Essential Music: Toru Takemitsu

Way back when, I discovered Toru Takemitsu’s music. I think the first I heard was a few pieces for guitar on an album with a number of twentieth-century guitar works, including one of my favorites, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal. Something about Takemitsu’s music prompted me to search out other records with his work (this was back in the early 80s, still the LP era), and I found a couple. Listening to his orchestral music hooked me immediately.

I like a wide variety of music, but much “modern” music leaves me cold. I like much minimalism, including Steve Reich and some early Philip Glass; I love Morton Feldman; and I like a variety of other 20th century composers, some, like Sibelius, who are still anchored in melody, and others, like Bartok, whose music is more difficult. I like much of Messiaen’s strange music, and some of the Scandinavian composers. But I’m not a big fan of serialism, or any of the other -isms that turned twentieth-century music into a mass of unlistenable works. (Sure, there are some good things, but much is not to my taste.)

While Takemitsu’s early music was firmly rooted in western avant-garde techniques, around 1977, his style shifted, and this later music is different from most 20th century music. These works are about textures, sound sculptures; when you begin listening to one of his works you enter a landscape, you start moving along a path of sound that takes you through a series of musical moments. None of his works are “big”, in the sense of symphonies, but none are small either, like miniatures. Most of Takemitsu’s best music is orchestral works that range from about ten to twenty minutes long; most have evocative names like A String Around Autumn, Spirit Garden, Tree Line, How Slow the Wind. While he composed some piano music and some chamber music, only one CD is needed to contain all of one or the other. He uses the flute and guitar in many works, and his orchestrations are uniquely subtle; while he may use an entire orchestra, he does so parsimoniously, never adding too many layers of music. He creates sonorous melanges of emotion and feeling, rather than melodic structures. His music sounds like that of no other composer. Much of Takemitsu’s music is recorded, by labels such as DG, Bis and Naxos, and many discs contain one or two of his works. The best ones, the DG and Bis recordings, are “programmed”, in the sense that they contain a full CD’s worth of music that flows from work to work. It would make no sense to issue a CD with, say, his first ten works, because nothing is numbered, there are no links among them. The most accessible discs bear names that suggest the tone of the music: I Hear the Water Dreaming, Garden Rain, How Slow the Wind, Quotation of Dream, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden… All these discs contain wonderful selections of Takemitsu’s music organized into 60-70 minute programs.

If you’re curious, take a chance on one of his albums, either on CD, or from iTunes or Amazon as download. If you’re interested in music that takes you to new places, you may like this music very much. And you may, like me, become a convert, and seek out all the albums you can find…

For more info about Takemitsu, Alex Ross’s article in the New Yorker gives a good overview of Takemitsu’s life. And the Wikipedia article about Takemitsu has a great deal of detail about his compositional career.

(A brief aside. Some twenty-odd years ago, when I was living in Paris and making a living teaching English, I met a fellow American, of Japanese origin, who was taking some teacher training classes with me. For some reason, we got onto the subject of music, and I mentioned Takemitsu. He replied, “Ah, uncle Toru!” He was, indeed, the nephew of the composer. It was in interesting coincidence.)

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