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‘A single defined sound’

Toru Takemitsu’s writings on

Western classical music and Japanese traditional music

Thursday, April 18, 2019

By Kristian Del Cantero

Submitted to Willem Wander van Nieuwkerk


Toru Takemitsu was a Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory. Born in

1930, his first formal exposure to music was that of the Western classical tradition. At first, he had an

aversion to Japanese traditional music, as it reminded him of his days serving in the War, and the

militaristic and nationalistic cultural baggage that came with this tradition. However, later in his life, he

began to compose works that featured traditional Japanese instruments, and in turn created music that had

a sense of both traditions. An important aspect he used in his compositions was the Japanese idea of

“ma”, or “space”. Takemitsu brought forth a rich idea of music and its connection to nature, and wrote in

detail on the differences between Western music and Japanese traditional music. In result, the world has

been able to enjoy deep meaningful music in his unique style.

During the 8th century, there began to emerge a documented history of Japanese music. There are

some interesting parallels when comparing Japanese music with Western music. Both traditions were

established in the same 200-year period, and both traditions were heavily influenced by religion, in the

West by the Roman Catholic Church, and in Japan by Buddhism. However, these two traditions are very

different in their structure and artistic ideals. The structure of Japanese music is very different from the

structural makeup of Western music. One unique quality is the use of forward motion through different

sections until the final section occurs. There is no such thing as ‘theme” or “development” that is so

inherent in Western music. Rather, aurally recognizable patterns are realized through melody and rhythm.

There is a form seen in Japanese music, which is called “jo-ha-kyū—the introduction, the scatterings, and

the rushing toward the end” (Malm, 2009). This is not to be confused with the so-called “sonata-form” in

Western music. Another difference artistically between Western music and Japanese traditional music is

the use of words. Most of Japanese traditional music is word-oriented, either through sung-text or using
pictorial titles of instrumental pieces. This is a fundamental difference, as much of western music is not

word-oriented (think of the term ‘absolute music’).

What is the sound ideal of Japanese traditional music? Generally, it is to create a “maximum

effect with a minimum amount of material” (Malm, 2009). There is an instrument called the ‘taiko’ drum,

which has a barrel shaped body and a cowhide top. There are wooden sticks used to hit the head, however

they are very soft which limits variation in sound potential. “The taiko, like Japanese ink paintings,

accomplishes a great deal by concentrating on very carefully chosen limitations of the medium” (Malm,

2009). A second sound ideal of Japanese traditional music is the need for every instrument to be heard in

timbre and colour. This can be seen extensively in the court ensemble music (gagaku), as well as in other

places. There is a difference between multilinear lines (in Japanese music) and harmonic lines (in Western

music) which give both traditions a very different sound.

Takemitsu had many distinct realizations regarding the natural world in connection to the

appreciation of music. He often liked to walk through different forests and gardens before composing to

regard different forms that appeared in nature . “A lifestyle out of balance with nature is frightening. As

long as we live, we aspire to harmonize with nature. It is this harmony in which the arts originated and to

which they will eventually return” (Takemitsu, 1995). Throughout history, many humans have sought to

capture the relationship of the forms in nature with the mystery of music. Why is it possible that Debussy

can evoke the image of a wave at sea, or a trickling stream through a mountain? For Takemitsu, the

answer went right to the core of the human experience; humans are inseparable from the natural world,

including the laws which make up all life and matter. He noticed the parallels between forms in nature

and in music which possesed innate beauty. “Our work is really nothing but the smallest cell from which

an anticipated organism is to grow. A certain botanist once said there is no formlessness in the cells that
form bio-organisms. In that microcosmic world all cells follow strict laws. Sometimes shapes like regular

hexahedrons can be found. Amorphous shapes are found only in dead or injured tissue. Doesn’t that tell

us something?” (Takemitsu, 1995).

“Takemitsu’s attitude towards the West and to traditional Japanese instruments can be seen as a

self-conscious juxtaposition of highly constructed sounds and aesthetics. In the composer’s own words,

“the sounds of Western music dispose themselves horizontally, whereas the sounds of the shakuhachi

occur vertically, the way a tree grows” (Lin, 2016). Ma (間) is a Japanese word that is usually translated

as "pause" or "the space between two structural parts." This concept is experienced through intervals of

spatial designation. In Japanese, ma equates to interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place,

not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form

and non-form deriving from an intense moment. Takemitsu, coming from a Japanese background,

beautifully uses the concept of Ma in his work, which creates a link between traditional Japanese music

and Western classical music. If one listens to the Japanese court music (Gagaku), there are countless

examples of intense pauses after an intense musical moment. This aspect is something that really defines

the makeup of Japanese traditional music. “Takemitsu’s use of silence, an oft-noted and distinctive

feature of his style, bears some scrutiny. Such a preoccupation could be attributed to his exposure to

Cage, as well as to indigenous Japanese aesthetics, but whatever its source it enhances the charmingly

static impression of this score. The Japanese word ma, meaning space, an interval or a pause, permeates

every aspect of Japanese life” (Lin, 2016).

Although Takemitsu was born in Japan, he wasn’t exposed to traditional Japanese music until

later in his life. His first main experience with music was involved with Western classical music.

Although he had many reservations about its traditions, Takemitsu believed that traditional Japanese
music was more in tune with the natural world. “On examination we find that the Japanese prefer an

artistic expression close to nature while the Westerner treasures an artificial expression that is not part of

nature” (Takemitsu, 1995)). Throughout his career he was able to work with many Japanese performers,

and also write compositions for traditional Japanese instruments such as the ‘biwa’ and the ‘ud’. There is

a deep sense of meaning when one listens to the quality of sound rather than using it as a means of

expression. Traditional Japanese music performers unveil the quality of an individual sound from an

instrument, and in doing so are more in sync with nature, as they are revealing the inherent sound of that

instrument, rather than the superimposition of the will through “expression”. “Western performers are

also sensitive to individual sounds, but these sounds are always part of a larger design and are significant

only in their instrumental context and the framework of the piece. This concept, based on the idea of

human beings conquering nature, is essentially different from the Japanese musical point of view. It must

be said that in principle and construction, Western and Japanese music are fundamentally different”

(Takemitsu, 1995). Throughout his work, Takemitsu was able to bridge the gap between Japanese

traditional music and Western classical music. He used the innate sound quality of instruments in his

work (one can regard, ‘November Steps’) to encourage listeners to regard the specific quality of one

defined sound. “A single sound, say ‘do’ in the scale, has no particular meaning. But if we follow it with

another pitch, then another, the Western dialectic of sound association begins. In such an association of

sounds, the Western notion of musical expression is born. In this music the individual sound elements

have less individual meaning as they function to create the artistic expression. If they had varied

individual meanings, they would be less functional in contributing to the total expression. At the opposite

end of the spectrum from these sounds are the sounds of the biwa, shakuhachi, and the Australian

didjeridu. It is these two extremes that I have called the “sound of the East, sound of the West”

(Takemitsu, 1995).
Toru Takemitsu was able to see the fundamental differences between Western classical music and

Japanese traditional music, and was then able to approach his composing in a new light. Emphasizing the

importance of the connection that humans have with nature, he formed a distinct way of appreciating the

music of both cultures, and eventually forming a bridge for both audiences. “The external and internal

world is full of vibration. Existing in this stream of infinite sound, I thought that it is my task to capture a

single defined sound” (Takemitsu, 1995).


Works Cited

Lin, Pin Hsin. “Synergies between East Asian and Western Classical Musical Aesthetics.” University of
California, Los Angeles, 2016.

Malm, William P. “Japanese Music.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Sept.
2015, www.britannica.com/art/Japanese-music

Takemitsu Tōru. Confronting Silence: Selected Writings. Fallen Leaf Press, 1995.