Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: Takemitsu

02/25/2014 11:39 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2014

Toru Takemitsu never wrote an ugly sound in his life (well maybe in his film music, but I speak here about his "art music"). Animated throughout his career by nature, many of his works carry titles relating to water or trees. This is so of two of his most beautiful works, Water Ways and Rainspell.

Waterways is written for the wondrous combination of violin, cello, clarinet, piano, two vibraphones and two harps. I imagine the first four instruments mentioned like the body, and the two groups of vib/harp and vib/harp like the wings, of a butterfly. The piece is weightless, without a feeling of metered time (most of it is in a spatial or a quasi-spatial notation), created in a series of balanced episodes, with a recycling of squishy motivic material that is less a process of variation than different views of it's almost non-corporeality. Tonality is a present force, but always lies somewhere in the background, its magnetism weak, like a remnant of the Big Bang. The music hovers more than it moves, is gently wafted by air currents rather than moving steadfastly down a track towards any arrival. It feels goal-less, just happy to be. While a climax always appears -- and oh yes, somewhere around the Golden Mean -- it always comes as a surprise. Instruments are like actors with each getting its turn for a soliloquy, and then are matched together for duets, trios, etc. An instrument's entrance is held back for dramatic effect, the arrival of its timbre fresh and provocative. The highly differentiated sections balance each other, creating a sense of repose. At the climax, all the parts head off on their own, like rivulets, only to end up in the sea of A major, intoning the brightness of a sunrise (or a sunset), and then evanescing into a gleaming afterglow. It is a piece that ravishes with its timbral beauty.

Rainspell, for flutes (both concert and alto played by one player), clarinet, vibraphone, harp (with quarter tone tunings), and piano, seems to emulate various patterns of rain, sometimes with a random quality, or just before the climax, with the pitter patter of a light storm. The climax, like with Water ways, in which the instruments all head off on their own paths in a fury of overlapping repetitive patters like many dust ghosts, has a tumultuousness that exceeds the usual for this composer. It is grounded in low octave Bflats played fortissimo in the piano, the loudest and heaviest moment in the work. By the way, this tonality has been heard before, and thus at the climax it is not heard so much as an arrival as an affirmation of something already known, a practice Takemitsu uses frequently. The other tonal area expressed is D, a third away. The piece essentially rocks between these two areas.

Both works express Takemitsu's fascination with the music of Japan (see November Steps), the philosophy behind it, and the sound world and practices of the West, particularly the Post WWII European Avant Garde, and then increasingly through his life, the music of the French, particularly Debussy and secondarily Messiaen. His larger output has a certain sameness; his individual works lack a high profile or a stamp of individuality. His greatest failing, one he acknowledged, is his inability to write music of speed, of energy, namely, an allegro, for want of a better word. Thus, he rarely wrote multi-movement works displaying a range of emotional breadth or large scale architecture. His personality and his language just doesn't allow it.