traditionally Western again, but perhaps his musical temperament had become more Japanese.

To end with, one of my favourite of his compositions, And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind for flute, viola and harp (1992). If you follow the score you will notice many examples and echoes of the SEA motif (Eb-E-A):


If you enjoyed that, How Slow the Wind is an orchestral work he wrote the year before that belongs alongside And Then…, with the latter using musical ideas from the former. Indeed, Takemitsu often quotes his own music, as well as quoting Debussy, Messiaen, Bach – and even in one instance a Catalan folksong. Anyway, here it is conducted by his friend and fellow composer Oliver Knussen:




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