Obituary: Toru Takemitsu

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The Independent Online
Toru Takemitsu, the Japanese composer, was one of the most distinguished cultural figures to have emerged from East Asia since the Second World War, and also one of the most played contemporary composers anywhere in the world. His rise to this status was all the more surprising in that he was largely self-taught as a composer and did not come from an especially musical background.

Although born in Tokyo, he was brought up in China, where his businessman father's 78 recordings of American jazz were the first music he remembered. His family moved back to Japan at the outbreak of the war; later on he was drafted into the army and, like many Japanese intellectuals of his generation, the complex emotions generated by his country's behaviour both before and during the war caused him to feel increasingly alienated from Japanese traditions and culture so that by the early Fifties, as he later recalled, "I passionately hated all things Japanese."

His interest in Western music meanwhile grew apace to the extent that he had begun studying privately with the leading Japanese composer of the preceding generation, Yasuji Kiyose, who wrote in a late-Romantic style - the only formal instruction in music Takemitsu ever received. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not study with any of the leading European composers of the day (several of his colleagues studied with Messiaen), but despite this, at scarcely past 20, he had already started composing with the characteristically rich, chromatic harmonic vocabulary inspired by Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen which was to remain a hallmark of his style, as his early piano piece Two Lentos (1951) shows.

To these influences were soon added the totally serial music of more radical composers such as Luigi Nono and Pierre Boulez, whilst simultaneously Takemitsu developed a lasting interest in electronics and musique concrete, producing a number of the most accomplished and atmospheric tape pieces of the era such as Vocalism AI (1956), a hypnotic study on the Japanese word for "love". Around this time, too, his lush, hyper-Romantic Requiem for Strings (1957) was attracting international attention.

In the Sixties, Takemitsu evolved a more fractured, discontinuous style in keeping with the then newest trends from the West, but unlike many followers of serialism or aleatoric music, he showed a singular ability to keep his personal compositional voice intact. One of the finest works from this period is the attractive orchestral song-cycle Coral Island (1962); its colourful preponderance of tuned percussion instruments and massed swathes of strings were found in many other composers at the time, but few could match the extraordinary fluency and aural exactitude with which Takemitsu handled these things, or imprint upon them such an individual harmonic style.

Although he retained a profound dislike of conservative Japanese nationalism, Takemitsu did gradually develop a lasting interest in his own country's traditional music, incorporating two Japanese instruments (the biwa, a short-necked lute, and shakuhachi, a bamboo flute) into his 1967 New York Philharmonic commission, November Steps, and composing a piece for the traditional court Gagaku orchestra, In an Autumn Garden (1974).

As his music travelled, he found increasingly strong links with colleagues in the West, and a particular kinship in the directionless, Zen-influenced music of American composers John Cage and Morton Feldman; he collaborated with Cage in 1964 on a multi-media event entitled "Blue Aurora", and one of his most haunting later orchestral pieces, Twill by Twilight (1987), was a memorial for Feldman.

Takemitsu also developed a burgeoning reputation as one of the most inventive film composers in the history of the art, writing music for over 100 features and collaborating with some of the most famous Japanese directors of his day - amongst them Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan, 1964) and Akira Kurosawa (the award-winning Ran, 1986) as well as composing for the Hollywood film The Rising Sun (1993).

Latterly, Takemitsu's musical language broadened to incorporate increasingly frank elements of tonal harmony, returning to his early loves of Debussy, Gershwin and Messiaen without abandoning some of the more spiky, brittle elements and sense of volatility he had absorbed from the serialists. He imbued all these influences with a uniquely personal aura due to his liking for generally unhurried, calm rates of musical utterance (he once joked that "the Japanese have no sense of allegro").

To explain the unpredictable, often seemingly random forms of his music, he would cite as inspiration the Japanese formal garden, remarking that he placed musical objects (chords, fragments of melody or instrumental textures) next to each other much in the way stones, plants, rock and trees are carefully juxtaposed in a garden. Another thing he liked about gardens was that "they never spurn those who enter them" and he tried to ensure his own music had a similarly welcoming, unaggressive exterior, once remarking to a colleague that "the worst thing you can do with sounds is to drive them around like a car".

Many later works, including the orchestral piece A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1978), the piano concerto Riverrun (1984) and Tree Line (1988) for ensemble have long acquired the status of contemporary classics, and thanks to the persistent advocacy of such leading musicians as Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Paul Crossley and the London Sinfonietta, Takemitsu's music has found a wide international audience, becoming a particular favourite at the BBC Proms. His sudden death has left us a double legacy, a hugely varied output of exceptionally refined music whose popularity shows no sign of diminishing; and through his energetically altruistic work as festival director and concert organiser and sometime impresario, an irreplaceable contribution to the cultural life of Japan.

Julian Anderson

With the death of Toru Takemitsu, writes Oliver Knussen, we have lost a great musician with an uncannily precise aural imagination and a command of orchestral colour and harmonic nuance second to none. He possessed a unique poetic sensibility in many areas, however, being extraordinarily responsive to language and image. His evocative titles preceded and stimulated the actual process of composition (for which he prepared by playing through the St Matthew Passion on the piano) and, in addition to many essays on music, he was proud to be the author of what he described as a completely untranslatable detective novel based on multiple meanings of old Chinese written characters.

He also published in Japanese two books of personal observations on his greatest extra-musical passion, the cinema. If these reflect the quietly sharp perceptions and precise insights which characterised his conversation, they should be translated without delay. He claimed to watch 250 films each year, and his tastes ran the gamut from art films to thrillers. His contribution to the dozens of films which he scored often extended to the supervision of every aspect of the soundtrack, sound effects and (characteristically) silences. It is said that during an extended stay in hospital last year, unable to work, he painstakingly covered page after page with recipes for fantastic dishes of his own devising.

His stature in Japanese musical life was as enormous as his physique was diminutive. He was his country's first major composer to achieve world- wide respect, and also the co-ordinator of the most significant contemporary music events in Tokyo - the annual Music Today festival and commissioning programme of Suntory Hall being two of which I had first-hand experience, for he was a generous promoter of younger colleagues both Western and Japanese.

On first encounter he was the shyest of public figures, but once the ice in his glass melted he was a marvellous companion with an unforgettable sense of humour and an encyclopaedic recall of old pop songs. Takemitsu's elegant, gentle, conciliatory music which defines a world somewhere between Debussy, Cage and old Japan will, I suspect, become more and more widely welcomed. But to his friends, it is as heartbreaking to imagine a world without the multifaceted, lovable and irreplaceable Toru as it is hard to remember a time when one didn't know him.

Toru Takemitsu, composer: born Tokyo 8 October 1930; married (one daughter); died Tokyo 20 February 1996.