In 2017 at the University of Kentucky, Nathan defended a sixty-page thesis on Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu entitled The Long Arrival of Takemitsu’s Late Style. Below is the introduction and a downloadable pdf of the entire paper. Further down are the results of his 2014 survey of “Nonprofit Arts Funding in Kentucky.”
The Long Arrival of Takemitsu’s Late Style
“The end of all method is to seem to have no method.” – Lu Ch’ai, Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (1679-1701)
All over the world, artists (or: labourers) toil to create new, exciting work. They gather techniques, tools, and approaches, and like any other worker, their methodology can become part of who they are. As these elements meld together and evolve, they lose their individual definition, becoming something new which can only be found within the labourer. By this process, the artist-labourer’s work gains a mystical quality and the methods seem to disappear.
It seems obvious that an artist’s environment can have a tremendous effect on their work. For Japanese artists in the twentieth century, however, the environment around them has been shifting endlessly. The beautiful landscapes and long artistic tradition of Japan seem alien to the manufacturing efficiency, technology, and entertainment culture present in modern Japanese society. Assuredly, the country has changed significantly since Commander Perry’s arrival in 1853, an occasion still invoked in everyday Japanese conversation. Art was no exception to this; when Japan opened its borders, the word ‘art’ did not even exist in the Japanese language. Their new word for art, geijutsu, essentially means “techniques to create something cultural, decorative, or entertaining,” because during that time, there was no separation between “craft” and “art” as there was in the West.
Though these elements have now achieved some level of reconciliation, during the postwar years the relationship between Japanese culture and that of the West remained uncertain. Italian musicologist Luciana Galliano described Japan as “an Eastern country far removed from [its] own reality” and, though exaggerated, her statement illuminates some of the cultural challenges artists would confront.
By 1985, Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu (武満徹, 1930-1996) imagined “a universal music of the world’s peoples,” a future musical amalgamation of all the earth’s cultures. After forty years of cultural assimilation in his home country, a global music synthesis must have felt inevitable. But Takemitsu and his generation were not so much victims as instigators of this transition, seeking to escape the oppressive Japanese authoritarianism of the prewar Shōwa period. Takemitsu’s career, spanning from the end of World War II to his death in 1996, would delve into most of the major international musical movements and spearhead Japanese experimental music during the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most transformative cultural periods in East Asian history.
Takemitsu was fascinated with the interplay of Eastern and Western aesthetics, but was cautious to avoid superficial syntheses of Orient and Occident. Instead, he articulated their differences without judgement, preferring to distance himself and adopt a broader (and more objective) perspective. As Takemitsu sought to cultivate a global musical language, however, he ironically became the quintessential Japanese composer. This surprising outcome was the combined result of (1) Takemitsu’s fluid exploration of technique within the context of the speed and sensibility of the Japanese integration of Western musical methods, (2) the advent of the postmodern era, and (3) Takemitsu’s lifelong search for his own unique musical voice. These elements developed throughout the entirety of Takemitsu’s career, coalescing during the 1970s into his late style and continuing to evolve until his death in 1996.
The inimitable mystical quality of Tōru Takemitsu’s work regularly draws the attention of scholars, critics, and patrons. Lauded by the West as “Japan’s greatest composer,” Takemitsu was the first Japanese composer to be widely known in America. Perhaps aided by Takemitsu’s unusual appearance, many Westerners are drawn to his music’s “alien” tonality and its rich orchestration. Others disregard his work, calling it thin, decorative, and imitative. Neither assessment considers the context in which the music was created. These popular commentators regularly describe Takemitsu’s music in simple terms such as “beautiful,” “unstructured,” and “East-meets-West.” More nuanced commentary, such as that by Alex Ross or Peter Burt, takes into consideration Takemitsu’s exploration of nature and Japanese spirituality, but even their assessments are prone to intensely florid descriptions that lack critical insight. Critics are quick to rely on such banal language because Takemitsu’s music and writings are inscrutable and equivocal.
In The Music of Tōru Takemitsu, Burt points out that “Takemitsu’s theoretical writings about music abound in striking metaphors that have proved a fertile resource for commentators in search of an evocative title or handy descriptive phrase.” Takemitsu’s essays tend to discuss music more philosophically than analytically, their argument unclear and vulnerable to critical misconstruction. The ambiguity of these quotations leads writers to make conceptual leaps, regarding Takemitsu’s intentions, that would otherwise be impossible. Unfortunately, this superficial approach keeps commentators from discussing Takemitsu’s life and work in more meaningful ways.
Burt, however, sets out in his book to create the first in-depth theoretical analysis of Takemitsu’s music in English, using rigorous and theoretical techniques to uncover Takemitsu’s compositional style. Burt’s approach contributes to a better understanding of Takemitsu, but as he acknowledges, the depth of its critical insight is limited by Takemitsu’s intuitive approach to composition. Takemitsu collected many influences throughout his life, from Debussy to gagaku [traditional court music] to Cage to Webern, to name but a few. The farther one follows through Takemitsu’s career, the more his ideas fluidly intermix, and the more difficult it is to isolate consistent techniques and influences. Just as Lu Ch’ai described, where Takemitsu’s techniques mature, they seem to no longer exist, blending into a single, personalized style.
Burt’s focus on Takemitsu’s orchestral music is consistent with the theoretical biases of musicologists during the early twentieth-century and postwar periods. These practices, which still dominate Western pedagogy, are chiefly concerned with primary material, usually engaging with musical work through technical analysis. Fundamentally, these methods are predicated on the Romantic and modernist assumption that musical innovation proceeds linearly, with each successive breakthrough surpassing the harmonic limits of its predecessor. This view of musical scholarship is aligned with the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernist idea that music is autonomous, pure, and self-sufficient, where a work is valued independently, without reference to its historical or social context. From this standpoint the progress of art is self-affirming.
The focus on progress and the view of music as autonomous were closely aligned with the dominant philosophy of Western art music composers during the first half of the twentieth century. The advent of the postmodern epoch in the 1970s, however, was founded on the rejection of musical autonomy. The old tools were not useful for decoding the works of this new age, reacting with confusion or rejecting new movements altogether because they did not “progress” in the way that musicologists expected. This disparity has led musicologists and theorists to have to devise new methods and return to old methods that consider the work within a broader context. Even though writers such as Burt and Galliano see well beyond the limits of the modernist viewpoint, the latent positivist biases of the art music world are essential to recognize when examining commentaries on Takemitsu’s later works.
These considerations must inform any meaningful discussion of Takemitsu’s work. Of primary concern is the context and overall trajectory of his career, along with the music itself. This broader perspective will elucidate factors in Takemitsu’s development that are not dealt with by other commentators. In addition to his art music (orchestral, chamber, and electro-acoustic works), his popular (vocal and film) compositions will also be taken into consideration. Further, the argument that Takemitsu’s late style developed over a period of decades challenges the old musicological tendency to divide composers’ careers into sections and value them collectively by their level of creativity. It follows that, whereas many scholars focus primarily on his first (c.1945-1960) and second (c. 1958-1974) periods, Takemitsu’s third period (c.1974-1996) should be seen as a culmination of his long career.
This discussion contains three sections. The first, “Experimentation: Assimilation Without Capitulation,” discusses the speed with which the postwar Japanese avant-garde learned Western techniques. With the acceptance of these methods, however, a sense of their own artistic tradition still remained, just as it has through previous waves of cultural dominance. The conjunction of the assimilation of Western culture and development of Japanese culture contextualizes Takemitsu’s resistance to the technical strictures of musical movements and trends. Like many of his Japanese peers, Takemitsu experimented with many of the Western trends, not loyal to any of them. Unlike other composers, however, he would often disengage from the techniques and make personal, aesthetic adjustments to the results. Though Takemitsu became part of the international avant-garde, his music never truly departed from his homeland. Whether fully intentional or not, his work contributed to the search for a truly “Japanese” Western music.
The second section, “The New Age,” explores the movements and tensions within the Japanese and international artistic communities that impacted Takemitsu and his critics. The discussion will examine the notion of the “avant-garde,” the relationship between Takemitsu’s generation and those that followed them, and the effect of postmodern thought. In many ways, Takemitsu can be viewed as part of a postmodern return to the past, though there is no evidence that he purposefully changed to a more “postmodern” style. Rather, his late style is the result of many of the same conditions which led to the turn of postmodernism in 1968-1972. Takemitsu’s tonal music, created throughout all stages of his long career, also informed the trends which make up the foundation of his postmodern late style.
The third and final section, “A Single, Personal Sound,” examines the impact of Takemitsu’s search for a personal voice and “a single sound” on the arrival of his late style. The influence of Japanese tradition on Takemitsu’s work is well-documented, but to write “Japanese” music was not his intention. In this section I argue that the influence of Japanese aesthetics was somewhat unconscious and that, as he aged, Takemitsu’s traditions and culture became part of his personal voice, giving his work an indelible “Japanese” quality. The forces already at work, discussed in the previous three sections, matured during the final third of Takemitsu’s life and became part of his compositional framework. It was through this framework, combined with his international philosophy, that Takemitsu’s quintessentially Japanese late style arrived.
Nonprofit Arts Funding in Kentucky (2014 survey-based project)
(please click the image to see the full-size poster)