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Rain Tree Sketch II - In memoriam Olivier Messiaen

Rain Tree Sketch merits another digression into the world of Takemitsu's titles. It is generally assumed that Rain Tree comes from the short stories of that name by fellow Japanese artist Kenzaburo O, a charming and suggestive poetic affinity that Takemitsu was perfectly happy to endorse. However, he assured me that he first encountered Rain Tree as the brand name of an American shaving cream and that he always read the words as Rain/Tree so that the works of that name would be part of both his Rain series of pieces and his Tree series of pieces. Sketch was added as an afterthought, possibly to refer to the brevity of the piece, possibly because it uses some of the material of the piano part of his chamber orchestra piece Rain Coming - written at the same time - possibly to refer to its improvi-sational quality. In the event he used Rain Tree Sketch for his, again, short piece in memory of Messiaen. Compositionally, both works explore in particular the upper registers of the piano. In a television interview Takemitsu once declared: "My music is bottomless - I only have the top - that's because I'm Japanese."

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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