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Tôru Takemitsu's November Steps
Steps (1967), biwa and shakuhachi are included as soloists along with
an orchestra of Western instruments. The juxtaposition of these two
groupings of performers from different traditions serves to emphasise
disparities between their two aesthetics and challenges the composer
who, from the Western perspective, seeks to create from these elements
a coherent whole. Takemitsu's strategies both for emphasising
difference and for creating cohesion offer insights relevant to the
theme of this workshop and provide the focus for this lecture.
Tôru Takemitsu's November Steps [Extract Draft]
In one of his most compelling statements about Japanese music, Tôru Takemitsu writes: "Here the role of the performer is not to produce sound but to listen to it, to strive constantly to discover sound in silence" (1995, 84). Intended to convey a fundamental contrast with Western musical practice, these words were originally published in 1971, during the period of Takemitsu's most active engagement with the composition of works involving traditional Japanese instruments. In November Steps (1967), biwa and shakuhachi are included as soloists along with an orchestra of Western instruments. The juxtaposition of these two groupings of performers from different traditions serves to emphasise disparities between their two aesthetics and challenges the composer who, from the Western perspective, seeks to create from these elements a coherent whole. Takemitsu's strategies both for emphasising difference and for creating cohesion offer insights relevant to the theme of this workshop and provide the focus for this lecture.
The organisation of the score of
November Steps gives an immediate sense of the differences between the
treatment of the Western and Japanese instruments. For the former,
Western metrical notation is used (that is, with time signatures and
bar lines), thus ensuring, as far as any notation system can,
synchronisation of sounds according to the conductor's indications and
broad repeatability from one performance to the next. Some elements of
indeterminacy exist, often at the meeting points between solo and
orchestral sections. The mediating role of these elements will be
discussed further below. Pitch is accurately notated, to the extent
that quarter-tones are indicated at bar 55 and the terminal pitches of
glissandi are specified. One departure from precise pitch notation
occurs at cue 7, where triangular note-heads indicate that the
performer should play the highest note possible (Example 1). As
with duration, the exceptional use of pitch indeterminacy in the
orchestral parts provides mediation between the solo and orchestral
[Example 1 – score extract]
The biwa and
shakuhachi parts are written in proportional notation, meaning that
durations are indicated not as subdivisions of a beat, but by graphical
layout on the page (Example 2). The information conveyed here is
entirely relative: apart from one instance at cue 7, the composer has
made no attempt to indicate a reference scale in seconds, or to propose
an overall duration for the non-metrical sections. According to the
composer, the reason for adopting this method lies in the essential
characteristics of the sounds produced by these instruments. Referring
to his work Autumn (1973), also for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra,
Takemitsu explains his use of proportional notation in writing for the
shakuhachi (1989, 210):
Elsewhere, he describes timbre as
arising "during the time in which one is listening to the shifting of
sound" (1987, 10). Thus the temporal element is tied to the dynamic and
unpredictable parameter of timbre, and the composer's capacity for
predetermining duration is limited.
[Example 2 – score extract}
The composer's concession in this respect is not merely pragmatic: it provides an environment in which performer's role as listener, as described in the quotation cited at the beginning of this lecture, may be fully realised. In the absence of any other organising factor, the biwa and shakuhachi players in November Steps must respond to each other's playing; a performance in which each player independently pursues their notated part is not possible. Essential to Takemitsu's notion of the performer as listener is the concept of ma. Literally meaning interval or pause, ma takes on far more elaborate connotations when used as an aesthetic term. In relation to music, Takemitsu describes it as "an unquantifiable metaphysical space (duration) of dynamically tensed absence of sound" (1994, 3). He sees the Japanese sensitivity to ma as a consequence of hearing the extremely complex sounds of traditional instruments: "The sounds of a single stroke of a biwa plectrum or a single breath through the shakuhachi ... are already complete in themselves." Arising from this, as a logical extension, is the perception of ma as "a space made up of infinite inaudible but vibrant sounds, as the equal of individual complex audible sounds" (ibid.).
Most significant in understanding the relevance of this concept to November Steps is the notion of ma as a product of interaction between performers. Referring to the genre of Japanese puppet theatre, bunraku, Takemitsu describes a remarkable process of communication between two performers who behave to some extent as competitors: "…the two differing 'times' of the tayû [narrator] and shamisen player respectively have, while fighting against each other, come together to produce an extraordinary wavering 'time' in which they are neither together nor apart" (1987, 12). He goes on to consider a third participant, the puppeteers: "The shamisen player adjusts his playing to the movements of the puppets, and naturally the tayû follows suit, and in this way a relationship of irregular time, as expressed by words such as iki (literally, breath) and ma is produced" (ibid.).
The three-way communication
described here parallels that in November Steps, where the three
participants may be understood to be biwa, shakuhachi and
conductor/orchestra. Moreover, references to 'irregular' or 'wavering'
time recall Takemitsu's comment in his sleeve notes for the first
recording of November Steps: "Like the music of the Noh theatre, the
rhythm endlessly oscillates" (quoted in Herd 1987, 264).
Herd, J. (1987) . "Change and Continuity in Contemporary Japanese Music: A Search for a National Identity." Ph.D. Thesis, Brown University.
Takemitsu, T. (1987) . "My perception of time in traditional Japanese music." Translated by Steven G. Nelson. Contemporary Music Review, 1 (2) 9–13.
Takemitsu, T. (1989) . "Tôru Takemitsu with Tania Cronin and Hilary Tan." Perspectives of New Music, 27 (2) 206–14.
Takemitsu, T. (1994) . "One Sound." Translated by Hugh de Ferranti. Contemporary Music Review, 8 (2) 3-4.
Takemitsu, T. (1995) . Confronting Silence: Selected Writings. Translated and edited by Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasgow. Fallen Leaf Press, Berkeley.