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Some Memories of Toru Takemitsu

Robert Aitken

“I can imagine Toru Takemitsu making a trip around Japan not to see different views of the moon, but to hear, say, the wind in different trees and then returning to the city bearing gifts. These gifts are the transformations of nature in art. We are grateful.”
- John Cage

I would have to agree with these words of John Cage, who in a certain way did discover Takemitsu for the West. His comments certainly helped to establish him and make many people aware of his special genius. And I think that some of his appreciation came from the fact that Cage himself learned a great deal from Takemitsu. Because it was John Cage who basically brought environmental music from Japan to the West.

I do not think there is any way we western people can really describe Takemitsu. He seemed to represent something else to the Japanese. Toru was entirely natural as any normal friend could be but he had a gift of making time spent with him very special. Toru was very small, less than 90 pounds, elegant and attractive with a very gracious manner. What was notable about him was his eloquent silence. At times he said very little but you had the feeling that he was absorbing all that was going on around him. Toru often spoke of nature and one sensed that he became a part of nature, like a tree or a rock. He exerted charisma almost as if there was a halo around him, and although he did not talk a lot, there were moments after silences when something profound would come out and interesting conversation ensued, and if not, a provocative statement or a deeply inquiring question, as he could be an excellent conversationalist when it suited the occasion. And he could be extremely amusing and enjoyed a good joke. His eyes were always twinkling and he possessed a wry little smile except when there was a crisis or he was intently dealing with artistic issues, in particular performances of his or others’ music. His opinions were always highly respected which accounts for his success at organizing and founding festivals. As a composer he was very sure of himself and his opinions. I think he rarely made artistic mistakes. And like a true genius, he was able to turn every experience into art.

The speed with which he was able to produce was a mystery, although he always complained that he was lazy. But in on short lifetime to composer over 120 works including more than 50 for orchestra plus background music for over 90 films with most of Japan’s most famous directors, is a stupendous feat. And that was not all as he also wrote several books, one very involved Quotation of Dream on the history of film, several novelettes under a pseudonym, some science fiction books and a large number of pop songs, one of which went to number eight on the Japanese hit parade. A collection of his shorter essays and lectures exists in English,
Confronting Silence published by Fallen Leaf Press, Berkeley, California.

In 1967, when I first met him, he said that movies were his hobby and that he saw about 250 films a year. Now how could anyone go to the cinema that often and write as much as he did? I said that I supposed he watched them on video, but he said “No, in movie theatres.” The money he earned from his first film scores he claimed to give away to needy younger composers or contemporary music festivals and to produce contemporary music recordings. I believe that that was true but later with the bigger film productions like
Ran and the Hollywood movie Rising Sun, I am not so sure. He was offered another Hollywood film and was, by chance, at our house when the telephone call came. It was to write the background music for Tora, Tora, Tora, a movie on the bombing of Pearl Harbor which he indignantly turned down. For some of his earliest films he told me that he recorded the music in his kitchen with pots and pans and two Revox tape recorders. I saw a photo of him doing it. In any case, he did live extremely modestly on one floor of a small three story apartment with his wife Asaka and daughter Maki, with composers Joji Yuasa and Toshi Ichiyanagi and their families living on the other two floors.

Although I have many memories of Takemitsu, a few stand out in my mind more than the others. I remember one occasion on the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Osaka. As we were passing Mt. Fuji, I asked Toru a rather stupid question. I said “Do you suppose the reason that the Japanese, like the Germans, are able to deal with technical scientific issues so well is because their language is so complicated or because of this inherent ability they created such complicated languages?” He said “You know, you bring up a very disturbing issue. I recently read a book on the Japanese brain which said that the Japanese hear uni-dimensionally.” For me it was like a light bulb going on. Suddenly I realized why it was so difficult for us to accept environmental music as music. For example you walk into an art gallery and hear several unrelated musical events going on in various locations all at the same time and you are expected to hear this as one music.
Roaratorio of John Cage is a perfect example as he reads from James Joyce, the Chieftains play their Irish instruments from all corners of the room and a 16-track tape of random nature sounds is running. Another is Rainforest by David Tudor where various found metal objects are used as drivers for electronic sounds situated all over a gallery’s performing space. According to our conversation, it was no problem for a Japanese to walk into a park and hear the sound of a Biwa, water running, a boar clacker, someone singing and a shakuhachi playing as music more or less in one dimension. It also explained to me why there is so little counterpoint in Japanese music, ancient or of today, including the music of Takemitsu. This of course disturbed Toru as he was writing so much music for the West and I believe he really felt that he was a link between Asian and European music.

On another occasion he told a story about a Zen monk who lived in a small hut, not in the mountains by a river or a stream, but in the heart of Tokyo close to a heavily traveled highway. This monk was renowned for his outstanding performance on the shakuhachi, each of which he made from bamboo he cut himself and played only once. Toru said that his wife Asaka and he were invited by this famous ascetic for lunch and when they arrived at his tiny one room hut the noise and exhaust fumes from the traffic were overpowering. With the completion of the meal, the monk asked if they would like to hear him play. He had been to the mountains earlier that day and cut a wide, almost two metre long bamboo stalk at the point where it grew out of the ground. From this he had fashioned his shakuhachi. As he began to play, Toru said, all one could hear was the roar of the traffic. But after a short time their ears began to perceive a single deep tone, and some minutes later, the noise of the city totally disappeared. All that they could hear was the sound of the shakuhachi.

Nature in its manifest forms is very important in the music of Takemitsu. He often described the orchestra as a garden. In such a garden, he said, things sparkle in the sunlight, become sombre when it is cloudy, change colour in the rain and change form in the wind. This garden may have a tree, some stones, a pond and of course grass, each represented by musical material. And when you walk through this garden, stopping in various locations, you experience a variety of experiences, different relationships and overlays of material not to mention the deeper significance of the elements themselves. The visual becomes aural. And the shapes of the figures in his scores often reflect this. For instance, he said the sand and the clay could be the basic foundation of the garden, perhaps represented by the constant sound of the strings. He said that the rocks and stones in a Japanese garden have a special significance and represent the sea or the universe but in relationship to their surroundings seem to be having a conversation. Trees, grass and flowers each with their separate roll bear their own significance in the greater form of the piece. In this way his treatment of the orchestra was not as one gigantic instrument but as a source of many different sounds and the form of the piece could be literally a walk through the garden. He liked to describe himself as a gardener.

This way of composing is important to understand when playing the flute works like
Toward the Sea, Itinerant (In Memory of Isamu Noguchi) and Air. There is continual transformation in his music and like nature the musical material never appears in exactly the same form twice. It is extremely important to accurately reflect these differences in the performance. Like Claude Debussy, every tiny detail is important. Toru often said that a composer’s pieces were like children and he did everything possible to prepare them to go out into the world alone. Having done that, he could not take any further responsibility.

With the exception of
Air, I have performed all of the solo flute and flute chamber music of Takemitsu for the composer, often many times, as well as conducting several of his works. Like all great composers I have known, he was most concerned about sensitivity to the meaning of the music, the quality of the sound and the dynamic shadings of the phrases. I cannot recall a tempo ever being too slow or a sound too quiet. It became a standing joke between us because I accused him of not knowing how to write a fortissimo. He always laughed and said “My next piece is going to be very loud with a great crescendo in the middle.” Then came the next piece, beautiful and quiet, and I said “Toru…?” And he replied “My next piece is going to be very loud with a great crescendo in the middle.”

Although most of the time Takemitsu revealed a quiet, gentle, even sweet personality, I say personality because he was definitely that, you were never exactly sure what he would say. The twinkle in his eye could erupt in a chuckle or smile at something that was going on around him. But he could also be extremely intense bordering on anger. As an example of this behaviour I recall a rehearsal of
Munari by Munari for solo percussion which was being performed in a version for three percussionists who loved and respected Toru very much. The score consisted of pieces of coloured paper which, through a random process, appeared in certain configurations which should be interpreted in certain ways. To me, the intention was not precise but at one point, in a show of great discontent, and this was to his friends, he stopped the rehearsal and said “Play my music. That is not my music!”

Takemitsu did most of his creative writing in a summer house in Karuizawa, a famous resort area in the mountains, some 150 kilometers outside of Tokyo. I visited him there on a number of occasions, the last with my wife and two daughters. He liked to cook and he did enjoy people so we were welcome at almost any time, even if he was in the midst of composing a large orchestral piece.

On one visit to Japan we rented a car and did some serious tourism in the Waka peninsula on the northwest coast. On the way back to Tokyo we planned to stop by Karuizawa to visit Toru. I gave him a call and he said he would meet us at the railway station. I said it was not necessary because we were driving. He said “Pardon me, I cannot hear you very well.” I said “We are driving.” There was a silence at the other end of the phone. Toru did not drive. And as we could not read or write Japanese very well and had to drive on the left side of very narrow mountain roads to reach his place, he could not believe his ears. He said “I’ll meet you with a taxi at the railway station” which we did.

In particular he liked to cook pasta and when he was in the hospital with cancer and not able to hold any food down, he wrote a recipe book. It was a beautifully illustrated book with drawings of the tasty ingredients he planned for meals he intended to cook when he recovered. Many of the recipes were for pasta.

As I recall, Takemitsu was diagnosed with bladder cancer early in 1995. A new cure was tried on him in which another disease was injected into the cancer. The body was supposed to fight that illness and in so doing defeat the cancer. Something went wrong. Perhaps they did not take into account how small he was. The new disease almost killed him. It appears to have been jaundice and he became swollen up like a balloon. When he recovered from that, the cancer had moved to other parts of his body and he had to receive radiation treatments and chemotherapy. At the end of the summer as he was recovering from that my wife and I visited him in the hospital several times. He was in an austere, semi-private room without a television and little to do, very much like a Zen monk. We were surprised at the solitude he seemed to accept.

At the beginning of September he found the energy to leave the hospital for the Japanese premiere of
Family Tree, at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto. But a few days later he was back in the hospital with a fever. On September 21st he again left the hospital to attend the Yatsukatake Festival which he directed. There I played the opening concert with Canadian harpist Erica Goodman, gave a public televised masterclass and coached and performed the Kuhlau flute quartet. It was after this festival that there was a magnificent reception. We invited Shuichi (Speedy) Tanaka, president of the Altus Flute Company, and his wife to the event. As the Tanakas did not know many people there, I intended to spend time with them and eat at their table, but Tanaka, who never ceases to amaze me with his wisdom and intuition said “No. Please don’t eat with us. Stay with Takemitsu because I think this will be the last time you ever see him.” It was true.

The next day as we were leaving, Toru and his family came to bid us goodbye. When we looked back we saw him bowing in the Japanese way. It is impossible to forget that act of humility coming from such a great man.

I spoke with Toru on the phone from Toronto before Christmas and again on New Year’s Day. He told me he had just written a solo flute piece, “to warm up.” He had not written any music for over a year. It was
Air, to celebrate Aurèle Nicolet’s 70th birthday.

Robert Aitken, September 2013