Categories: Strumentale
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Published on: 9 April 2010

Tōru Takemitsu (武満 徹, Takemitsu Tōru, October 8, 1930 – February 20, 1996) was a Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory. Though largely self-taught, Takemitsu is recognised for his skill in the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, drawing from a wide range of influences, including jazz, popular music, avant-garde procedures and traditional Japanese music, in a harmonic idiom largely derived from the music of Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen.

In 1951 Takemitsu was a founding member of the anti-academic Jikken Kōbō (実験工房, “experimental workshop”): an artistic group established for multidisciplinary collaboration on mixed-media projects, who sought to avoid Japanese artistic tradition. The performances and works undertaken by the group introduced several contemporary Western composers to Japanese audiences. During this period he wrote Saegirarenai Kyūsoku I (“Uninterrupted Rest I”, 1952: a piano work, without a regular rhythmic pulse or barlines); and by 1955 Takemitsu had begun to use electronic tape-recording techniques in such works as Relief Statique (1955) and Vocalism A·I (1956).

During his time with Jikken Kōbō, Takemitsu came into contact with the experimental work of John Cage. Although the immediate influence of Cage’s procedures did not last in Takemitsu’s music, certain similarities between Cage’s philosophies and Takemitsu’s thought remained. For example, Cage’s emphasis on timbres within individual sound-events, and his notion of silence “as plenum rather than vacuum”, can be aligned with Takemitsu’s interest in ma (a japanese concept usually translated as the space between two objects). Furthermore, Cage’s interest in Zen practice (through his contact with Zen Master Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki) seems to have resulted in a renewed interest in the East in general, and ultimately alerted Takemitsu to the potential for incorporating elements drawn from Japanese traditional music into his composition:

I must express my deep and sincere gratitude to John Cage. The reason for this is that in my own life, in my own development, for a long period I struggled to avoid being “Japanese”, to avoid “Japanese” qualities. It was largely through my contact with John Cage that I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.

In particular, Takemitsu perceived that, for example, the sound of a single stroke of the biwa or single pitch breathed through the shakuhachi, could

so transport our reason because they are of extreme complexity […] already complete in themselves.

This fascination with the sounds produced in traditional Japanese music brought Takemitsu to his idea of ma which ultimately informed his understanding of the intense quality of traditional Japanese music as a whole:

Just one sound can be complete in itself, for its complexity lies in the formulation of ma, an unquantifiable metaphysical space (duration) of dynamically tensed absence of sound. For example, in the performance of nō, the ma of sound and silence does not have an organic relation for the purpose of artistic expression. Rather, these two elements contrast sharply with one another in an immaterial balance.

So we can see this strange situation: an eastern composer that first avoid the eastern music, reconcile with it thanks to a western composer.

  • Takemitsu Toru – Eclipse, for biwa and shakuhachi (1966)
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