Japan has had a long and highly developed tradition of its own classical music, from the music for nōh and kabuki theatre to the art of the koto. After the restoration of the monarchy (1868) and
the increased contacts with the West in the latter part of the 19th century, Japan became exposed to the Western classical tradition. Kosaku Yamada (1886-1965) studied in Berlin, founded the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1915, and composed symphonic poems, five operas and songs. Yasuji Kiyose (1900-1981) combined Western influences with a Japanese nationalistic style that used folk subjects (but not tunes). But it was not until after the Second World War that Japan enthusiastically embraced and assimilated the Western tradition, becoming a major venue for visiting orchestras and artists, and itself producing orchestras and performers of international repute (of whom the best known is probably the conductor Seiji Ozawa, born 1935); this process has been aided by the growth and domination of the Japanese electronics industry, so that by the 1990s the Japanese Sony Corporation owned a major American classical recording label (CBS).
Japanese classical music has influenced Western composers from Debussy to Cage and Stockhausen, and Japan's own composers working in a Western tradition (most of whom studied in the West) have been caught between the
twin tugs of the two traditions. At its most positive, this has led to a fusion in which new colours and ideas have informed a modern Western framework. In the music of Tōru Takemitsu (born 1930), the major Japanese composer and the only one whose music is likely to be encountered with regularity, the infusion has been of a particular Japanese sensibility, delicacy, and delight in nature; the works of Toshirō Mayuzumi (born 1929) have drawn on the Buddhist tradition. Both were influenced by Messiaen, and in 1951, under this influence, Takemitsu and other artists founded `Jikken-kobo' (Experimental Studio). Shin-ichi Matsushita (born 1922) was the pioneer of electronic music in Japan, while Kan Ishii (born 1921) has worked mainly in modern Japanese dance and opera; his younger brother Maki Ishii (born 1936) has included the combination of the traditional gagaku and symphony orchestra in Sogu II (1971). Toshi Ichiynagi (born 1933) was influenced by Cage, and Yuji Takahashi (born 1938) has become internationally known as a pianist specializing in new music in addition to his work as a composer.
Japanese Music Information Centre:
Nippon Kindai Ongakukan/Japan Music Information Centre
uzumi combined dense orchestral textures, influenced by Varèse and Messiaen, with influences from Buddhist chant and campanology, often with an abstract intent inspired by Buddhist thought. The layers of orchestral density regularly use sonorous tone-clusters countered by rapid leaps from one section of the orchestra to the other, but behind these textures lies a harmonic base with tonal and Romantic sub-strata, creating an appealing combination of the contemporary and the `accessible'. Of his earlier works, the rather brash Bacchanale (1953) for orchestra suggests a slightly jazzy, harsh form of Bacchanalian rite, rhythmically intense and with dense textures. Phonologie symphonique (1957) for orchestra is even more motorically insistent, influenced by Varèse in its rhythms, orchestral colours and blocks of sound.
These works were Western in idiom, without indigenous Japanese influence, but in the late 1950s Mayuzumi became interested in Japanese temple bells, and the overlay of pure tones and changes in the combinations of overtones they produced. The resulting Nirvana Symphony (1958) for male chorus and orchestra initiated a number of works exploring the ideas and traditions of Buddhism, and besides the slow-changing overlay of tones, used the intonations and rhythms of Sutra recitations of Buddhist priests. The six-movement work is a highly atmospheric and effective fusion of Western and Eastern ideas, with a strong impression of ritual and large aural spaces, opposing low sonorities, usually in tone-clusters, with bright high sounds. It has an undercurrent of a slow forward momentum; the sounds of bells impel the odd numbered movements, alternating and combining with chant that is elemental and, if to Western ears a little musically basic, nonetheless effective in such a combination.
The more abstract Mandala Symphony (1960), its title drawn from the circular paintings symbolizing the unity and absoluteness of the Universe, is divided into two parts. It has moments of Eastern exotic colour and rhythmic intensity, joined by dense orchestral swirls in an almost Impressionistic palette, a Romantically lyrical violin solo, and a slow-moving close heavily influenced by Messiaen. It was followed by Prelude (1961), which utilized the repetitive chants and influence of bells in the medium of the string quartet. The symphonic poem Samsara (1962) addressed the cycle of existence in birth and rebirth through reincarnation. It is a more linear work, the dense textures pared away for individual lines and purer sonorities, and is less interesting than either of the two symphonies. His later works included the opera Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1976), based on a novel by Yukio Mishima, with whom he collaborated on a number of other works.
In 1957 Mayuzumi founded the Karuisawa contemporary music festival, and he wrote the film score for the Hollywood epic The Bible (1965).
- Mandala Symphony, Nirvana Symphony
- Bacchanale, Perpetuum mobile, Phonologie symphonique and Samsara for orch.
- Prelude for string quartet
- ballet Bugaku
- opera Kinkakuji
- electronic X,Y,Z
Nirvana Symphony (1958) for male chorus and orchestra
The prolific Tōru Takemitsu is the most important Japanese composer who worked within the general framework of contemporary Western classical musical language. His achievement was first t
o introduce to Western musical audiences a particularly Japanese view of the natural world and its appreciation of detail, with a love of what might be called the soul of nature and of the nature of sounds. Secondly, he informed the Western classical tradition with such principles. In this aesthetic, humankind is seen as indivisible from the totality of nature, and Takemitsu suggested that composition is a process that gives meaning to the sounds that exist all around us. The salient characteristic of his music is an often delicate concentration on individual sound events, colours and sonorities, sometimes through pointillistic effects, sometimes through denser tone-painting the slow-moving progressions making increased use of the effects of silence. The overall impression is of contemplation, even in more turbulent writing. Almost all his music has close connections with extra-musical material, not so much in a programmatic sense, but more to reflect the indivisibility of the natural world, in an evocation of essence. He regularly favoured instruments whose colours aid the aesthetic or are capable of delicate sounds of a wide range of timbres, such as the flute, the clarinet, the guitar, and the piano, and much of his orchestral writing includes a solo instrument as the first among equals. Such instrumental sensibilities are in part a reflection of the heritage of traditional Japanese instruments, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Takemitsu should come to the fore when Boulez and his followers were discovering the delicate possibilities of such instruments as the guitar and the vibraphone within the Western tradition.
Takemitsu's compositional development was profoundly influenced by his teenage experiences during the end of World War Two, which left him with an aversion to Japanese culture and traditional Japanese music. Entirely self-taught, his earliest influences were Debussy, especially the French composer's sense of light and shade and movement, and Messiaen; Takemitsu's Lento in Due Movimenti (1950) for piano includes the use of Messiaen's `modes of limited transposition'. The influence of the Second Viennese School appeared in such works as Le son calligraphie (1958-1960) for double string quartet. But in 1961 Takemitsu encountered the music of Cage, and embarked on a trilogy of works with aleatory elements that mark his maturity as a composer and a new phase in his output. Ring (1961) for flute, terz guitar and lute is cast in four parts, each representing one letter of the title (retrograde, inversion, noise, and general theme) has no tempo or dynamic markings, and can be played in any order. Sacrifice (1962) for alto flute, lute and vibraphone is in two movements, in which the pulse is constant but the actual note durations left to the performer. Valeria (originally Sonant, 1965, revised as Valeria, 1969) for small ensemble is in four sections with varying use of the forces and strong changes of emotional tone. All three works are miniatures, elusive, sometimes delicate, sometimes harsh, that throw out threads of ideas, concentrating on the colours of individual events, with marked contrasts of tone and dynamics. They fall clearly within the orbit of contemporary post-Webern trends, but with a Romantic lyricism in the last section of Valeria, looking back to Takemitsu's earliest style and forward to his more recent works. From the same period came Coral Island (1962) for soprano and orchestra, in which (in the phrase of the poet Makoto Ooka whose poem was set) "words are crystals made of sounds" in detailed orchestral colours. Takemitsu continued this general idiom with such works as Stanza I (1969, later incorporated into the orchestral Crossing) for female voice, guitar, harp, piano or celesta, and vibraphone, with texts from the painter Jasper Johns and from Wittgenstein.
Having assimilated this Western foundation, Takemitsu then started to integrate traditional Japanese instruments into his idiom, first in film music and then in Eclipse (1966) for biwa, a form of Chinese lute that produces dense colour effects rather than flowing melodic lines, and shakuhachi, a bamboo woodwind instrument; the work is a gentle and beautiful introduction to these Eastern sounds for Western ears. He then combined these instruments with a Western orchestra in the influential November Steps (1967) for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra, loosely divided into eleven sections (after the eleventh month) and with improvisatory elements. The microtonal inflections and slides of the biwa and the plucking effects of the shakuhachi (producing multiple and complex tones) create haunting, slow-moving sounds alien to the Western tradition, and Takemitsu pits them against dense and tense isolated orchestral blocks of varying tone-colours, two disparate musics that intermingle to create a meeting point, two cultures arriving at a mutual boundary and taking the first steps and the first handshakes. This seminal work introduced many Western musicians to the sounds and pulse of traditional Japanese instruments. Autumn (1973), also for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra, merged the two cultures, the boundary set aside, while the pointillistic, mood-painting In an Autumn Garden (1973, expanded version 1979) was written for gagaku orchestra (the traditional Japanese court orchestra) of wind, plucked string instruments and drums, here with 29 players.
Takemitsu then continued within these general parameters, and indeed was criticised for the lack of development in his idiom. Thus Green (1967) for orchestra presents an impressionistic view of nature, influenced by Debussy. The fine Quatrain II (1975) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, is modelled on, and audibly influenced by, Messiaen'sQuartet for the End of Time. Gradually it emerged that Takemitsu's output could be grouped by subject-matter as much as by stylistic development or variance, for it has clustered around recurring motifs or images. Water, especially its slow motion and change, is a favourite metaphor, in such works as the early musique-concrète Water Music (1960), Waves (1976) for clarinet with horn, two trombones and bass drum with its pungent sonorities and undulation from stillness to motion, or the neo-Impressionist hues of Waterways (1978) for clarinet, violin, cello, piano, two harps and two vibraphones, written without bar-lines, laying out the varying colours of eddies and currents. The appearance of gardens reflects the refinement and loving attention to harmony, balance and detail which Japanese tradition has brought to the art. Arc (1963-1966, revised 1976) for piano and orchestra, is an imaginary plan of a garden in music, where different instrumental groups represent different elements (such as flowers and trees) in the garden. Transformation occurs at different rates in these groups, and the piano appears to be strolling through the garden. Takemitsu described Dorian Horizon (1966) for seventeen strings as a `musical garden'. Trees symbolize time (through tree rings) and idealism, appearing in Music of Trees, 1961, for orchestra, in the arboreal tapestry of Tree Line (1988) for chamber orchestra, and in Eucalypts I (1970) for flute, oboe, harp and string orchestra and Eucalypts II (1970) for flute, oboe and harp. More recently images of the heavens have appeared, in such works as Cassiopeia (1971) for percussion, Star-Isle (1982) for orchestra, and Orion and Pleiades (1984) for cello and orchestra. Rain and trees were evoked in combination in a number of works.
From the mid-1970s, Takemitsu combined dream, number symbolism and water motives, dream representing indeterminate form, number defined form, and water the symbolic mediator between dream and number. One of the more complex developments of these relationships emerged in one of Takemitsu's finest works, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977) for orchestra, following a real dream inspired by a photograph by Man Ray of Marcel Duchamp. Its harmonies are based on a `magic square' of five by five units each representing a different pitch, and itself developed from a pentatonic scale used to represent the garden. Numerology as a structural tool appears in a number of other works, as do dreams, in such works as Dreamtime (1981) for orchestra, inspired by the Australian Aboriginal creation myth, or To the Edge of Dream (1983) for guitar and orchestra.
In 1989 Takemitsu appeared to enter a new phase while maintaining the extra-musical associations in a work of gorgeous richness and neo-Romantic luxuriance, the Viola Concerto `A String around Autumn', its title taken from a poem by Ooka. Described by Takemitsu as an `imaginary landscape', it progresses in a series of wave-like swells, the cantabile solo line riding the crest, saturated in autumnal colours and with the tint of nostalgia.
Not everyone will respond to Takemitsu's musical language. The relative lack of traditional formal structures can present difficulties, and the focus on the contemplation of individual sound objects and sonorities will be unfamiliar to those who have not assimilated Western avant-garde developments. As is usual with such a prolific composer, Takemitsu's output is varied in impact, though any one of the works mentioned above will give an idea of Takemitsu's general approach and qualities. But he undoubtedly enriched the palette of Western music, and few will fail to be swayed by the Viola Concerto. He was also a composer of film music of high quality and telling effect, in over 80 scores, including a number for the famous Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa.
Orion and Pleiades for cello and orch.; Fantasma/Cantos for clarinet and orch.; I Hear the Winter Dreaming for flute and orch.; To the Edge of Dream for guitar and orch.; Gitimalya for marimba and orch.; Cassiopeia for percussion and orch.; From me flows what you call Time for 5 percussion and orch.; Arc Part I, Arc Part II, Asterism and riverrun for piano and orch.; Quotation of Dream - Say Sea, Take Me for 2 pianos and orch.; A String around Autumn (viola concerto) for viola and orch.; Far Calls, Coming, far! and Nostalghia for violin and orch.; Scene for cello and strings
- Autumn and November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orch.; Quatrain for clarinet, violin, cello, piano and orch.; Eucalypts I for flute, oboe, harp and strings; Toward the Sea II for alto flute, harp and strings; Vers, l'arc-en-ciel, Palma for guitar, oboe d'amoré and orch.; Gemeaux for oboe, trombone, 2 orchestras and 2 conductors; In an Autumn Garden for gagaku orch.
- Dreamtime, Dream/Window, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, Green, Marginalia, Music of Trees, Solitude Sonore, Star-Isle, Tree Line, Twill by Twilight, Visions and Winter for orch.; Rain Coming for chamber orch.; Requiem for Strings; Dorian Horizon for 17 strings; A Way a Lone II for strings
- many chamber works including Itinerant and Voice for flute; Munari by Munari for percussion solo; Orion for cello and piano; Eclipse for biwa and shakuhachi; Masque for 2 flutes; Toward the Sea for alto flute and guitar; From far beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog for violin and piano; Rocking Mirror Daybreak for two violins; Ring for flute, terz guitar and lute; Eucalypts II for flute, oboe and harp; And Then I Knew 'twas Wind for flute, viola and harp; Sacrifice for alto flute, lute and vibraphone; Rain Tree for 3 percussion; Landscape and A Way a Lone for string quartet; Quatrain II for clarinet, violin, cello and piano; Waves for clarinet, horn, 2 trombones and bass drum; Rain Spell for flute, clarinet, harp, piano and vibraphone; Entre-temps for oboe and string quartet; Le Son Calligraphié I & II for string sextet; Valeria for violin, cello, guitar, electric organ and 2 piccolos; Waterways for clarinet, violin, cello, piano, 2 harps and 2 vibraphones
- Coral Island for soprano and orch.; Crossing for soloists, female chorus and 2 orchestras; Stanza I for female voice, guitar, piano or celesta, harp, and vibraphone; My Way of Life for baritone, chorus and orch.; Uta and Wind Horse for chorus; Grass for male chorus; Handmade Proverbs for 6 male voices
- film scores
- electronic music including A Minneapolis Garden, The Sea is Still; Sky, Horse and Death; Static Relief, Toward, Vocalism A.I. and Water Music
A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977) for orchestra
In an Autumn Garden (1973, complete version 1979) for gagaku orchestra
November Steps (1967) for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra
Quatrain II (1975) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
Valeria (1965, revised 1969) for small ensemble
Viola Concerto A String around Autumn (1989)
N.Ohtake Creative Sources for the Music of Toru Takemitsu, 1993
We are currently
offering in excess of 51,000 reviews
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Editor in Chief
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker Postmaster
Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger
from previous months Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the
discs reviewed. details We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to
which you refer.