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Toru Takemitsu: Confronting Silence

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    Fred

    Toru Takemitsu:

    Confronting Silence: Selected Writings (Fallen Leaf Monographs on Contemporary Composers) (availability: paperback, ebook)

    Background:

    This is a collection of essays written by Toru Takemitsu (1930-96), famous 20th century composer and writer on music theory. The son of a Japanese businessman interested in Jazz, Takemitsu was raised in China. Later, his father was drafted and stationed in Manchuria. At that time, Toru Takemitsu was only occasionally exposed to “Western” music (=the enemy’s music!). During a long hospital stay as a youth, he listened to “Western” music on the radio (US occupation force station?). He pursued his dream of becoming a composer, receiving only limited formal training in music composition.

    Takemitsu wrote the music for the AK movies Dodesukaden and Ran (plus numerous other film scores, including the one for Suna no onna [Woman in the Dunes]). Not only did he compose film scores, he was also a film buff, watching close to 300 movies/year. Musically, he was influenced by Olivier Messiaen and John Cage among others.

    My impression:

    The essays were written over a number of years and include highly personal accounts of Takemitsu’s motivation to write music, which was essential for expressing himself. He also elaborates on nature, gardens, water, and how these affected his feelings and music, and shares his thoughts on painting and poetry. Like many Japanese of his generation, he was extremely ambivalent towards the influence of Japan’s feudal history on Japanese music. Due to his upbringing abroad, he felt a certain distance towards Japan. In the 50s and 60s, however, he began to become interested in gagaku (Japanese court music). In several of the essays essays, Takemitsu explains how he was trying to juxtapose/merge Japanese with Western music. He elucidates on the relationship between common sounds, noise, and formal music and explains that Western music aims to refine sounds to the extent that natural noises are no longer part a musical piece. He pays a lot of attention to the concept of ma and the role of timing in Eastern music.

    You will get more mileage out of some chapters/essays than others, depending on your particular interests. There are some repetitions due to the nature of the book (collection of essays). There are also some contradictions, which should not be too surprising considering that the book contains essays written over a period of about 30 years. The author does go into some details on some of his compositions with special emphasis on A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden.

    I found the book a delight to read, especially the author’s very personal description of his reasons for expressing himself through music, and of his ambivalence towards his country’s history. Translating this material must have been extremely challenging, but it turned out really well.

    Let me quote two short paragraphs I found particularly touching:

    …Today any healthy relationship to trees is rapidly disappearing. At least we seem unable to accommodate trees, seeking only to exploit them for our own advantage. In the days of Redon and Rilke there was still a friendly relationship between people and trees. A tree could grow within a person, painters and poets could stand within a tree and absorb the nourishment of the earth. And the painter’s solitude could be reflected in a lone tree in the wasteland…

    From Cage I learned life — or I should say, how to live and the fact that music is not removed from life. This simple, clear fact has been forgotten. Art and life have become separated, and specialists are concerned with the skeletons of methodology. Aesthetics led us to music without any relationship to live sound, mere symbols on paper.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the review, Fred! Makes me want to order the book.

    Does the book contain any direct references to Kurosawa or Takemitsu’s work on his films, or do the essays move on a more universal level?

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    Fred

    Hi Vili,

    Does the book contain any direct references to Kurosawa or Takemitsu’s work on his films, or do the essays move on a more universal level?

    No, the essays are focused on Takemitsu’s approach to composing and to the visual arts.

    Here is the only direct reference to AK:

    I think that movie music has neither a fixed aesthetic nor an established theory. What I called the contrapuntal method used by Akira Kurosawa in Norainu and Julien Duvivier’s use of the player piano in Pepe le Moko may appear to be methods, but they came out of the fixed idea that celluloid conveys only a story.

    I just found a radio documentary (Enter the garden) on Takemitsu: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-q_zcE9pAR8

    There is also a DVD focusing on TT as a composer of film scores: Music for The Movies: Toru Takemitsu (mine is on order from the US).

    Confronting silence helped me learn more about new ways of looking at 20th century music and on an artist’s motivation. I found the book a real good read.

    Kind regards,

    Fred

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks Fred! Sounds really interesting.

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    Fred

    There is a book on Toru Takemitsu with some AK content: A Memoir of Tôru Takemitsu by Asaka Takemitsu. So far (I have not finished reading the book) I found AK mentioned several times. Asaka Takemitsu (wife of the late Toru Takemitsu [TT]) relates the infamous story about AK and TT communicating by having messengers slip notes underneath the doors of their respective hotel rooms because of their disagreement about the music for Ran (AK “wanted Mahler”, TT had other ideas and was close to withdrawing from the project). Apparently, AK did not really accept TT as a true collaborator, he just wanted TT to compose the music AK had envisioned, a fact also pointed out in http://dspace.library.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/2928/1/Damon%20Thomas%20Lee%20Dissertation%202006%20Vol%202%20new%20title.pdf on pp. 85-87.

    Sounds like the same sad ending we know from AK’s behavior towards Mifune and Richard Fleischer: TT refused to work with AK again, and I am not aware of any reconciliation.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks, Fred. I really need to pick up both of these Takemitsu books at some point. I went through a “month of Takemitsu” sometime in the mid-90s when, having just seen Ran, I made use of the local library system and did inter-library loans on all the Takemitsu CDs that I could find. Maybe it would be time for another look into the composer’s world, as now I really only know and remember the contributions he did for Kurosawa.

    Much can indeed be said about Kurosawa’s conduct with people around him, but not having been there, I find it difficult to judge. But apparently Kurosawa wasn’t very easy to work with during the scoring of Kagemusha either, as Masaru Sato, who was once again signed to provide the score, walked away from the project. According to Galbraith (page 559) the reason was Kurosawa’s insistence on telling Sato how to do his work.

    And while we are on the subject, I wonder if the relationship between Ryuzo Kikushima and Kurosawa ever got better again after their falling out during the the Tora! Tora! Tora! saga. As recounted in Tasogawa’s book, Kikushima resigned from Kurosawa Productions and I think continued to work for the film. The two would never collaborate again, and Kurosawa doesn’t even once mention Kikushima — with whom he worked on over ten films — in his autobiography.

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    Fred

    I watched the documentary on Toru Takemitsu (Toru Takemitsu — Music for the movies) last night and made a transcript of the composer’s comments on his involvement in Ran:

    In “Ran”, I wanted to use only voices, stylized human voices. I wanted only shouts and cries throughout the battle scenes. But during the eight years he worked on “Ran”, things changed. At first, Kurosawa had said: “That’s a great idea, let’s use it”. But once filming began, he became obsessed with that Mahler sound. Well… we did fight a lot about this… But, finally, what could I do? The decision belongs to the director. Overall, I still have the feeling of: “Oh, if only he’d left more up to me…”.

    But seeing it now, I guess it’s fine the way it is.

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