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Les yeux clos

The title Les yeux clos is borrowed from a series of works, in lithograph and in colour, by the French artist Odilon Redon, beautiful images of indefinable and mysterious expressivity. The piece - "in memory of S. Takiguchi" - is prefaced by "Most important thing in performing Les yeux clos is to produce subtle changes of colour and the time as floating". In the course of a television conversation with me, Takemitsu described how the experimental music of the 60's, of which he had been a part, had become, for him, too intellectualised, too de-personalised, especially too lacking in the "erotics" of musical language which he had made it a particular aim to restore. By the time of Les yeux clos his mastery of notating "time as floating" was well achieved. To that he added the ferment of colour that he had exploited increasingly in orchestral works like Green and A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, and there can never have been a composer who enjoyed the sensuous world of sound with more relish and gusto than Takemitsu. This is, however, no indulgent hedonism, but a sensuousness used to suggest, to body forth, a timeless immanence. Interestingly, and significantly, his original thought for the title of Les yeux clos II was Prayer Bell, but, as he told Oliver Knussen: "Prayer Bell maybe too difficult.". Nevertheless, (bell sounds - which resound throughout this piece - apart), he considered all music a form of prayer, and in both Les yeux clos with their endlessly rising phrases and motifs there is a marked quality of urgent and impassioned imploration.

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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