Toru Takemitsu


All the music on this disc comes from Toru Takemitsu's final decade of compositional activity. It constitutes barely one-quarter of his orchestral output during that time (and that's not counting a dozen film scores) for this painstaking composer, who combines notes and colours with such fastidious care to create the illusion of the music drifting into being at the moment of performance, was a creature of orderly work habits who fulfilled commissions - as he used to say - like a blue-collar worker.

Although Takemitsu's music enjoys considerable popularity today, the most often-voiced reservation about his later work is that it can sound as if it were all cut from the same gently hedonistic roll, and there is indeed a consistency of pacing and weight which, on the other hand, was constant throughout Takemitsu's career, from the earliest musique concrète pieces through the most elaborate multi-layered artifices of the 1960s, right up to these last works in which his lifelong affinities with Debussy, Messiaen, and with big-band scoring and jazz harmony are much more to the fore. But for Takemitsu each big new piece was a conceptual and timbral adventure, "something very different", as he would say.

Each of the orchestral works on this disc is for a different size of ensemble, although Takemitsu's genius for instrumentation (and genius it was, in my view) creates the illusion that the instrumental restrictions are self-imposed, rather than commission-determined. The formal constant of Takemitsu's later music is that each piece is a sequence of carefully ordered (not goal-directed) contemplative episodes around a central melodic or harmonic idea. Quotation of Dream is a useful starting-point, because the two ideas are a) stated at the very beginning and b) very familiar.

QUOTATION OF DREAM(1991)

This work is composed of twelve fragmental episodes similar to the shapes of dreams. The shapes of dreams, while vivid in their details, describe an extremely ambiguous structure when viewed as a whole. 'Say sea, take me!', the sub-title, is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson. I cannot recall the title of the poem, but the phrase continually appears and disappears in the depths of my memory.

Quotations appearing in this work are from Claude Debussy's 'La Mer' or from works of mine related to the sea.

The work was commissioned by the Barbican Centre and the London Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the Japan Festival 1991 in England. I dedicate the work to two pianists, Peter Serkin and Paul Crossley, whom I have respected in long relationship.


Toru used to jokingly describe the style of this piece to me as 'schizo-eclectic' - but he was genuinely concerned as to how his unique use of actual quotations would be understood, perhaps because his own manner is very much in Debussy's orbit anyway, and unlike most quotation-music stylistic jolts were not intended. In a radio interview at the time of the première, Takemitsu made the point that some Japanese gardens include the landscape outside their borders as part of their aesthetic effect, and that, in Quotation of Dream, his music was the garden and La Mer glimpses of the surrounding hills or lakes.

HOW SLOW THE WIND (1991)

How Slow the Wind for orchestra was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The title 'How Slow the Wind' is taken from a short verse by Emily Dickinson, written in 1883. The entire verse follows:

How Slow the Wind -
how slow the sea -
how late their Feathers be!

In this work an attempt is made, by means of delicate changes in nuance in the restrained colouring, to create a perspective view of sound. The motif, which consists of seven tones, is like the original material before it was formed into a melody, and it moves in a repetitive cycle, like waves or the wind. And with each repetition of the cycle, the scene waves slightly, undergoing a subtle change in its appearance.

How Slow the Wind is Takemitsu's only excursion into the standard Mozart/Haydn chamber orchestra, to which he added harp, piano and percussion. Because of the extremely wide registral span of the writing, the classical associations of the ensemble are almost completely by-passed. There is, as often with Takemitsu, a paradox at its core: How Slow the Wind is the swiftest-paced of his later orchestral works, and the central melody is gently buffeted by constant changes of tempo and harmonic context, like a branch in a gentle breeze, with stages in its progress marked by bizarre, clock-like chimings on a pair of Almglocke (cowbells).

TWILL BY TWILIGHT (1988)

A very limited musical unit - so limited that it can harly be identified as a melody or rhythmical unit and might be called a musical 'principle' twills (weaves) music as the title of 'Twill by Twilight' indicates. Subtle variations in pastel-like colours express the moment just after sunset when twilight turns towards darkness.

The music was commissioned by the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the orchestra and was composed as a memory of one of my good friends and a very unique composer, Morton Feldman, who died in 1987.

The impulse of Twill by Twilight is, unusually for Takemitsu, a rhythmical one: a gently rocking ostinato. It is bigger-boned as a structure, too - the twelve sections fall into two large halves, both of which culminate in the most Ravelian wave of sound Takemitsu ever devised (contrary to a common assumption, Takemitsu knew little of Ravel's music until he was introduced to the piano works by Paul Crossley late in life). The dynamic climaxes, however, are less easy to pin down - the American composer Peter Lieberson likens them to changes in the weather. The title is an example of Toru's poetic sense of humour. When I asked him 'Why Twill by Twilight?', he answered 'Please see dictionary', which advice I happily pass on to the listener. Feldman was passionate about woven carpets, and Takemitsu was passionate about Feldman's music, particularly Coptic Light - but the only point of contact between this and Twill is that they both employ very large orchestras. I think Takemitsu expressed his grief at Feldman's death in the form of a giant berceuse.

ARCHIPELAGO S. (1993)

While 'S' is an expression of plural form, implicit in the word archipelago, or groups of islands, it also happens that 'S' is the first letter in the names of the islands in a beautiful archipelago I have seen: Stockholm, Seattle and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea of Japan. The name of Aldeburgh's wonderful concert hall, Snape Maltings, also begins with the letter 'S' - a mysterious synchronicity.

I mentally sketched the beautiful scenes of each island until gradually a clear musical theme took shape. In this work the islands, while existing individually apart from each other, attempt to form a whole. I wanted to create a place wherein the islands' calling out to each other across the great distances separating them could be experienced as a metaphor for the universe. Thus, the orchestra is divided into five groups and dispersed about the hall.

This work celebrates the 60th birthday of Julian Bream, and I dedicate it to him.

Archipelago S., commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival, was the third and last work Takemitsu wrote for the London Sinfonietta. He had fallen in love with Snape Maltings concert hall on his first visit to the Festival in 1984, and we parted on that occasion with the understanding that one day he would write something specifically for that space. A few years later he told me he had the title, and had decided on an antiphonal approach, and in 1993 Archipelago S. appeared. Two mixed ensembles face each other on stage, with a brass quintet along the back wall, and two clarinets are placed behind the audience on either side. Takemitsu exploits the antiphony in a characteristically subtle way, for example completing legato phrases across the stage, or by doubling a melody on stage with one of the clarinets sitting fifty feet away, with the effect of stretching the sound across the audience's heads. The bizarre, lonely brass cadenzas in the middle of the piece, occasional references to earlier pieces and the strange conjunction of concluding gestures - a dangerously lush tutti sounding of the basic melody (which shares its descending second-half with How Slow the Wind) followed by a curiously formal fade-out - lends Archipelago S. the character of a touching ceremony of farewell, or so it seems to me.

Dream/Window is one of the real masterpieces of Takemitsu's last decade, and with it we return to his favourite metaphor, the Japanese garden. He set considerable store by this work, and his own comments are unusually comprehensive.

DREAM/WINDOW (1985)

commissioned by the Kyoto Shinkin Bank

The title 'Dream/Window' is taken from the Buddhist name of a Zen priest of the Muromachi Period, Muso (mu = dream, so = window) Soseki (1275-1351). Among the many famous gardens designed by Muso Soseki is that of the Saiho-ji Temple (popularly known as the 'Moss Temple') in Kyoto. My music has been profoundly influenced by Japanese historic gardens. For example, 'Arc' for piano and orchestra (1963-66/76) and 'In an Autumn Garden' in the complete version for gagaku orchestra (1979) were based on relatively concrete images of gardens.

How was I to describe Kyoto through this music? To transform Muso Soseki's moss-covered temple gardens into music is to grasp but an extremely small part of this complex urban space. ...

I use 'dream' and 'window' as metaphors for the two contradictory dynamisms of facing inwards and outwards. To make the inner and the outer resound simultaneously is the prime object of the music. Accordingly, it was necessary to alter the arrangement of the orchestra from the standard. A small ensemble (flute, clarinet and string quartet) is placed between the right and left string sections at the centre front. Yet this piece is not a concerto. This small ensemble is not only one part of the entire orchestra but also a microcosm symbolising an orchestra in and of itself. One might even call it an inner self. At the centre of the orchestra, four instruments (two harps, celesta and guitar) create a passageway of clear timbre as an intermediary between the outer and the inner. The brass, woodwind and percussion sections are positioned at the centre rear.

The form of this music resembles that of a dream. While the details are clearly defined, their arrangement is left up to the fortuities of the self-propelling narrative. While repeating itself and revealing itself in a seemingly incoherent manner like the fragments of a dream, the musical sequence gradually forms itself into a tonal image with D as the primary note.

The brief, sweet Signals from Heaven were written in 1987 for two very different occasions: the 10th anniversary of the Select Live under the Sky Jazz Festival, Tokyo; and the Glasgow Musica Nova Festival, which featured Takemitsu that year. Day Signal is dedicated to Mr. T. Koinuma of the Koinuma Music Co., which commissioned it; and Night Signal, commissioned by the Scottish National Orchestra Society, is dedicated to the writer of these comments, who could not resist including it on this disc.

Oliver Knussen, September 1998
(Italic sections edited from notes by Toru Takemitsu)