Toru Takemitsu’s Eucalypts II

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Modern Music Matinee: Maverick Asian Voices
Saturday, 12 October 2019 @ 3:00pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall


Contributed by Wen Liang (BMUS3, YST) & Tze Shiuan (BMUS3, YST)

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was a leading Japanese 20th century composer. Besides composing hundreds of musical works, he also scored over 90 films and published 20 books, which have attracted worldwide acclaim and attention. A self-taught composer, Takemitsu’s music harnesses a unique sound brought about by his intricate timbral manipulations.

Takemitsu’s first ground-breaking success was in 1958 when Igor Stravinsky happened to hear Takemitsu’s Requiem for string orchestra. Interestingly, this was a chance encounter; the Japanese NHK radio station had put on Takemitsu’s piece by mistake but instead of changing it to the originally intended piece of music, Stravinsky requested to listen to the entire piece. Stravinsky praised Takemitsu’s music as “sincere and passionate”, and the two forged a lifelong friendship which helped pave the way for Takemitsu on the international stage.

The 1970s were a defining time period for Takemitsu’s musical output. Already recognized as a leading member of the international vanguard, he began to write works with extended techniques, that is, going beyond convention in employing all the sounds of the instruments. Eucalyptus I was written for three of the most outstanding virtuosos of the moment – Aurele Nicolet, Heinz Holliger and Ursula Holliger – next to a string orchestra. Eucalyptus II picks up materials from that work and dispenses with the orchestra, in a certain way parallel, albeit inverse, to the expansion of the Sequenzas for larger groups made by Berio.

Fusion of East and West

Takemitsu was widely known for combining his Japanese musical heritage with Western musical thought, even though he was conflicted by their differing ideologies. In his first collected book of essays (Oto, chinmoku to hakariaeru hodoni) he wrote:

“…I must nurture within my own sensibility two dissimilar musics, Japanese and Western, which have grown from two different systems of original sonic phenomena.”

He continues to describe the disparity in the music and in his work as an intensifying internal conflict which fails to resolve.  Despite the challenges, Takemitsu found novel ways to approach and address this problem. In Eucalypts II, the dense and dissonant polyphonic texture gives an impression of ‘atonality’. However, upon closer inspection, the harmony is built upon modal derivations, the octatonic and whole tone scale, and a 7-33 (Forte) pitch class set. This represents his Western influences, which include Messiaen and the serialists Schoenberg and Webern. This polyphonic texture is also derived from independent simultaneous lines – a feature which he observed in traditional Japanese music. In his essay “My perception of time in traditional Japanese music” he wrote:

“the great majority of Japan’s traditional music possess their own unique time structures in which two or more “times” overlap and penetrate each other.” 

Addressing the impetus behind Eucalypts II, Takemitsu wrote:

“I am fascinated by the distribution of flora on Earth, especially trees. The distribution of the Australian eucalyptus, for example, is unique. My interest began when, to my surprise, I learned that a species can only grow in a limited area. Outside it, crossing the sea develops subspecies and eventually takes a different form and growth pattern from the original. The story is similar to that of the Jewish Diaspora. In general, the subject of acculturation really interests me.”

For him, the trees represent the Western-type composer who stands out from his surroundings as a unique figure. This is opposed to grass, which embodies traditional music, where no author stands out over another. He also believed that there was transportable and non-transportable music. The latter refers to music needing to belong to a specific culture in order to be appreciated and enjoyed. The former refers to music that has been universalized.

This meeting of East and West continued to be apparent in Takemitsu’s music, especially in the works following Eucalypts like Voice, where explicit instruction such as ‘strong accent without tonguing as Japanese Noh flute’ is given to imitate Japanese music.

Categories Compositions

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