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For away

For away is the first of many titles he was to draw from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Titles were very important for Takemitsu. Unlike most composers, who find their titles after the composition of the notes, Takemitsu used to say that once he had found his title, half the notes were written. He liked Joyce's use of words without their usual connections - words used to evoke resonance before settling, if at all, into meaning, dreamlike language that approached the condition of music. I suspect that Takemitsu was Joyce's ideal reader, the inquiring savage carrying no baggage! And, in many ways, that's how he approached and discovered music, and why he was able to forge such a personal and original style. Starting out from nothing, he encountered, as and when, a French chanson, American jazz, Debussy, Messiaen's Préludes, Berg's Violin Concerto, Webern, some Boulez, Cage, gagaku, whatever - never entire oeuvres, nor histories, and certainly never any traditions with their imperatives. (I remember envying him his freshness of discovery when he told me that his main musical idea for riverrun (1984) had occurred to him after a chance first hearing of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor!) In For away the primary inspiration was a visit to Indonesia and a first encounter with gamelan, but in his use of it there is nothing picturesque, nothing folkloric, nothing "exotic" unless it be that all his musical encounters were in some way "exotic". It is in incorporated and absorbed with seemingly effortless naturalness, becoming but one more colour of an ever more varied palette, its multiple grace notes challenging the otherwise precise rhythmic scoring to provide an extraordinary fluid texture, the notation of which is a triumph in itself. For away is, for me, his first indubitable masterpiece for solo piano.

Toru Takemitsu's music for solo piano is some of the most distinctive, distinguished and best of the second half of the 20th century, and consistently represents him at his finest. That is, already, saying a lot for his is a quite extraordinary and original oeuvre, a music that, above all, breathes differently.

To invent himself in such a way that he proved quintessentially Japanese whilst, at the same time, taking his rightful place in the hierarchy of composers of the "Western" tradition could not have been easy; there were no models - he was the first. By doing this, not only did he become the first composer from Asia, let alone Japan, to gain widespread acceptance, he taught us in the West many things about our tradition which we had, possibly, overlooked, or which we had assumed were not dominant characteristics. That he should, by his own admission, have started out from Debussy, that, although self-taught, he considered Debussy his teacher, is not surprising. Debussy was, and remains, the composer who made the most radical break with the accepted Western tradition and he did this in very large part from what he had learned from Asian culture. His 'feel' for the East was to find an eager disciple in Takemitsu's 'feel' for the West. Vibration and silence; a concentration on the 'grain' of sound, its character and length as opposed to strong metrical and rhythmic accent; everything organised around qualities of sound patterns rather than around their significance in an architectural scheme; divisions and definitions created out of a wavering flux of sound; the world of dream, water, sea, garden, rain, tree, and wind of which Takemitsu so often spoke, and which is there also in Debussy's titles - the unpredictable, fluctuating forms of nature which mirror, symbolise, are existence itself.

(c) Paul Crossley


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