Toru Takemitsu

My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener


In the forty years he was active as a film composer, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) wrote more than ninety film scores. He wrote the first for Crazed Fruit by Ko Nakahira. Until his death in January 1996, he remained faithful to a generation of directors who succeeded classic masters such as Ozu and Mizoguchi in the fifties and who changed the face of Japanese cinema.

Toru Takemitsu is better known in the West as a classical composer than as a film composer. His breakthrough as a classical composer was in 1957 with ‘Requiem for Strings’, which was highly praised by Igor Stravinsky during a visit to Japan. His name was established internationally in 1967 when, to mark the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he composed ‘November Steps’, in which traditional Japanese instruments such as the Biwa (a four-stringed lute) and the Shakuhachi (a wooden flute) were used for the first time in combination with a Western symphony orchestra.

Since then his compositions have been heard in virtually all the world’s major concert halls. Takemitsu has earned his spurs in the world of classical music and in the cinema, although he saw no difference between the two worlds. For him they were two sides of one and the same musical philosophy.

The following conversation between Toru Takemitsu and Karsten Witt, General Manager of the Konzerthaus in Vienna, took place during the Contemporary Music Festival on November 4, 1993.

(KW:) You were born in 1930 and started to study composition at the age of 18. In 1948 Japan, and even in Europe, it was not easy for somebody to decide to study composition. What led you in that direction?
(TT:) I think it is still very difficult to decide to be a composer, but at that time, it was just after the war, everything was chaos. I had very strong impressions with music during the war and I was very young. I just decided to be a composer. If I had to do it again I might not make the same decision, but at that time I was very young and full of curiosity and I was very thirsty to listen to Western music. As a young student we studied just a very few Japanese medieval songs – marchlike music. So we young people were very thirsty to listen to Western music.

KW:) When you started to study composition, did you have any experience in composing?
(TT:) Not at all! Of course I loved music very much, and my father was a big jazz collector. I had actually grown up in China (Manchuria) because of my father’s business. Every evening he listened to jazz – very old fashioned jazz music. So I knew very little about music except my father’s jazz music.

(KW:) In your biography, you state that you were self-taught?
(TT:) Yes. I studied music by myself – I did not go to any school. Of course I studied privately for a very short period with Mr. Yasuji Kiyose (1900-1981). I brought some of my pieces to him for evaluation, but he did not teach me any technical fundamentals about music. He just spoke very much about literature, about art, paintings – so I am very much influenced by his personality and his way of living. My music is very much influenced by American radio, because after the war Japan was occupied by the American Army and they had a radio station for the American soldiers. Every afternoon they broadcast three hours, of beautiful classical music – Bruno Walter, Toscanini, or Paul Whiteman from the Hollywood Bowl. I listened to radio every day. My first teacher was the radio.

(KW:) But composing is more than listening; to learn to compose is more than analyzing the music of other people…
(TT:) When I decided to be a composer I could not read music and I had no knowledge about music. I just really loved music. So I had great difficulties describing the music on paper and I had no instruments. So when I walked alone through the city, if I heard a piano sound from some place, I would visit the house and ask to touch the piano for 5 minutes. I was never refused! I was very lucky. Sometimes nowadays some stranger visits backstage after one of my concerts and says, “I lent my piano to you when you were young!” I have touched many different pianos!

When I got married, my wife had some musical background so I studied a lot with her. I was too poor to buy an instrument and I thought to be a composer I would just need pencil and paper and it would be a very simple thing! You mentioned listening and analyzing… Analyzing music is very important for a composer himself, but I think a composer should first be a listener. Listening to music with imagination is the most important thing for a composer.

You know, I am Japanese, but when I decided to be a composer, I did not know anything about my own musical tradition. I hated everything about Japan at that time because of my experience during the war. I really wanted to be a composer who was writing Western music, but after I had studied Western music for ten years I discovered by chance my own Japanese traditions. At that time I was crazy about the ‘Viennese School’ composers, and by chance I heard the music of the Bunraku Puppet Theater. I got a shock – oh, what a very strong, beautiful music. I suddenly recognized that I was Japanese and I should study my own tradition. So I started learning to play the Biwa. I studied it with a great master for two years and became very serious about our tradition. But I still try to combine it with Western music in my compositions.

(KW:) Would you explain how you integrate Japanese elements into your music? Using a Japanese instrument does not in itself constitute Japanese music. There are also a lot of European and American composers who are integrating Japanese instruments into traditional orchestral sounds.
(TT:) My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener. Listening to my my music can be compared to walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern, and texture. I do not like to emphasize too much with my music. Someone once criticized my music as getting to be very old fashioned. Maybe I am old, but I am looking back to the past with nostalgia. Composers are sometimes afraid to use tonality, but we can use anything from the tonal to the atonal – this is our treasure. I can say that because I am Japanese!

(KW:) You have written the music for more than 80 films. What do you feel is the relationship between your film music and your other compositions?
(TT:) One reason is that it makes a living, of course. But I did such a large number of film scores because I love film! Film is still a very important medium for a composer. Unfortunately, the film business is getting to be so commercial and I must say the way music is used has become very bad. But writing music for film is very healthy for a composer, because sometimes a composer’s life is very unhealthy – he is closed apart from people, in a quiet place. This is not good! The collaboration with other people who have different ideas is very important. The composer is like an actress who is very beautiful but may not be a great actress. A good director can make her a great actress – and a big star! So, like that I am expecting a good filmmaker to make me a good film composer!

Originally published in Soundtrack! Magazine. Used by permission