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Guest Post: Steven Watson on Takemitsu, part 1

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Title : Guest Post: Steven Watson on Takemitsu, part 1
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Guest Post: Steven Watson on Takemitsu, part 1

 If I recall correctly this is only the third guest poster on The Music Salon. Steven Watson is a fine young musician and frequent commentator here. He has a special interest in the music of Tōru Takemitsu. The post will be in two parts.

East and West

Classical music came to Japan when the country opened up to the world during the Meiji Era. Before Takemitsu's generation, Japanese composers would typically study in the West and write in a relatively conservative and bold style, at least compared to what was happening elsewhere. But the music can have a certain power, for example Symphony No. 3 (1943) by Saburo Moroi (1903-1977):

The composer Takemitsu singled out as the best of this generation is Yoritsune Matsudaira (1907-2001). Japanese composers of the time would to varying degrees draw upon national music, but Matsudaira was the first composer to create a compelling synthesis of Western classical music and gagaku. An early example is his Theme and Variations for piano and orchestra (1951):

Takemitsu was born in 1930, a generation after these composers. Although as a child he played the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) and also for a time lived with his aunt, who was a koto teacher (a koto is a kind of zither), he never developed a strong interest in Japanese music. He was more interested in his father's jazz albums, and jazz would have an audible influence on his music. In 1944 he was conscripted to the army and sent to a military base deep within a mountain; those stationed there had the disagreeable task of preparing for an American invasion. There was no music except for a record player, with a makeshift bamboo needle, that was owned by an officer. One day the officer invited Takemitsu and some soldiers to listen to some illicit Western music. The piece that stayed with Takemitsu was Parlez-moi d’amour, sung by Lucienne Boyer:

I can well understand why Takemitsu never forgot the experience of hearing such a beautiful little song. This was the trigger for his great passion for music. After the war he searched for all the Western music he could find. He would listen to the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and make frequent visits to the library of the Civil Information and Education branch of the U.S. Occupation government, where he discovered modern American classical music in particular, from Aaron Copland to Walter Piston. If he passed a house and heard a piano playing, he would knock and ask to be allowed to play it himself – so strong was his desire to not merely hear the sounds he made, but to touch and feel the piano. Amazingly, most people let him in. But he had little interest in Japanese music, which for him just “recalled the bitter memory of war”. For his first decade as a professional composer he was only interested in the Western tradition: “For me, a Japanese, the West was a single enormous mirror. The strong reflected light of that mirror overwhelmed the light of other cultures."

From hearing Parlez-moi d’amour ownards, he showed a particular affinity for French music, particularly Messiaen and Debussy, whose music would be a source of undiminishing inspiration for the rest of his life. You can hear this in Takemitsu’s earliest surviving composition, Romance (1948) for piano:

Interestingly this piece shows that Takemitsu's was not yet as averse to Japanese music as he later made out – pentatonic scales blend with French impressionism. In this regard he was following the model of other Japanese composers at the time. But by the time of his Op.1, Uninterrupted Rest (1952), he had removed all obvious Japanese characteristics from his music. (Only the first movement was written in 1952; the second and third were written in 1959.)

What is immediately noticeable is how much Takemitsu’s style in both these pieces is consistent with his style to come: the importance of silence, the slowness, the suspension of pulse, his use of melodic expression, Messiaen’s modes, parallel harmonies, the interest in sounds for their own sake, rather than for means of musical development. Much of what was to come was the slow working out of some of these fundamental ideas.

It was during this period of Takemitsu’s life that his work gained international attention. Stravinsky heard his Requiem for orchestra in 1957, a more developed piece than the two previous, and was astounded:

Around this time Takemitsu was entering a period characterised by radical experimentation and a reversal of his position on Japanese music. John Cage was in large part responsible for the latter. It was through Takemitsu’s contact with Cage and his music that, as Takemitsu later wrote, “I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.” Peter Burt, in his excellent book on Takemitsu, writes: 

“Superficially, therefore, the operation of Cage’s influence on the younger generation of Japanese composers at this time appears to present another example of that kind of ‘feedback loop’ whereby ‘Eastern’ ideas are reimported from the West to their point of origin, as had happened half a century earlier with Debussy’s music. Once again, too, this export–import manoeuvre had the important consequence of lending the seal of Western endorsement to ideas that were fundamentally ‘Eastern’ in origin, and thereby freeing Japanese composers to explore aspects of their own tradition without fear that they might be lapsing into some kind of pre-war nationalistic ‘Zealotism’."

(Might something like this happen in the West in the future, wherein some of our traditions are reimported from abroad – perhaps, even, from the East?)

Takemitsu would for some time wrestle with how to incorporate his newfound Japaneseness into his music. Although he is well-known for his innovations combining traditional Japanese instruments with Western music, these experiments were actually rather few and, though interesting, are not in my view his best music. The most well-known, November Steps (1967), was a great international success, despite Takemitsu's initial worries about how the work would be received (in rehearsal the orchestra burst into laughter when they heard the traditional instruments). But November Steps was designed not as a complementary meeting of traditions, but as a demonstration of contrasts. In Takemitsu’s writings there are many comparisons of Japanese and Western approaches to music, and one gets the sense that he was struggling to unify the two, looking forward idealistically and vaguely to the hatching of the “universal egg”, as he called it, or more specifically “the geographic and historic unity of all peoples”. There's a tension in much of Takemitsu’s writing between a kind of instinctive conservatism – a love of nature and a suspicion of modernity, a deep connection to traditions, wanting to harmonise new with old – and his desire for “a universal world of new sound", which was doubtless partly a response to his experiences of Japanese nationalism.

Takemitsu’s Japaneseness would become evident not so much in a blending of styles or a use of traditional instrumentation, but in how it informed his philosophy and method of composition, which we’ll discuss in the next post. For now, here’s November Steps for shakuhachi, biwa and orchestra. As you’ll see, the shakuhachi and biwa parts are semi-improvised. In the cadenza-like section, the shakuhachi uses graphic notation and the biwa part uses a kind of tablature of Takemitsu’s invention. How these two parts interact is at the discretion of the performers. The orchestra, however, use standard notation throughout. You have as a result unmeasured, indeterminate music going on at the same time as the fully-notated orchestral parts. It's an Ivesian blend of two independent things that never really work together:

Actually, I can’t leave it at that. November Steps is undoubtedly an interesting work, but for me a more successful and underrated work from this period would be Wind Horse (1966) for unaccompanied mixed chorus. You’ll notice, as you’ll hear further in the next post, how diverse Takemitsu’s output was at this time. This piece also shows how Takemitsu could be both strikingly modernist and popular, beginning with strange modes and sprechgesang, set to Japanese poetry, then gradually introducing South African lullaby from the third movement onwards:

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