Takemitsu - not as appreciated as Boulez, Carter... (?)

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BWV 1080
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Takemitsu - not as appreciated as Boulez, Carter... (?)

Post by BWV 1080 » Thu Feb 01, 2007 11:46 pm

Excellent piece by Alex Ross in the New Yorker.

TOWARD SILENCE
The intense repose of Toru Takemitsu.
by ALEX ROSS
Issue of 2007-02-05
Posted 2007-01-29

Near the end of the Second World War, soldiers and civilians on the Japanese home front constructed networks of underground bases in anticipation of an invasion that never came. In one of those dugout fortresses, in the mountains west of Tokyo, the future composer Toru Takemitsu was stationed in 1944; he was all of fourteen years old. Although no music aside from patriotic songs was allowed, one day a kindhearted officer ushered the children-soldiers into a back room and played some records for them, using a windup phonograph with a handmade bamboo needle. One disk had Lucienne Boyer singing “Parlez-Moi d’Amour.” Takemitsu listened, he later said, in a state of “enormous shock.” After so much sunless, soulless labor, that winsome chanson opened a world of possibility in his mind. Ever after, he honored the moment as the birth of his musical consciousness.

Takemitsu died in 1996, at the age of sixty-five. He was by far the most celebrated of Japanese composers, although his position in the firmament of modern music was not exactly dominant; some Western commentators condescendingly described him as an artist of a decorative type, a purveyor of atmospheric wisps of sound. In the past decade or so, however, his music has started edging into the repertory. Carnegie Hall has presented several Takemitsu performances this season, most recently a concert by the violist Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists. Recordings have multiplied into the dozens, on such labels as DG, BIS, and Naxos. Film connoisseurs cherish Takemitsu’s scores for various masterpieces of postwar Japanese cinema.

Critics have underestimated Takemitsu because of the unstinting sensuousness of his music. It is rich in opulent chords, luminous textures, exotic tones that almost brush the skin, hazy melodies that move like figures in mist. The titles give a sense of the sound: “Twill by Twilight,” “Toward the Sea,” “How Slow the Wind.” Yet the picture-book atmosphere is periodically disrupted by harsh timbres, rumblings of dissonance, engulfing masses of tone. Loveliness vanishes into darkness before it can be fully apprehended, like the song that Takemitsu heard inside the mountain.

Immediately after the end of the war, Takemitsu began teaching himself music, picking up techniques from a curious jumble of sources: his father’s jazz collection; canonical modern pieces by Debussy, Schoenberg, and Messiaen; American works that showed up on Armed Forces radio and in reëducation libraries during the occupation; popular and Romantic melodies that flavored movie soundtracks. (An obsessive cinéaste, he attended up to three hundred films a year.) A little later, he began investigating Western avant-garde ideas, falling under the spell of John Cage. There was a circularity to this chain of influence, because both Debussy and Cage, in their very different ways, had been heavily affected by Japanese music and Japanese thought. In a sense, Takemitsu was taking back what his tradition had given to the West.

The work that launched Takemitsu’s international career was the Requiem for Strings, written in 1957. Stravinsky happened to hear it during a trip to Japan; radio engineers played it for the great man by accident, and, when they were about to go back to the intended playlist, he asked them not to stop. Stravinsky praised the composer in interviews, and prizes and commissions from Western groups quickly followed. The Requiem shows Takemitsu’s style in embryo: the first violins begin with a soft, sustained F-sharp; second violins and cellos add a thick chord that consists of E-flat-major and B-flat-major triads superimposed; and the violas play a high phrase that twists slowly in place as harmonies shift underfoot. Peter Burt, in his book “The Music of Toru Takemitsu,” observes that the first few bars vaguely resemble Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and speculates that Barber’s score may have been found in the library of the American Civil Information and Education unit in Tokyo.

Stravinsky catapulted Takemitsu to fame, but film scores brought the composer to his widest public. While composers in America and the Soviet Union wrote film music to pay the bills, Takemitsu had the good fortune to work with directors who encouraged him to experiment. Some of the most astringent sounds in his output appear in the score for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s brilliant, eerie 1964 film “Woman in the Dunes,” where the shifting sands are represented by sirenlike glissando strings and electronically altered tones. One director who contested Takemitsu’s independence was, not surprisingly, Akira Kurosawa, who demanded Mahlerian sonorities for his 1985 epic “Ran.” Takemitsu lost that fight, but, arguably, the neo-Romanticism of “Ran” led him toward the style of his late period, when he permitted himself a long-breathed lyricism that he had earlier avoided.

Takemitsu’s career, like that of many a twentieth-century composer, took the form of an outward journey and an eventual homecoming. What’s notable is that along the way he rediscovered his identity as a Japanese artist, having initially rejected tradition out of disgust with the hyper-nationalism of imperial Japan. Above all, he prized the concept of ma—the “powerful silence,” as he defined it, which is set in relief by a single, equally powerful sound. Most of his mature works begin with a tone materializing from silence, and end with a dematerialization toward silence again.

Takemitsu’s aesthetic requires a performer of exceptional abilities. Sounds must be placed with absolute precision. They must have tonal beauty, but not too much sentiment. Forms should unfold like images on a screen, or, as Takemitsu once said, a “picture scroll unrolled.” No player better meets these specifications than the pianist Peter Serkin, who was one of the composer’s closest friends. Serkin presented a recital of Takemitsu and Bach in a Zankel Hall recital last fall, proceeding from the Messiaen-like meditation “Uninterrupted Rest No. 1,” from 1952, to “Rain Tree Sketch II,” from 1992, written in Messiaen’s memory. In the earlier pieces—I left at intermission to check in on the Beethoven festival at Lincoln Center—Serkin created an atmosphere of intense repose, never letting the music lapse into the realm of the picturesque.

The Moscow Soloists concert, which took place at Zankel Hall last week, and which also included Hikaru Hayashi’s Viola Concerto and Tan Dun’s Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa, became an unfortunate lesson in how Takemitsu shouldn’t be performed. The program began with the 1987 string piece “Nostalghia,” written in homage to the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, and the title is taken from Tarkovsky’s most purely lyrical creation, at the end of which a ghostlike abbey looms above a farmhouse. The players had intonation problems from the start, and during the periodic pauses, which should be like intakes of breath, the music simply stopped. Bashmet, who variously played violin and viola and also conducted, was on surer ground when he took the podium to conduct excerpts from three Takemitsu film scores: “José Torres,” “Black Rain,” and “Face of Another.” This is music of a more extroverted, popular character—the post-atomic lament of “Black Rain” excepted—and the Moscow Soloists dug in with vigor.

If convincing performances of Takemitsu are hard to pull off in concert halls, they are easily found on recordings. The conductor Marin Alsop recently recorded an eloquent version of “A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden” for Naxos, and Tadaaki Otaka has led several fine collections of orchestral pieces for BIS. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Oliver Knussen’s DG disk “Quotation of Dream,” which brings together several masterpieces of Takemitsu’s final decade; in the title work, a fragment of Debussy’s “La Mer” surges to the surface of the music, making explicit the composer’s most profound and productive stylistic debt. Listening again, I realized that it is hard to say much about this music other than that it is uncommonly beautiful. Its processes remain mysterious, despite the best efforts of analysts and explicators. It almost shies away from the listener as it transpires, longing to return to the silence whence it came.

James

Post by James » Fri Feb 02, 2007 7:52 am

Takemitsu is ok, but some stuff i've heard bothers me....it merely sounds like Debussy and Messiaen sort-of mashed together and lacking a distinct voice.

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Post by diegobueno » Fri Feb 02, 2007 8:28 am

Takemitsu's scores look impossibly dense on the page. The oversized orchestral scores are crammed with tiny little staves, each with different sets of notes.

But Fantasma/Cantos for clarinet and orchestra really is quite lovely. And yes, there's a lot of Debussy and Messiaen mashed together. I like it.
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Post by johnQpublic » Fri Feb 02, 2007 8:50 am

As far as I can see, Takemitsu is always being performed. Is his style as individual or demanding as Carter or Boulez? No, but so what. His music is clearly the work of a fine artist.
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IcedNote
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Post by IcedNote » Fri Feb 02, 2007 12:23 pm

I used to play "All in Twilight" and "In the Woods" for guitar. They were alright for "20th century" music. ;)

-G
Harakiried composer reincarnated as a nonprofit development guy.

BWV 1080
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Post by BWV 1080 » Fri Feb 02, 2007 4:51 pm

IcedNote wrote:I used to play "All in Twilight" and "In the Woods" for guitar. They were alright for "20th century" music. ;)

-G
more than just all right, Takemitsu is perhaps the greatest composer of guitar music outside of the Spanish tradition. There is no finer work for the instrument than All in Twilight.

IcedNote
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Post by IcedNote » Fri Feb 02, 2007 5:29 pm

BWV 1080 wrote:
IcedNote wrote:I used to play "All in Twilight" and "In the Woods" for guitar. They were alright for "20th century" music. ;)

-G
more than just all right, Takemitsu is perhaps the greatest composer of guitar music outside of the Spanish tradition. There is no finer work for the instrument than All in Twilight.
Not to hijack this thread, but I like a GREAT deal of guitar music more than All in Twilight. Barrios' "La Catedral" is one of many.

As for composers outside of the Spanish tradition: Britten's "Nocturnal" is, in my opinion, a far superior piece. :)

-G
Harakiried composer reincarnated as a nonprofit development guy.

BWV 1080
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Post by BWV 1080 » Fri Feb 02, 2007 5:34 pm

IcedNote wrote:
BWV 1080 wrote:
IcedNote wrote:I used to play "All in Twilight" and "In the Woods" for guitar. They were alright for "20th century" music. ;)

-G
more than just all right, Takemitsu is perhaps the greatest composer of guitar music outside of the Spanish tradition. There is no finer work for the instrument than All in Twilight.
Not to hijack this thread, but I like a GREAT deal of guitar music more than All in Twilight. Barrios' "La Catedral" is one of many.

As for composers outside of the Spanish tradition: Britten's "Nocturnal" is, in my opinion, a far superior piece. :)

-G
I would put All in Twilight up there with Nocturnal or any other 20th century piece of guitar music.

I am a guitarist myself BTW - studied with Stanley Yates and Tom Johnson at UNT. Where did you study?

IcedNote
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Post by IcedNote » Fri Feb 02, 2007 9:49 pm

BWV 1080 wrote: I would put All in Twilight up there with Nocturnal or any other 20th century piece of guitar music.

I am a guitarist myself BTW - studied with Stanley Yates and Tom Johnson at UNT. Where did you study?
I figured you pumped the nylon, too. :D

See, I was classically trained on piano before I picked up the guitar. I taught myself for a while before beginning with Matthew Ardizzone, who was actually the first guitarist to receive a DMA from Eastman. Great player and brilliant teacher, but I don't think he's that well known. When I came to Miami, I started studying with Douglas Lora, one of the winners of the 2006 CAG Competition. He's a great classical player, but we focused on Brazilian music. He's from Brazil, so I *had* to seize that opportunity! Honestly, I'm very happy I did.

Unfortunately, I had to cut off my nails when I went to study in Paris this summer (lots of piano work), and I haven't bothered to grow them back as I'm also a "metal" guitarist and they tend to get in the way of some soloing techniques. Ah well!

-G
Harakiried composer reincarnated as a nonprofit development guy.

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