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Tōru Takemitsu, Japanese Composer Who Emphasized on Silence

Tōru Takemitsu was a Japanese writer and composer on music theory and aesthetics. He was best known for combining silence with sound, through subtle innovation and delicate manipulation of orchestral and instrumental timbre.  

Toru Takemitsu in 1961

Early Life 

Takemitsu was born on the 8th of October, 1930 in Tokyo, Japan. Soon, his family shifted to Dalian in the Liaoning province of China. In 1938, he returned to his homeland to complete his elementary education, but the endeavor was cut short by the Japanese military, which made military service compulsory in educational institutions. When the USA occupied Japan post World War II, he also served the  U.S. Armed Forces. However, he was bedridden and hospitalized for the majority of the duration and utilized that time to completely indulge in western music. He was deeply touched by the experience and decided to distance himself from traditional Japanese music for the time being. Takemitsu had very little musical training to begin with but started composing at sixteen.

Musical Journey 

In 1948, Takemitsu contrived the idea of incorporating noise into musical tones by using a small tube - electronic music technology. At the same time, Pierre Schaeffer, a French engineer had invented “musique concrète,” the method of using recorded sound as a raw material for music.

In 1951, Takemitsu created an experimental workshop called “Jikken Kōbō,” a group whose sole purpose was to avoid Japanese artistic traditions while collaborating on multidisciplinary mixed-media projects. Their works and performances also helped introduce multiple Western composers to the audience in Japan. At this time, Takemitsu crafted a piano work “Uninterrupted Rest I,” which was devoid of regular barlines or rhythmic pulse. In 1955, he was already utilizing electronic tape-recording in his compositions, like “Vocalism A·I,” and “Relief Statique.” He also worked closely with Fumio Hayasaka, a composer who used to work for legendary directors like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi.

The 1950s also brought him international acclaim. In 1958, Igor Stravinsky was deeply impressed by his “Requiem for string orchestra” during a tour in Japan. Takemitsu had written the piece to pay homage to Hayasaka, and Stravinsky later expressed his admiration towards the passion and sincerity of the work. He also invited Tōru over for lunch. After this incident, he received a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation to work on a project. He crafted “Dorian Horizon,” which later premiered at San Francisco Symphony.

While working with “Jikken Kōbō” he became familiar with the work of John Cage. In 1961, he also watched his contemporary composer Toshi Ichiyanagi perform his Japanese rendition of Cage’s work. This left him deeply impressed and further encouraged him to use  graphic score notations and indeterminate procedures in his own works, most notably in “Corona for pianist(s)” and “Corona II for string(s).” The specialty of these works, each performer is provided with cards having integrated and colored circular patterns, which the performer can use to craft the score. However, this influence was short-lived. Takemitsu himself moved away from indeterminate procedures, as displayed in his score for “Coral Island, for soprano and orchestra.” Some similarities remained, like the prominence of timbres in their individual sound events along with their perceived notion of silence. Also, Cage’s interest in Zen practice influenced Takemitsu to renew his interest in elements from traditional Japanese music.

Thereafter, he started paying attention to traditional Japanese musical culture, in an attempt to amalgamate two very diverse musical styles. In the 1960s, he started using Japanese instruments for composing music, the “biwa” being one of them. In 1967, he wrote “November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra” for the New York Philharmonic. Initially, he faced difficulties in uniting such diverse musical cultures together and his attempts are clearly visible through his 1966 piece “Eclipse for biwa and shakuhachi.” These instruments were not used in any Western notation system nor did they sound together, which left the composer in a pickle. In 1972, Takemitsu was exposed to Balinese gamelan music during his visit to Bali. The effect was staggering on a theological and philosophical level. He was quite enchanted by the relationship between the unique tones, rhythms, and scales on display. He offered a similar fusion in his solo piano composition “For Away,” where the pianist has to shuffle his hands to play a single, complex line - a tribute to the interlocking patterns between the gamelan orchestra and metallophones he had experienced in Bali. In 1973, he started integrating traditional Japanese instruments like the biwa and shakuhachi in the orchestral discourse.

During this decade, Takemitsu was already heralded as an important member of the avant-garde community and critical evaluation of his complex instrumentals crafted during this period reveals the influence of his Western counterparts. Some notable compositions in this category include the “Quatrain for clarinet, violin, cello, piano and orchestra,” the “Waves for clarinet, horn, two trombones, and bass drum,” and “Voice for solo flute.” The experimentations and prominence of traditional Japanese music continued to flow in his compositions. In 1973, he composed “In an Autumn Garden,” and in 1977 “A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden” for orchestra, both displaying traditional characteristics.

His music also went through some stylistic transformations. In “A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden,” and “Comparison of Green” for orchestra Takemitsu superimposed pentatonic modes over one nuclear pentatonic scale. This approach was highly “pantonal,” with increased modal pitch materials gradually emerging through his art. They are more audible and the continuity of this approach was clearly visible, as a simple harmonic language emerged. In 1984, he further incorporated a new melodic motive, which he would later refer to as a “sea of tonality” from which multiple pantonal chords can flow.

Takemitsu also increased the usage of diatonic material in his pieces, while his titles offered an added reference towards ‘water.’ His compositions from 1981 to 1987 included “I Hear the Water Dreaming,” “Rain Tree and Rain Coming,” and “Toward the Sea.” He also recorded his notes in a complete collection called “Waterscape.” His intention was to create a series of works that can flow through several metamorphoses, subsequently culminating into a sea of tonality. During this period, pedal notes also played a prominent role in his music. In “Dream/Window” for orchestra, he used a pedal D as an anchor point, which held the statements of a “four-note motivic gesture” in various rhythmic and instrumental guises. Full-fledged references towards diatonic tonality were mostly trimmed. He quoted Johann Sebastian Bach in his 1974 piece “Folios for guitar,” while “Family Tree,” for orchestra and narrator invoked the musical languages of American popular songs and the legendary Maurice Ravel.

In the 1990s, he started collaborating with director Daniel Schmid and novelist Barry Gifford on an opera. The project was authorized by the Opéra National de Lyon. However, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and passed away at the age of 65 before completing the project.

Recognitions and Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1958, he won the Prix Italia award for “Tableau noir,” an orchestral work. 
  • In 1976, he won the Otaka Prize, awarded annually to Japanese composers for outstanding orchestral performance. He won it again in 1981. 
  • In 1979, he became the honorary member of the “Akademie der Künste der DDR,” the German Art Academy. 
  • In 1985, Takemitsu scored the music for the legendary Akira Kurosawa's epic “Ran.”
  • In 1987, he won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for “Ran.” 
  • In 1994, he was accorded the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. 
  • The Japanese Academy endowed him with several Film Awards for his outstanding contribution towards music, for the movies “Sharaku,” “Rikyu,” “Fire Festival,” “Ran,” and “Empire of Passion.”
  • In 1985, he became a member of the “French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.” 
  • In 1986, he was conferred as a member of the  Académie des Beaux-Arts.  
  • In 1996, Columbia University awarded him an Honorary Doctorate posthumously.
  • In 1996, he also received the fourth Glenn Gould Prize for Lifetime Achievement in music.

A Signal Sent into the Unknown

Takemitsu's use of silence in film scores was scintillating, it often intensified on-screen, preventing any sort of monotony and always keeping the audience on their toes. He also deployed “aleatory counterpoint,” a technique in which different sections of an orchestra are split into groups as they replicate short musical movements at will.

Here was a composer so sensitive to the intricacies of instrumental color, that he served music of paradoxical qualities. Music that seems to transition to a permanent state of exquisite evanescence. A shimmering suggestion that stimulates the listener to realize a definite, absolute, and unforgettable impact, without stating it directly. It almost evokes Debussian sensuality through its texture and harmonies, despite having a completely different effect. It’s more objective, offering a sense of detachment and space, unfolding delicately. The compositions are rarely elongated, they are not overly fast or demonstrative, but they are essential.

Tōru Takemitsu’s musical achievements cannot be just reduced to a harmony, a color, or an instrument. There’s something more rudimentary about his vision of music. It is something that can be manifested by the “ma,” a Japanese word that offers the notion of a void that is not really empty, an absence that isn’t devoid of energy. His compositions are understated and crystalline, combining his beloved Western modernism with his own roots, cascading the audience into a different plane, a signal sent into the unknown.


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