Classical Diaries: Toru Takemitsu

My introduction to Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was through a friend’s BBC Music disc that contained From me flows what you call Time, composed in 1990. The lovely percussive palette and gentle atmosphere of this half-hour piece mesmerized me right away. (I think I was also hooked because parts of it reminded me of King Crimson’s “Fracture”.) I later acquired a different and slightly superior recording of Time featuring the Nexus percussion ensemble and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

A couple of five and six-note motifs are the focal points of Time’s expansive canvas. Percussive fragments, passing motifs, and discreet orchestral delegations fill intervening spaces. The percussion includes bells, chimes, toms, steel drums (or some relative), marimba, and whatever else I cannot identify by ear - a pleasing mix of metal, wood, and skin. Instead of relying on steady rhythm, instruments hand off phrases almost like a relay race. This contrasts their timbres and also creates an interesting spatial dimension. (Where time flows…) Midway though, the pauses extend, the solos become more tranquil, and the mood is later re-galvanized by a drum/percussion solo.

Time doesn’t blare loudly, yet it’s too active for the “ambient” distinction. Like a few other personal milestones, it taught me a new way of listening.


This may not be academically accurate, but I hear Toru Takemitsu as a descendant of Debussy’s impressionism and adaptable form. He emphasizes tones and textures that then coalesce into unique structures. A lot of Takemitsu’s music mirrors nature - not just “isn’t this garden pretty,” but isn’t it full of multi-cellular complexity, boggling color, unexpected patterns, and more revelations the closer you look? Beyond smaller details, he can also paint landscape, seascape, clouds, and limitless space. In general, I don’t seek programmatic connections, but I do enjoy this natural awareness in Takemitsu’s music. Also, I find the Japanese elements appealing, like the exotic instruments and minimalist gestures.


Following Time, I’ve never explored all of Takemitsu’s works, but I’ve found a few that I like a lot. Twill by Twilight, composed in 1988, weaves orchestral threads into a dreamlike tapestry. Elusive melodies circulate amidst billows of brass and/or strings. Parts of Twilight verge on filmic melodrama but quickly recede into a blurry state of suspense. Takemitsu’s skill in an effort like this is combining instruments to make new sounds, not to mention pulling all the strands together when you least expect it. The coda includes an understated “chorale” segment and returns to the quiet phrase of the opening. A flock descends into the pentagonal garden has a similar style, eschewing constant pulse for the inherent motion of the melodies. Some beautiful passages are heard alongside momentary dissonances. Despite having structural integrity, the piece doesn’t follow any traditional classical model; therefore anticipation lurks throughout, sometimes rewarded in a surprising way.

Archipelago S. (1994) divides the ensemble into five sections, two of which are clarinets positioned at either side of the performance room. Transient melodic themes are passed around, re-figured, and re-voiced in a subtle pageant, sometimes suggesting great expanse but more often opting for intimacy. The meditative I Hear the Water Dreaming, from 1987, is a small concerto for flute and orchestra, more of a sonic painting than an instrumental workout. Biwa (lute-like) and shakuhachi (flute-like) are featured in 1973’s Autumn, a meeting of Western formality and Eastern sound. The string composition The Dorian Horizon (1966) ventures into an avant-garde, microtonal area to great effect, and of the early Requiem for strings, I’ll quote Igor Stravinsky: “How could such severe music come from such a tiny man?”

I’m not going to listen to these selections every day of the week, but they are an intriguing alternative when I’m in the mood for something classical. I can’t say much about Toru’s chamber and solo works, because the few items I’ve heard didn’t entice me nearly as much as his larger scores. He’s also dabbled in the “chancy” avant area (like Corona for strings), inspired by his friendships with the modernist twentieth century gang.

Takemitsu scored some 93 movies in his lifetime, and The Film Music of Toru Takemitsu on Nonesuch samples ten of them. I think this disc is out of print - it was originally released in 1997 - but the Takemitsu fan who tracks it down will find some worthwhile music. The quarter hour suite from “Rikyu” contains solemn organ passages and a desolate, gripping drone section. “Three Film Scores for String Orchestra” is quite accessible and yet has stranger textures than you would hear in a hollywood string section. The cycling backdrop of “Banished Orin” reminds me of some of Brian Eno’s Music for Films vignettes. A couple of the other tracks are too lighthearted for me, but this is a rare collection of film scoring that I enjoy as pure music.

For the curious listener, I recommend the first Sony disc listed below as a starting point. The Denons, as far as I can tell, are no longer available - a shame, as they are of superb quality. Most of the same works are available on other recordings, though.

(a very) Selected Discography

From me flows what you call Time, Twill by Twilight, Requiem. Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Nexus. Sony.

Autumn, A Way a Lone, I Hear the Water Dreaming, Twill by Twilight. Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Denon.

Coral Island, Dorian Horizon, A flock descends, Archipelago S. Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Denon.

Quotation of Dream. London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen. Deutsche Grammophon.

The Film Music of Toru Takemitsu. Various sources. Nonesuch.

Back to Essays