In memoriam: Tōru Takemitsu – Seasons

by 5:4

An anniversary i wasn’t able to observe due to being engrossed in my Lent series was that of the death of Tōru Takemitsu, who died a little over twenty years ago, on 20 February 1996. i can still remember the day vividly; at the time i was an undergraduate at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and as i was walking to the library someone came rushing over to tell me he had died. It’s fair to say that, among the composers (and also some of the percussionists), the news of Takemitsu’s passing was a profound shock, and the rest of the day felt black and mournful. Just like one of his great sources of inspiration, Olivier Messiaen, no-one sounds like Takemitsu – only an idiot would try to – and few have been able to compose music that so completely and simultaneously embraces austerity and playfulness within a cross-cultural intermingling utterly filled with an innate sense of beauty and wonder. For myself, barely a week goes by when i don’t find myself in the company of his music, and i never, ever experience it as anything less than genuinely miraculous.

Watching Joby Burgess in action during February’s BCMG concert reminded me of how outstanding had been his performance of Takemitsu’s Seasons during last year’s Cheltenham Music Festival. In my review, i described the performance as a “revelation”, and this reflects both the immersive qualities of Burgess’ rendition of the work in addition to the fact that it’s extremely rarely heard. Information about the work is somewhat confused and contradictory. The facts seem to be that, composed in 1970, Seasons was originally for four percussionists, subsequently re-written in versions for either one or two performers with tape, and some sources mention another version without a tape part. This, it seems, is what Burgess performed at Cheltenham, and despite being far from the main piece in the concert, it outshone everything. One can never really adequately explain how music by Takemitsu ‘works’, but there’s something profoundly engrossing in the juxtaposition of elements that fill Seasons, particularly the way the piece passes seamlessly through highly differentiated but interconnected episodes characterised by distinct timbres, registers and above all density. This last aspect is perhaps the most telling; there is, as there almost invariably is in Takemitsu’s music (although this is surely in part a peculiarly occidental response), an air of ritual to the piece, not so much in the reverberant metallic instruments but in the careful placement and deployment of sounds, sometimes clumped together, overlapping, elsewhere dispersed, vaporous even. It’s the quintessential paradox permeating every Takemitsu piece, that it appears on the one hand to be such a gleefully improvised outpouring, yet where not a single note ever feels unconsidered or out of place. Perhaps this fact says something of how Takemitsu regarded the infinite glory of nature and existence: everything, everywhere, matters.

At the time i described Joby Burgess’ performance of Seasons as “spell-binding”, and nearly a year on i still recall it as clearly as the day i learned Takemitsu had died. Of course, all music survives, when their composers have left us, but music like this really lives on.

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