Toru Takemitsu : born today in 1930


Toru Takemitsu was born in Tokyo on 8 October 1930. He began attending the Keika Junior High School in 1943 and resolved to become a composer at the age of 16. During the post-war years, he came into contact with Western music through radio broadcasts by the American occupying forces – not only jazz, but especially classical music by Debussy and Copland and even by Schoenberg. He made his debut at the age of 20 with a piano piece Lento in Due Movimenti. Although Takemitsu was essentially a self-taught composer, he nevertheless sought contact with outstanding teachers: Toshi Ichiyanagi acquainted the composer with the European avant-garde of Messiaen, Nono und Stockhausen, and Fumio Hayasaka introduced Takemitsu to the world of film music and forged contacts to the film director Akira Kurosawa for whom Takemitsu produced several scores to film plots. Alongside his musical studies, Takemitsu also took a great interest in other art forms including modern painting, theatre, film and literature (especially lyric poetry). His cultural-philosophical knowledge was acquired through a lively exchange of ideas with Yasuji Kiyose paired with his own personal experiences. In 1951, the group “Experimental Workshop” was co-founded by Takemitsu, other composers and representatives from a variety of artistic fields; this was a mixed media group whose avant-garde multimedia activities soon caused a sensation. Takemitsu taught composition at Yale University and received numerous invitations for visiting professorships from universities in the USA, Canada and Australia. (Shott Music biography)

Takemitsu died in 1996, at the age of sixty-five. He was by far the most celebrated of Japanese composers, although his position in the firmament of modern music was not exactly dominant; some Western commentators condescendingly described him as an artist of a decorative type, a purveyor of atmospheric wisps of sound.  Critics have underestimated Takemitsu because of the unstinting sensuousness of his music. It is rich in opulent chords, luminous textures, exotic tones that almost brush the skin, hazy melodies that move like figures in mist. The titles give a sense of the sound: “Twill by Twilight,” “Toward the Sea,” “How Slow the Wind.” Yet the picture-book atmosphere is periodically disrupted by harsh timbres, rumblings of dissonance, engulfing masses of tone. Loveliness vanishes into darkness before it can be fully apprehended, like the song that Takemitsu heard inside the mountain. (Alex Ross, The New Yorker)

He was one of the featured composers in 1993’s Wien Modern new music festival. Oliver Knussen conducted the London Sinfonietta, and Takemitsu himself was there, a benign presence despite his disagreement with Knussen over Brahms’s orchestration. “You wouldn’t want to learn orchestration from Brahms,” Knussen said, or words to that effect. Takemitsu replied: “I wish I could orchestrate like Brahms.” Coming from two composers so sensitive to the subtleties of instrumental colour, they must have both been right, but it was Takemitsu’s music that made the stronger impression on me.

Archipelago S – just like the guitar concerto To the Edge of Dream, another of the highlights of his residency – was music that had paradoxical qualities: it seemed to be in a permanent state of ethereal evanescence, shimmering and suggesting rather than stating directly, and yet its impact was absolute, definite and unforgettable. It was music that sounded strangely similar to Debussy and Olivier Messiaen in its harmonies and textures, yet very different in its effect. Instead of Debussy’s sensuality, there was something crystalline and objective in the way Takemitsu’s music unfolded; instead of Messiaen’s visionary spirituality, there was a sense of space and detachment in Takemitsu’s pieces, even if some of his musical language sounded similar. (Tom Service, The Guardian)

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