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Toru Takemitsu

An expert of Asian and European music Seiji Ozava called Toru Takemitsu the first Japanese composer who wrote for the global public. It might be true, because Takemitsu’s work is widely known to music connoisseurs on the whole Eurasian continent. Although his influence is most vividly seen with classical musicians, other genres (ethnical music, jazz and even rock) also take bits of the best what the Japanese talent has to offer.

Reportedly, Takemitsu himself often said the following: “I would like to swim in the sea like a whale, in a sea where there is no Asia or Europe, no division”. The composer was born in 1930 and died in 1996, thus having lived 66 years, and is one of the leading Japanese composers of the second half of XX century. He managed to combine harmoniously in his work the various and seemingly incompatible aspects of Western and Eastern traditions. That is why musicologists metaphorically called his legacy a “bridge between East and West “. He was born in Tokyo, spent several years in China, then, after returning home, he was called to join the Japanese army in 1944, at the age of only fourteen. This experience was excessively harsh for him and provided strong impression. However, it was during his military service that Takemitsu found himself introduced to the European music for the first time. These were the popular French songs of that time. Shortly afterwards, at the age of 16 he began to compose music himself. Even then, the future great composer showed an attraction towards multidisciplinary experiments and was really fond of electronic music and the newest technical gadgets and devices to ensure the records of unusual sounds (which were, however, then arranged in a very traditional manner). The creative path of composer is marked with a significant shift of style throughout the years. Having mastered the so-called avant-garde experimentation, he finally came to the new ideas of simplicity and beauty in art. One has to mention that these ideas lie in the basic foundation of the Japanese culture. It has always preached minimalism and elegant, natural luxury. Takemitsu once made a revealing statement: As a person who was born Japanese, I want to develop myself and my music in terms of traditions, and as a Western man, I want to show progress in terms of innovation.

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As for avant-garde, Takemitsu’s contribution in this sphere is most often linked to his work in Jikken Kobo group. He was one of the people who organized this ensemble and worked within it for more than 10 years. The name of the ensemble is word-for-word translation of “The Experimental Workshop” and was seriously focused on avoiding any standard classical academic clichés. The situation in the country during that time was quite gloomy and depressive (not even a decade passed since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedy), and such environment inevitably influenced the artistic creative activity. According to Sam Thorne, who researched this topic in a vast number of electronic magazines and publications, the experience of “Jikken Kobo” can be generalized the following way:

this determinedly interdisciplinary group of 14 artists, musicians, choreographers and poets orientated themselves towards the pre-war European and American avant-gardes. Its members, many of whom were self-taught, worked individually or in groups, and their guiding interests included the piano work of John Cage, Martha Graham’s choreography, and the sculpture of Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi. Active for about seven years, they operated mostly outside of museum spaces and distanced themselves from the academic discourses around the so-called musique concrète and electro-acoustic composition. (Thorne)

The material the ensemble played was first introduced to French audience in Paris, and afterwards other Europeans became familiar with the type of music they presented. Their first combined work was a ballet performance called “A Joy of Life”. When Takemitsu and his colleagues worked on this, it was largely unusual for the Japanese cultural environment, and many achievements in this sphere were lent from the Europeans.

In 1971, at the age of 41, he was selected to be a leading composer of the International Modern Music Week in Paris alongside with Russian composer Stravinsky who did a lot for Takemitsu’s international fame and recognition. In 1959, Stravinsky occasionally heard Takemitsu’s pieces and heard him perform as well, and then introduced the Requiem for String Orchestra, written by his Japanese counterpart, to European musicians and public. Since then and until the end of his life, Takemitsu was richly provided with orders from European and American theatres, musical producers, orchestras, movie directors and so on.

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Takemitsu won numerous international awards, including the Prize of Italy (1958), Gravemayera Prize (1994, he received it for his “Fantasma / Cantos” for clarinet and orchestra), Glenn Gould Prize (1996, posthumously), acquired the title of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters (1985). The work of Takemitsu represents and covers various genres of symphonic, choral, vocal, vocal-symphonic electronic, and film music (original soundtracks), etc. His writings occupy a significant place not only in the programs of contemporary music festivals, but also in the repertoire of major ensembles and soloists all around the world.

According to the English musicologist Steven Nuss, Takemitsu is the best known Japanese composer of his generation, who managed to mix and reunite harmoniously the three different aspects of Western and Eastern traditions in his work. Indeed, his work demonstrates the subtle interplay of strictly national and native composers and universal, common cultural traditions. He managed to comprehend that legacy deeply and included it into his original aesthetic and stylistic platform. According to the words of his famous fellow composer and contemporary Kenzaburo Oe, the way to expressing one’s feelings is a way to universalism, and at the same time remaining rooted in the native soil. These words can rightfully be considered as the motto of creative searches of Takemitsu. Analysis of his works enhances the general study of Japanese music and allows one to explore topical issues of compositional techniques. This is due to the fact that creativity of this composer reflects many important processes of new stylistic concept, which was characteristic of composition art of the second half of XX century.

However, the true and full understanding of his work is yet to come. Japanese researcher Toki Seiji notes: “Although there was a significant amount of published articles on the works by Takemitsu, however, understanding of his music is still not full. All that we know about music written by Takemitsu, is actually based on the repertoire that received worldwide fame in the 1970s. Therefore, it is time to rethink the musical heritage of Takemitsu without bias and prejudice”.

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Takemitsu was quite a fruitful composer. Throughout his career, he wrote the following orchestral works: Requiem for String Orchestra (1957), Music of Tree (1961), The Dorian Horizon (1966), Green (1967), Winter (1971), A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977), A Way A Lone II for string orchestra (version of A Way a Lone for string quartet), Dreamtime (1981), Rain Coming for chamber orchestra (1982), Dream/Window (1985), Twill by Twilight—In Memory of Morton Feldman (1988),Tree Line for chamber orchestra (1988), Visions (1990), How slow the Wind (1991), Archipelago S. for 21 players (1993). His chamber works include the following: Le Son Calligraphé I–III for four violins, two violas and two cellos (1958–1960), Ring for flute, Terz guitar and lute (1961), Corona II for string(s) graphic work in collaboration with Kōhei Sugiura (1962), Arc for Strings graphic work (1963),Valeria for violin, cello, guitar, electric organ and two piccolos (1965), Eucalyptus II for flute, oboe and harp (1971), In an Autumn Garden for gagaku orchestra (1973/1979), Garden Rain for brass ensemble (1974), Waves for clarinet, horn, two trombones and bass drum (1976), Quatrain II for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1977), A Way a Lone for string quartet (1981), Rocking Mirror Daybreak for Violin Duo (1983), Signals from Heaven—two antiphonal fanfares for two brass groups (1987), I Day Signal II Night Signal, And then I knew ’twas Wind for flute, viola and harp (1992) (Siddons 108). There are also countless works for soloists and orchestra, piano works, guitar, electronic and tape music.

Takemitsu’s contribution to the cinema production industry is also vast and massive. He wrote music (himself or in cooperation with others) to films such as Pitfall (Otoshiana) (1962), Harakiri (1962),Woman in the Dunes (1964), Kaidan (1964), Assassination (1964), The Face of Another (1966), Samurai Rebellion (1967), Double Suicide (1969), Dodesukaden (1970), Empire of Passion (1978), Ran (1985), Black Rain (1989), Rising Sun (1993) (Siddons 151).

At the same time, Toru Takemitsu stands among the major representatives of contemporary Japanese composers’ creativity (together with Yasushi Akutagawa, Becky Sadao, Dan Ikuma, Matsudaira Eritsune, Toshiro Mayuzumi and several others). He is distinguished by a clearly distinctive musical style of thinking and writing (Robinson 49). By means of music, he was able to express the essential features of the artistic attitude and the Japanese national character, finding therein a convincing and even necessary implementation into the modern musical era. We emphasize that the composer in the early stages of his career does not aim to be a “national” composer. Accordingly, in the creative life of Toru Takemitsu, the important stimulus of his works was non-indigenous art phenomenon. Vittal Arnold, a theoretic of music, emphasized that Takemitsu managed to gather together the various elements or other musical tools, and at the same time inventing his own means of expression. He devoted his sessions to this more than any other mature composer did, constantly seeking to combine Eastern and Western principles.

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Researchers of Takemitsu’s art underline his admiration of Debussy and his famous piano pieces. Debussy was the first French composer that took Takemitsu’s attention and became the starting point for discovering European musical art in general. The Japanese composer praised highly the orchestration opportunities and the expressive tools that Debussy employed, as well as the ever-changing play of loud and quiet tones. Alongside with Debussy, Takemitsu was inspired by musicians such as Oliver Messiaen, Arnold Shoenberg and also John Cage and his post-modernist legacy. In his later pieces, Takemitsu claims to have been heavily influenced by traditional Japanese poetry that sees beauty in the nature above all other things. In Far Calls. Coming Far! (for violin and orchestra, 1980) he claimed he tried the music to resemble the sounds of the sea or the ocean.

It is very interesting to read the works of British specialist John Siddons, who devoted much of his professional life to studying Takemitsu’s work. Describing the creative path of Takemitsu, Siddons offers his own classification of the composer’s works. The author divides the pieces by Takemitsu into three groups of works. The first group consists of the works written as a tribute and with respect to certain individuals who have played an important role in the life and development of the composer. The second group, according to Siddons, is devoted to the problem of the “distance in music”. Critical interpretations of the concept of “distance” are contained in the comments made by the author. Thus, in the work Distance for oboe (1972) the “distance” means the difference between the Western (oboe) and traditional Japanese that sound together in a duet. In Distance for flute, violin and piano (1989), the author supposedly had in mind the “distance” between the various compositional techniques, the implementation of composition. In Dorian Horizon for string orchestra concept of “distance” is interpreted in the arrangement of instruments on stage. In From me Flows What You Calls Time for five percussion instruments and an orchestra (1990) the composer disclosed Japanese aesthetic categories of time and the concept of intermissions. Among other works relating to this issue, Siddons names Piano Distance (1961), Far Away (1973), Far from Chrysanthemums and Fog in November for cello and piano (1983); Signals from Heaven for two antiphonal pipes (1987). The third group of works encompasses musical works that reveal the phenomenon of dreams; this group is most clearly represented by soundtracks to movies that the composer wrote.

In his many late interviews, Takemitsu recalled that he never had any kinds of doubts as to what his path in life was. As soon as music entered his life, he knew he wanted to keep on creating and playing music for the rest of his life. His personal range of interests was rich and impressive – theatre, film arts, visual art and so on. Western and Japanese music critics recognize that Toru Takemitsu created his internationally significant and, at the same time, strictly national and individually unique musical style. During his fruitful life, Takemitsu received more than 35 international awards. After his death in 1996, there was established an award for outstanding achievements in composition named after him.

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