Toru Takemitsu @ the Barbican

2 February 2013

To a BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion day of concerts, films, talks and workshops at the Barbican focusing on the music of Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), generally thought of as Japan’s first major western style-classical composer, but also featuring works by contemporary Japanese composers.

In the military dictatorship of the 1930s the government prevented any experimentation in music. After the war Takemitsu was among the first to import modern Western techniques and try to marry them with traditional Japanese instruments. His style is Modernist but clear and spacious, elegant and refined, with unusual instrumentation. There’s little or no melody, everything is in the leisurely sequence of rather mysterious musical events. No surprise to learn that  his favourite Western composer was Debussy with whom he shares an interest in colour and tone, impressions.

By the 1960s Takemitsu had absorbed the avant-garde techniques prevalent in Europe and had evolved a style of his own which could use full orchestra, traditional Japanese instruments or any combination freely and confidently. A film addict (he admitted to seeing about 35o films a year) Takemitsu developed a brilliant career in writing music for films and in Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary many famous Japanese directors about working with Takemitsu.

But he was just as successful in the concert hall, writing numerous works, from small chamber pieces to full blown orchestral works. Famous works include his breakthrough piece November Steps (1967) and  A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden (1977).

Toru Takemitsu (1930-96)

Toru Takemitsu (1930-96)

You can listen to highlights from the day’s concerts in a BBC radio programme – ‘New Music from Japan‘ – on BBC iPlayer.

I learned

  • that ma is Japanese for space or emptiness. A blank sheet of paper isn’t empty until a mark has been made to it. Then its emptiness is defined. Japanese art is full of emptiness. Takemitsu’s music has plenty of empty spaces.
  • in a related way, Takemitsu thought that only 80% is expressed, 20% is always implied.
  • that Western music is overprecise – each note must be correct, in the right place at the right time – but Japanese music is radically different. The ma before the note, the pluck of the note, the note itself, the sound the string makes buzzing against the fretboard, the reverberation and fade of the note, and the ma after the note has faded, all have aesthetic importance, are part of the experience and pleasure. Closer to jazz and rock, in that respect.
  • that whereas Western music is strongly linear, Japanese music is peripatetic, meandering, circling on itself. Takemitsu said his music is like a Japanese garden, a welcoming place to wander among exquisite arranged objects.
  • what a sho, koto, sanshin and shakuhachi look and sound like. Very Japanese.
  • and, as to the peformances themselves, that
    • Takemitsu’s music, a little difficult though it initially may seem, was noticably ‘better’ – more spacious and intriguing and pleasing – than the five other Japanese composers on show
    • a day is along time to listen to live and rather demanding music. Not only were we tired by 7.30 when the evening concert began, but by definition of being in the big Barbican Hall, the evening’s pieces – UK or European premiers though they all were, by leading Japanese composers – were nonetheless big affairs featuring vast orchestras (I counted over 80 musicians onstage) and very loud! It’s the delicacy and intimacy of Takemitsu’s work which I value, and that came over wonderfully in the concert in the small space at St Luke’s church where we also liked Dai Fujikura’s Secret Forest. But all five pieces in the Barbican Hall were to grandiose and bludgeoning for my taste. No ma.

The day’s events

Talk An introduction to music in Japan today by Dr. Paul Newland, Senior Professor in Composition, Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Dr Newland told stories about his time studying in Japan. He explained ma and the Japanese philosophy of music and experience of time. He gave a lengthy example of a cup made by craftsmen deliberately anonymous, imperfect and unfinished. over time, as you drink tea, it absorbs the tea and cracks. This is deliberate the so formalised that there are 7 definitions of cracks. As you use it the nature of the material is revealed, slowly, over time. Japanese aesthetics.

Films

1. Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu (1994) directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Takemitsu composed the scores for almost 100 films, including Kurosawa’s epic Ran, based on King Lear. Interviews with many Japanese film directors, Takemitsu himself, and clips from classic films.

2. Thirteen Steps Around Takemitsu A portrait of Takemitsu (1996) directed by Barrie Gavin who introduced it and told some stories about Takemitsu. Filmed at his country home and in Tokyo, divided into 13 brisk sections, and featuring the composer in conversation, explaining his musical tastes, his procedures, his film work, the importance of the Garden, of natural elements.

Concerts

1 – LSO St. Luke’s – Guildhall Chamber Ensemble conducted by Sian Edwards:

2 – Barbican Hall – 

  • Traditional Japanese music performed by Robin Thompson sho, Melissa Holding koto, Clive Bell shakuhachi
  • Movements from Okeanos cycle byDai Fujikura, performed by Musicians from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
  • New improvised work created by musicians from the BBC SO, Okeanos, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and composer Dai Fujikura

– Barbican Hall – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono conductor, Kifu Mitsuhashi playing shakuhachi, Kumiko Shuto playing biwa.

  • Akira Nishimura – Bird Heterophony (UK premiere)
  • Misato Mochizuki – Musubi (UK premiere)
  • Takemitsu –  (UK premiere)
  • Dai Fujikura – Atom (European premiere)
  • Toshio Hosokawa – Woven Dreams (UK premiere)
  • Akira Miyoshi – Litania pour Fuji (London premiere)
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