Significance of the Parts in Music of Tōru Takemitsu

By Tomoko Deguchi

This essay contemplates one of the underlying Japanese cultural tendencies, an emphasis on the significance of individual parts (as opposed to the whole), and its manifestation in the music of Tōru Takemitsu. Takemitsu’s surface musical language is based on the idioms of European modernism. However, his music is perceived by many as “Japanese-sounding,” although he clearly avoided sounds of traditional Japanese music or Japanese instruments in the majority of his works. Takemitsu’s early musical style was influenced by the music of Messiaen and Debussy, and those influences remained noticeable even though his compositional style changed over time. Despite the apparent Western compositional influence observed in Takemitsu’s music, I believe that one of the reasons that his music is thought to sound Japanese is because it privileges the same quality perceived in other Japanese arts and Japanese language: the significance of the parts.

When the object of analysis or interpretation is an entire composition, analysts who are trained in Western music tend to perceive music as a unified “whole.” However, I question, does music need to have an organizational strategy that ties its compositional elements together to create this unified whole? Is the notion of a unity a Western construct that may or may not be applicable to music by non-Western composers? Is finding codes of organized sounds the best way to approach the understanding of musics by non-Western composers? Perhaps traditional methods of analysis to determine large and small sections and to identify large-scale coherence between those sections might not be suitable for analyzing Takemitsu’s music. Additionally the notion of  unity or “wholeness” might not be applicable to music by a composer who became increasingly aware of his Japanese heritage as he searched for his voice, admitting that it is impossible to escape from the influence of a culture in which he was born and raised.<1>

In analyzing Takemitsu’s music, especially his music after the 1980s,<2> the significance of the “parts” takes on more relevance than does large-scale coherence in the interpretation of his music. The importance of individual “parts” is important in many aspects of Japanese culture, including traditional Japanese gardens, Japanese language and literature, and Japanese architecture. It is well known that Japanese gardens gave great inspiration to Takemitsu, who saw connections between them and the coloristic shades of sounds, which exist alongside other natural fluctuations.<3> Many of his works from the mid-1980s are modeled on Japanese gardens, especially those designed by the 14th century Japanese monk Musō Soseki.<4> I find it especially crucial to investigate how the metaphor of following the garden path is manifested in Takemitsu’s music.<5>

The strolling gardens (or kaiyūshiki gardens) were never meant to be viewed as a whole – the bird eye view of the garden has no effect or significance on the meaning of the Japanese garden. Rather, appreciation and contemplation lie in the garden’s details. Kanto Shigemori writes about the kaiyūshiki garden:<6> 

“When the kaiyūshiki garden is viewed in two dimensions, it does not form a geometric or symmetric garden as in the Western gardens. The kaiyūshiki garden pursued diverse perspectives in all directions. The main characteristics of the two-dimensional plan of the kaiyūshiki garden is that the spectators are guided through their walk to appreciate, then led to contemplate while appreciating, and in that contemplation, they perceive poetry and purpose or effect of the objects at each turn. … The visitors are led to appreciate, to contemplate, and merge the experienced beauty and the illusionary beauty by placing themselves in a philosophical imagery. As the path guides them, not to just stroll through the garden, but to guide them mentally, the two-dimensional plan cannot be just simple repetition or materialistic change of color. … As the spectators walk through the garden, the landscape expands or shrinks as they find beauty in the darkness, or sweetness in the brightness, and the moss or grass dyes their footsteps green, or white sand blurs into the ground.”<7>

Paul Rudolph, who was considered at the time to be the champion of modern American architecture, critiqued this aesthetic. “The details of the various parts of kaiyūshiki garden in Katsura Imperial Villa (in Kyoto) are remarkable, but as a whole, it is lacking an appealing unification. I think there are too many details.”<8> The kaiyūshiki garden is a microcosm of the earth in which mountains and gorges are expressed by rocks and sand. Every part and every section of the garden interconnects organically; each are small variations of different themes and their boundaries are ambiguous.<9> Many parts of the garden are intricate and suggestive and they invite imagination – a stone garden lantern suggests an old unvisited Buddhist temple nearby; the sound of water heard through thick vegetation evokes a hidden ravine; and the strollers who arrive at the bottom of a gentle slope are reminded of never-ending mountain paths.<10>

Namio Egami remarks on the Japanese cultural tendency to incorporate ideas or matters without thinking through all of the ramifications or without strictly planning.<11> For instance, the concept of city planning as a completed product was foreign to the Japanese.<12> In a smaller scale, Japanese architectural spaces began with a small space and gradually expanded outwards as needs arose. The whole was viewed simply a result of compilation of parts. Similarly, Japanese sentences are structured so that they force the reader to know the details before knowing the subject’s action.<13> Other examples from literature are renga, or continuous poetry, and zuihitsu (for a lack of strict definition this term is often translated as “personal essays”).

Shūichi Katō also agrees that Japanese have a tendency to emphasize the “parts” rather than the overall organization or unity of the “whole,” and that the “whole” is simply seen as the accumulation of the related and organically evolving “parts.” This tendency is instantiated in diverse Japanese arts, culture, and behavior patterns.<14> Katō  argues that the fundamental basis of this tendency derives from the Japanese conception of time. He categorizes four basic concepts of time. They are 1) time that has both a beginning and an end; 2) time that has a beginning but not an end; 3) time that has an end but not a beginning; and 4) time that has no beginning or no end.<15>  When time is conceptualized as open ended it is impossible to quantify and structure it. Since there is no “entirety,” time cannot be divided into sections. Thus time is conceived as a compilation of each moment of the “now.” The “now” is not a fixed quantity, but a flexible entity that possess elasticity. Since time is not seen as objective, the partitioning of past, present, and future remains obscure.

With this in mind, I invite readers to listen to Far Calls, Coming, far! (1980), one of the representative works Takemitsu composed in the 1980s.

This piece is written for solo violin and orchestra, and is one of Takemitsu’s works that adopt their titles from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.<17> Many writers have pointed out that the soloist parts in Takemitsu’s works for solo instrument and orchestra do not function as they would in traditional concertos. Rather, the soloist and the orchestra have equal partnership. In this work, the “parts” evolve organically and devise a musical path through time that branches out. The initial three or four note gestures evolve into different related timbres, either within the orchestral texture or within the soloist’s sound events or within the combination of the two forces.
<1>Toru Takemitsu, Confronting Silence: Selected Writings, trans. and ed. Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow (Berkeley, California: Fallen Leaf Press, 1995), 142. Takemitsu wrote about his conflicting feelings towards Japanese traditional music, initially detesting any sound that reminded him of the old Japan. He considered himself to be a composer who wrote in the modern, Western style.  However, he wrote, “I am not a composer who represents Japan, nor even a composer who is intentionally conscious of having Japanese nationality and incorporate Japanese elements into their music. But born and raised in Japan, even as I try to free myself from that influence, at the same time I became more aware that is impossible.” Takemitsu discusses his early experience as a composer in his book, Toi Yobigoeno Kanatani (Beyond the far calls) (Tokyo: Shinchousha, 1992).
<2>In 1970s Takemitsu underwent significant stylistic changes. One critic asked that “Has Tōru Takemitsu forfeited his avant-garde standing amongst his peers?” The timing of Takemitsu’s stylistic changes in his music coincides with when Takemitsu identified many of his compositions as inspired by the Japanese garden.
<3>Arc for piano and orchestra is the earliest work in which Takemitsu explicitly explained the relationship between the Japanese garden and Arc.
<4>Musō Soseki (1275-1351) is a celebrated Zen Buddhist who is renowned for his gardens. Saihōji in Kyoto, also know as Kokedera (moss temple), is one of the most famous among his gardens. Takemitsu composed an orchestral piece inspired by Musō Soseki. Musō was a contemporary of Yoshida Kenkō who famously wrote the Essays in Idleness.
<5>Takemitsu writes “My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener. Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture.
<6>Japanese strolling gardens normally feature a path where the visitors are led around a pond or small lake. By following the path, they are presented with a series of scenes, which are specifically intended to be viewed at key points around the path.
<7>Kanto Shigemori, Nihon Teien no Shii: Seisei to Kanshō no Bigaku (Thoughts in Japanese garden: The aesthetics in creation and appreciation) (Tokyo: Nichibōshuppansha, 1970), 67. My translation.
<8>Noboru Kawazoe, Nihonbunka to Kenchiku (Japanese culture and architecture) (Tokyo: Shoukokusha, 1965), 145. Kawazoe does not provide the source of this quotation. My translation.
<9>Kanto Shigemori, Nihon Teien no Shii: Seisei to Kanshō no Bigaku (Thoughts in Japanese garden: The aesthetics in creation and appreciation) (Tokyo: Nichibōshuppansha, 1970), 68. My translation.
<10>Ibid, 70. My translation. Noboru Kawazoe describes the paths in kaiyūshiki garden are planned to evoke surprising psychological effects. Kaiyūshiki garden is a closed space surrounded by walls, but its winding paths do not give a sense of closed space in the least. There are movements felt in the space and space felt in the movements. The objects in the garden give signs to the strollers; for instance, the stepping stones suggest the strollers to walk slowly and look at the surroundings, or watch their steps, or walk straight forward, precisely giving instructions which the visitors follow unconsciously. … As the strollers move away from the Shoin (residential quarters), the scenery becomes more rustic, giving impression that they are deep in the mountains. As they walk, the scenery then changes as if at a mountain village, followed by an impression that they arrived at a plain, then back to the Shoin. The space gives you the impression that more you move away from the Shoin, it gives you the feeling of “far away.” Also Kawazoe quotes several of Michio Takeyama’s writing (there is no information of the source) such as, “If you walk this path straight forward, you will bump into that pillar (of the gate). The gate ahead seems to invite you, but at the same time it seems to reject you,” and “This is not just an gate with an open passage. It invites and rejects the visitors at the same time.” See Noboru Kawazoe, Nihonbunka to Kenchiku (Japanese culture and architecture) (Tokyo: Shoukokusha, 1965), 14 and 150-151. My translation.
<11>Tadao Umesao and Michitarō Tada, eds, Nihonbunka no Kouzou (The structure of Japanese culture) (Tokyo: Koudansha, 1972), 61. My translation.
<12>The kaiyūshiki gardens are designed with an end product and affects in mind; however, the designs were never intended as unchangeable. For instance the gardens that were built by Musō Soseki, the celebrated Zen monk, originally had strong conceptions when they were built, but as time passed, they changed their appearances and designs adapting to that time. His gardens at any age were always regarded as first rate. They are metabolic gardens that human and nature recreate through the ages. The same things can be said about cities, as they adapt metabolically through time.
<13>Shūichi Katō, Nihonbunka ni okeru Jikan to Kuukan (Time and space in Japanese culture) (Tokyo: Iwanamishoten, 2007), 45. My translation.
<14>Ibid, 10.
<15>Ibid, 7.
<16>To summarize, Katō argues that the idea of reincarnation exemplifies time as half circular and half linear; the religion of Miroku Buddhism exemplifies time that has an end but no beginning; Buddhist’s “end of the world” belief (mappou shisou) exemplifies time that has a beginning but no end. Masao Maruyma argues that in Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book of legends that exemplifies time that has no beginning or end, lies Japan’s historic consciousness. See Chapter 2 on Maruyama’s theory of historic consciousness. See Shūichi Katō, Nihonbunka ni okeru Jikan to Kuukan (Time and space in Japanese culture) (Tokyo: Iwanamishoten, 2007), 15-31 on his discussions of the four archetype of time.
<17>The others are Riverrun (1984, for piano and orchestra), a Way a Lone (1981, string quartet), and a Way a Lone II (1981, string orchestra)


Tomoko Deguchi’s research interests include music of Toru Takemitsu and other Japanese composers, musical narrative, film music, musical form in the 20th-century music, and intersections between music theory and culture and aesthetics. She is also active as a pianist specializing in contemporary music. She is an associate professor at Winthrop University.