Saturday, 16 January 2016

Art v architecture.  The music of Takemitsu.

There is no shortage of commentaries on Takemitsu's music, and there is a great deal of agreement on the main issues.  For this reason the blog will restrict itself to matters of interest for composers and the general listener of contemporary music.

The main point of interest is that Takemitsu's music does not conform to the principles of strict organisation.  This makes Takemitsu more of a craftsman in his approach than an architect, or as the music historians would have us understand, a gardener who places his timbres and phrases with an eye for balance of colour and form.  For those who enjoy gardening (like my wife) there is a need to form collections or groups of plants in groups, as singular plants are easily lost, having heard this stated throughout my life I shall take it as gospel!  If the metaphor holds one should hear collections of phrases of similar material with spaces to articulate the design of the garden, much as seen in the image below.

There are early works which make use chance elements and as such fall outside the restricted and ordered world of modality, these include "Ring" 1961, "Corona"  1962, and "Dorian Horizon" 1966.  There is a recording of "Corona" by Roger Woodward which demonstrates admirably the contrast between control and freedom in Takemitsu's hands. There is no You Tube video of this, the Jim O’ Rourke version is more restrained with the drone / improvisation contrast discussed in previous blogs more apparent.

 Images of the graphic scores, those I have been able to find, show an artistic economy of line and space with some musical indicators to provide recurring motifs or approximations of motifs.
The modal interest which is the main concern of these articles can be heard from the earliest works, "Green" contrasts dissonant music and gentle modality. That description underplays the range of expression in the music where he first impression one gets is the influence of Messiaen, bird song included.  Repeated hearings bring out a wealth of detail which eventually binds into a stream of continuous lyricism behind the orchestral fragmentation.
Reading about Takemitsu's early life there was an appear in the lyrical quality of popular songs heard on the radio, and there are biographical indications that Takemitsu regularly sang through his musical ideas whilst involved in their creation. The distillation of sounds in the final minute of the work is masterful in its economy.  The recording with Knussen is available on You Tube, where it has received less than a hundred views at this time!

The use of modality becomes increasingly refined throughout his artistic life, with age there is refinement of style and simplicity. The restrictions placed on the use of modes will be illustrated with examples from Les Yeux Clos II (1988).  There is a score with this music so readers may follow up in greater detail the ideas presented here.

Takemitsu's music makes use of a wide range of techniques of organisation, modes, counterpoint, and repetition in abundance, all of which gives a clarity to the music which makes it immediately accessible. Taking a chordal progression from Les Yeux Clos one can hear that the motion is quite simple, a movement of parallel perfect and augmented fourths spiced with a further semitone dissonance, the result is a series of closely related chords lacking the precision of serial music, but beautiful and clearly distinct as a unit for repetition and development in the work as a whole.



Analysts have found several methods of working around the in exact placement of notes chords and sections including reasonable percentage levels of accuracy on one hand and non-musical accounts on the other.  Perhaps the best indicator of use for inexperienced composers is that Takemitsu reserves the right to add and subtract notes from collections as he pleases; the antithesis of serial approaches, and perhaps a reaction against slavish imitation, which would be frowned upon in the Tao!
For the composers reading this blog the association between Cage and Takemitsu requires comment, though I will try and keep the Zen references to the minimum (despite the fact that both Nurtan and I have some interest in this philosophy / religion). For me the most important musical influence lies as much in Taoism as Zen, the balance of forces in Ying and Yang, and where there is balance, the tension created between the two extremes. It may have been Cage that made Takemitsu aware of the musical importance of silence, but in Japanese culture the philosophical theory would be well understood.  While silence is a feature of Takemitsu's thinking, sustained and dying sounds (decrescendo) are most significant, particularly in the piano works where the pedal is of considerable importance. These long ‘pauses’ are useful for shaping the composition by breaking the music into short paragraphs of evolving textures, they also permit intense and complex figures to be heard and musically "examined" by the listener.
The movement of parallel chords and similar sounding chords is familiar to any audience of jazz music particularly from Oscar Peterson onwards, and it is of little surprise that Takemitsu experienced and enjoyed the sounds of jazz from an early age.  Add to the mix his fondness for  the music of Debussy, Faure, Frank and most importantly Messiaen, one has no difficulty relating his ‘modern’ textures to these roots.
As stated, the clarity and simplicity of Takemitsu's style becomes ever more apparent in his late period, Nostalghia is one of the most accessible of his late works.  Before listening to the recording play the 0,1,4,5,8,9 hexachord and get the sound of the superimposed augmented triads in your head (use C natural for 0) and the music becomes remarkably clear to follow.
The music is a reflection on a film by Tarkovsky of the same name, there are two short clips of the film available on YouTube which speak volumes about pace, dwelling on a moment in time and the tension created between sounds.

The symbolism in the second clip of making the journey with a candle without its being extinguished may be comprehended by a practitioner of Zen as being similar to the task of reaching for a goal (enlightenment) in which the achievement results in the death of self. The use of Verdi’s music at the final moment is as chilling as it is beautiful.  It is of little wonder that Takemitsu wanted to write a musical commentary on this remarkable film.
Of the modes used the octatonic mode (2nd mode of limited transposition) occurs with some frequency, the example below is again taken from Les Yeux Clos.

It may be noted that mode 6 is also used regularly by Takemitsu, in Forte's classification the two modes are 8-25 0,1,2,4,6,7,8,10 and 8-28 0,1,3,4,6,7,9,10.  One characteristic of both modes is that the regularity of spacing prevents hierarchical references such as found in tonal music, as a result the music can create a sense of stillness, valuable to his creation of contrast between paragraphs of music.  There is no naivety in the use of these modes, the placement of notes show both an awareness of articulating localised harmonic areas and creating tension by voicing the progression of individual phrases.


The self-imposed restriction of a thousand words for these blogs means that a number of beautiful and remarkable extracts have been passed over, but I hope that the blog has opened a window on Takemitsu’s method and philosophy. Most of all as a guide to younger composers one should take away two ideas, firstly that exact and rigorous control is not an absolute necessity, and secondly the old adage “be true to yourself” is an essential part of the creative process, even if it isn’t taught on academic courses.