Toru Takemitsu

14 Sep

The following article was written at the request of the board of directors of the Complete Takemitsu Edition, Tetsuo O’Hara, Editor in Chief and published by Shogakukan, Japan in Volume 2 -Instrumental Works Chorale – with the approval of Mrs. Asaka Takemitsu.

” . . . He left from Us!”

Nexus was in Rochester, New York for our 25th anniversary concert when we learned of Toru’s death. I returned home the next day and found messages from his friends awaiting me. A fax from Japan said,

” . . . He left from us . . . Yasunori Yamaguchi ”

I knew then that Toru was gone and I miss him still. Toru had the great gift of making anyone he met feel they were the most important person in the world to him. All the stories told by people who knew him have in essence a consistent theme: a life refulgent with caring.

In 1971 my family and I were living on a farm north of Toronto when I brought Toru home for the first time. As we drove up to the house, my son Bryce, who was about seven years old at the time, was waiting for us on the slope of lawn by our walkway. Toru and Bryce exchanged quiet looks and Toru offered his hand; the first time an adult had ever beckoned my son thus. They shook hands and bowed to each other.

Later that evening when Toru asked the meaning of my son’s name, I couldn’t remember. I simply didn’t know. But the next morning when I picked Toru up for our rehearsal, he said, “Bryce means the center of feeling. I am going to write a piece.” (I felt too stupid to ask how he had uncovered that information between dinner and breakfast.) The result, however, was “Bryce” (1976) for flute, two harps and two percussionists. I think it is one of Toru’s best works. It was dedicated to my son Bryce and written with a commission from the Canada Council for Bob Aitken, flutist, Judy Loman and Erica Goodman, harpists, and John Wyre by now a Nexus colleague, and myself. Toru and Bryce became friends. In the company of adults they would make origami figures together, totally absorbed.

Toru had subtle and sophisticated mannerisms like miniature t’ai chi gestures, that framed his personality. After sitting, he might delicately cross his wrists, palms up on his knees, or extend fully one arm and gently run the downward pointing fingers of the other hand over its length. In conversation he would create a private moment to ponder by tilting his head aside. And his head was his most distinguishing feature.

It seemed large for its underpinnings and the Nehru collared Miyake jackets he came to favor later in life, emphasized its size. He was handsome and photogenic. In front of a camera Toru had a natural sang-froid and when necessary, an actors ability to pose. He never gave a bad photo. Toru wore his hair long and it framed a face as expressive as his music. One of Toru’s smiles was well worth a fourteen-hour Trans-Pacific flight.

I first met Toru when Seiji Ozawa brought him to Toronto in January of 1969 for recordings and performances of Asterism, with pianist Yuji Takahashi, Green, The Dorian Horizon for 17 Strings, and Requiem for String Orchestra. We also rehearsed Coral Island with soprano Mary Morrison but unfortunately did not record it. To play music for Toru and Seiji was a joy. They really heard percussion instruments whereas most conductors and composers only notice their dynamics.

Asterism requires a percussionist to play five small metallic or ceramic bells and I found old telephone bells in a junk shop in Toronto. Toru appreciated my effort and its results. I was so impressed by his concern for sound, I thought to present him with these bells as a going away remembrance gift. I found a small dead tree branch and suspended each bell on a twig with some black rubbery goo – some kind of sealant. I put the whole thing in a gift box. When Toru opened the box, we discovered that the goo had not been strong enough to support the weight of the bells and they had all slid to the bottom of their twigs. They were discombobulated and looking terribly and embarrassingly forlorn. Toru thanked me.

Seiji Ozawa took the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to Japan in March of 1969 and my wife Eleanor and I stayed in a ryokan in Kyoto recommended by Seiji. Our taxi drove into Kyoto late at night and I felt like I was coming home. John Wyre, then Timpanist of the T.S.O., also stayed at this inn. Toru and Asaka traveled down from Tokyo and showed us around Kyoto and Osaka. They always made time for guests.

Toru invited Bob and Marion Aitken, Mary Morrison, John Wyre and myself to perform at the Space Theatre in Osaka for Expo 70. We had programmed a piece I didn’t like and I told Toru I was embarrassed to play it for him or anyone else. Toru said, “The performers job is to make a piece better”.

Iannis Xenakis was there and Cathy Berberian gave a recital during which I heard for the first time one of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza’s. Lukas Foss partnered me with Vinko Globokar in a kind of improvised piece. Vinko had taken his instrument apart and was playing it in every way other than traditionally. In the middle of the performance he motioned for me to give him the bow I was using on a cowbell and bowed the bell of his trombone. All of this was heady stuff for a symphony drummer.

After Expo, Toru brought Yuji Takahashi, Wyre and me to his mountain home in Karuizawa. One day Toru said, “I want to take you to a waterfall.” We took taxis down a winding road and stopped at the edge of a forest. After walking through the woods for a bit we came upon a rock cliff with a pool of water at its base. We looked up to the top of the cliff and saw only ferns. The “falls” was a thin line of water seeping through a crack in the cliff face just inches above the pool. The only sound I remember hearing was Yuji’s gentle laughter.

Some of the guys in Nexus drove to Chicago in 1971 to hear Stomu Yamashita play the solo part in the premier of Toru’s Cassiopeia at Ravinia with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Chicago Symphony. One night we went to a bar where, to Toru’s delight, Bill Cahn introduced him to the drink Black Russian. A friendly conversation developed and gradually, as youthfulness oft times dictates, a gravitas settled in. On leaving the bar we silently crossed the street to the far gutter where Toru stopped and said, “The most difficult thing is to trust yourself”.

We drove back to Toronto whistling orchestral excerpts and singing pop songs in the night. On the way, we stopped in Ann Arbor so Toru could speak with a specialist in Japanese traditional music. Toru opined that when western musicologists applied analytical methods to music that defied analysis – Gagaku – they missed the point. After our visit we resumed our journey and Toru put his head on my shoulder and fell asleep. There aren’t many famous composers who would jump in a car and drive for ten hours after a world premier of their work by a major orchestra just so they could hang out with friends.

There were many people from Toronto and near by who became friends of Toru and his music. When we got back from Chicago my teacher, percussionist and composer Warren Benson, drove up from the Eastman School in Rochester, New York and spent a week with us. I think Toru was genuinely fond of Toronto and its’ musicians. The relationships that had formed in and around the Toronto Symphony during the late sixties lasted until his death. He visited Toronto many times – usually at the invitation of New Music Concerts director Bob Aitken – and Toru invited us to Japan where he arranged concerts, entertained us and took us to special places – bars and temple gardens his favorites.

He was unfailingly polite. He had the ability to make small talk that was both engaging and humorous. He was what we in North America call “a good hang”. Perhaps because it was not his first language, nor his second, which was French, Toru’s English was almost devoid of ambiguities and superfluous ramblings. On almost any subject his opinions could surprise and enlighten me. I once told him I didn’t particularly like Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the acting and the final scene in particular. Toru said he liked the movie because it was about “people communicating with music”.

Toru once asked me to recommend to him an LP that he could take home to his daughter Maki. Something modern, ‘new pop or rock’, I think he said. I suggested he get Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys. He did and said Marie was beautiful. I’ve since wondered, but always failed to ask, if Maki liked the music.

Toru loved his country; particularly it’s most refined traditions. He always expressed delight with our world’s diversity and sadness at the passing of unique cultural traditions from which he believed other people could learn important lessons. Toru was not interested in merging cultures. On the contrary, he wanted every culture to retain its unique characteristics as parables for the enlightenment of all. He wanted peace but valued individuality above uniformity, principle above compromise. He expressed ambivalence about his November Steps; a blend of western orchestra and traditional Japanese instruments that some people saw as a bridge between East and West and a template for a world music.

My wife and I flew to New York in July 1988 for four days of concerts at the Japan Society by Toru’s ensemble Sound Space ARK. Many of the performers who had been faithful to new music in Japan were there. Flutist Hiroshi Koizumi and harpist Ayako Shinozaki – with whom I had performed Bryce in Japan – pianist Aki Takahashi and percussionist Yasunori Yamaguchi who played, along with Nexus, Jo Kondo and Toshi Ichiyanagi, Cage’s First Construction in Metal in Japan in 1976. It was a wonderful week, an historical perspective of Japanese music performed at the highest level. Toru invited the Kavafian sisters and Fred Sherry as well as the composer Bonita Marcus. Yasunori’s solo Time of Celestial garnered the longest and warmest applause of the week and made my percussionist’s heart glow.

During Nexus’ first visit to Japan in 1976, Toru traveled with us as our announcer and autographed his books for crowds of young people who invariably gathered back stage after our concerts. We made two more trips to Japan under Toru’s patronage (1984 and 1988). But the trip I remember most was in 1991 when the New Japan Philharmonic engaged us to play the Japanese premier of a piece Toru had written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, Carnegie Hall and Nexus, “From me flows what you call Time”. [1990] (The ‘me’ in From me flows what you call Time, refers to Carnegie Hall not to Toru.)

The Japanese premiere was obviously very important to Toru. We had given the world premiere in New York a year earlier but this was Toru’s hometown and Seiji was conducting before a sold out Suntory Hall filled with business and artistic persons of influence. Walter Homburger, a good friend of both Toru and Seiji and former manager of the Toronto Symphony, had flown in from Vienna after adjudicating a conducting competition and Henry Vogel, manager of the Chicago Symphony, was present. A friend had suggested I procure tickets for Mr. Koichi Ayaki, a vice president of Higa Industries, and he and his family was seated center hall directly behind Mr. Keizo Saji. Mr. Saji was the Chairman of the Board of Suntory Limited, the company that built Suntory Hall and whose financial gift had enabled Carnegie Hall to commission Toru’s work.

After the performance, Toru came to our dressing room and, as I was still smoking at the time, asked if he could have a cigarette. We left to find another room. Toru paced back and forth telling me how important tonight’s concert was and asked me not tell his wife Asaka that he had had a cigarette. (He had told Asaka he had stopped smoking.) We really enjoyed that smoke but I had never seen Toru so nervous. He knew that Henry Vogel was in the audience and said he would speak to him about bringing the piece to Chicago.

Mr. Saji invited us to a post concert reception in the Suntory penthouse and as we gathered in the lobby prior to our ascent, Toru leaned forward and said, “This is important. Mr. Saji is a very important man.” Nexus can be a rather irreverent bunch and Toru knew us well.

From me flows what you call Time was Toru’s greatest musical gift to Nexus. It is a success with audiences of every age and taste and it brought Nexus to the stages of the world’s greatest orchestras. In the quiet harmonic richness of Toru’s orchestration, audiences can hear the complex and beautiful sounds of percussion instruments as percussionists hear them in the solitude of their rehearsal rooms. We have performed From me flows what you call Time over 70 times.

Toru’s absence was palpable when we finally played his work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach in 2000. He was missed even more in 2001 when we played it again with Seiji and the Boston Symphony. Seiji has a way with Toru’s music that is very special. Asaka and Maki flew over from Tokyo for the last performance and Seiji treated us to a splendid meal with wines at one of his favorite restaurants near Symphony Hall.

The last time I saw Toru was in Tokyo in February of 1995. We were on a tour arranged by a Japanese management company and Toru came to one of our concerts. He also attended a party given us by local percussionists and as we were saying our good buys he said a new concert hall was going up not far from where we were and he was the music director. We discussed commissions for new works for Nexus and agreed that Jo Kondo should be asked to write a piece. Toru looked ill and I told him to take care of himself.

Feb. 22, 95
Dear Robin,
My new piece for N. Y. Phil. -[Family Tree]- will be performed: Thursday, April 20 at 8:00 P.M. Friday, April 21 at 2:00 P.M., Saturday, at 8:00 P.M. conducted by Leonard Slatkin. . . Your commissioning of Jo Kondo is very nice, I think. Our new hall -[Tokyo Opera City]- will be opened in September ’97. Now we are making plan for the opening. Please give my best to Eleanor and your wonderful family. Lots of love from Asaka to all of you.

April 2, ’95
Dear Asaka and Maki,
Eleanor and I have heard of Toru’s illness and hospitalization. . .

May 13,’95
Dear Robin and Eleanor,
Thank you very much for your warm letter. I’m still in the hospital but I’m very fine. . . . I’ve been in the bed already for 40 days so now I’m planning to compose an orchestra piece called “Awakening”. Please give my best to my friends of Nexus. I hope to seeing you soon. Lots of Love,

July 12, ’95
Dear Robin,
. . . My illness is getting better every day. I think I’ll be home in September. Of course I’ll change my way of life after that. I’d like to spend time with my good friends and enjoy them. Some time I really love to come to Toronto again. Love,

Oct. 20, ’95
Dear Robin and Eleanor,
How are you?
I’ve finally got back home since April. It’s really wonderful. Air is sweet even in Tokyo. I hope I am completely recovered though hard to walk. . . . I am very happy to learn that you were getting be grand parent. Congratulations! While I was in the hospital your kind words encouraged me very much. I don’t know how to express my gratitude. I don’t know when we could meet again yet. I hope it comes soon. . . .Love,
Toru Takemitsu

Nov, 13, ’95
Dear Robin and Eleanor,
I hope this card find you and your family well. My health condition is not perfect but recovering day by day. I’ve already started composing. I’ve just finished 3 guitar pieces -[In the Woods]- as a warm up. Now I and Asaka are staying in the mountain house. It is already cold but full of fresh air and beautiful autumnal which refresh us very much. When shall we meet next? I hope it comes soon. Much Love,
Toru Takemitsu

Toru reentered the hospital and on December 24th, A group of friends and I called Tokyo from Toronto and spoke to Toru in his hospital room. He had already composed Air -[1995]-for solo flute and sounded wonderful.

Jan. 8, ’96
. . . Toru Takemitsu is getting better now we’ll play mah-jongg at his house next week.
Yasunori Yamaguchi

Feb. 14,’96
Dear Robin,
. . . for next a couple of months, it is impossible for Toru to express by his own words how happy he was receiving the Glenn Gould Prize. . . . I will keep you in touch with the conditions of Toru. With best regards,
Nanako Ikefuji (President Schott Japan)

Feb. 20,’96
To Robin
Sad News!
He left from Us!
on 1:00 P.M. Feb 20.
Yasunori Yamaguchi

Jo finished writing Nocturnal in July 1997 with funds from Higa Industries and we gave the premiere on October 7th during the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall: Takemitsu Memorial opening weeks of concerts. It was written for Nexus as a memory of Toru and in his note Jo wrote, “Among other things, Nocturnal refers to nighttime, when borders become indefinite: borders between things, between categories, and between this world and the other world.

“My music is like a garden”

“You find the path –
then find the stone
and then the tree,”
a manner gentle
in these three
in Toru’s garden.

But now the gardener’s gone,
Soft spirit free –
The flowers
Ask our pardon.

Warren Benson, Rochester, New York 2/20/96

Toru had been planning to come to the United States in April 1995 for the world premiere of his Family Tree by The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Slatkin and to collect the Grawemeyer Prize in Louisville, Kentucky.

Copyright © Robin Engelman, Toronto, 14 September 2002

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 14, 2002 in Articles, Composers


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: