Composer Tōru Takemitsu
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Tōru Takemitsu (武満 徹) was born
in Tokyo on October 8, 1930. He began attending the Keika Junior High School
in 1943 and resolved to become a composer at the age of sixteen.
During the post-war years, he came into contact with Western music through
radio broadcasts by the American occupying forces – not only jazz, but especially
classical music by Debussy and Copland and even by Schoenberg. He made
his debut at the age of twenty with a piano piece Lento in
Although Takemitsu was essentially a self-taught composer, he nevertheless
sought contact with outstanding teachers: Toshi Ichiyanagi acquainted the
composer with the European avant-garde of Messiaen, Nono, und Stockhausen
(shown together in photo at right), and Fumio Hayasaka introduced
Takemitsu to the world of film music and forged contacts to the film director
Akira Kurosawa for whom Takemitsu produced several scores to film plots.
Alongside his musical studies, Takemitsu also took a great interest in
other art forms including modern painting, theatre, film and literature
(especially lyric poetry). His cultural-philosophical knowledge was acquired
through a lively exchange of ideas with Yasuji Kiyose paired with his own
In 1951, the group “Experimental Workshop” was co-founded by Takemitsu,
other composers and representatives from a variety of artistic fields; this
was a mixed media group whose avant-garde multimedia activities soon caused
Takemitsu taught composition at Yale University and received numerous
invitations for visiting professorships from universities in the USA, Canada
He died in Tokyo on February 20, 1996.
In March of 1990, Tōru Takemitsu was in Chicago for the premiere of
his new work Visions. It had been commissioned by the Chicago
Symphony, and the performance was later issued on CD, along with works
by Elliott Carter and
Luciano Berio, all conducted
by Daniel Barenboim.
[Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]
It was an especially busy time for the composer, but he graciously agreed
to meet with me at his hotel for an interview a couple of days before the
His English was not bad, but I could see a bit of frustration when he
was not able to express his ideas as freely as he would have liked. In
any event, he considered his words carefully, and even though his construction
was awkward, what he was saying was clear. In this presentation,
without altering his meanings in any way, I have straightened out the structure
so that readers will understand him as well as I did both then and now.
Bruce Duffie: I assume you receive many, many
Tōru Takemitsu: Yes.
BD: How do you decide which ones you will accept
and which ones you will turn aside?
Takemitsu: It depends on the orchestra, and it
depends on the musicians who I love and admire. The Chicago Symphony
is now so very famous, the world’s best orchestra I know. I have
heard many performances through discs, but once, quite a long time ago,
I have heard their live performance in Chicago. So, why not accept
this commission? I am very honored to be selected as one of the composers
writing music for Chicago Symphony centennial.
BD: The piece is entitled Visions, and
yet it is something purely for the ear. How do you reconcile these
Takemitsu: I decided on the title Visions
because when I was asked to write this for Chicago Symphony, I had some
beautiful memories of Chicago. I have very bad chronological memories,
so I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but
I think around ’68, on my way back from Toronto.
I really love to visit Chicago, and I was supposed to stay just one
day. But after I had arrived here, the airport was closed because
of a snowstorm, a blizzard, so I had to stick around for one week. [Both
laugh] But it was very good for me, fortunately because I visited
the Art Institute of Chicago, and I saw many beautiful paintings. It
was especially good when someone showed me an original lithograph of Odilon
Redon, the French painter. I was so impressed with that lithograph,
so when I received the invitation from the Chicago Symphony, suddenly I was
reminded of this experience. I really wanted to write something about
Redon, and then I wrote Visions. The work is actually in two
parts, and each one has Redon’s name of a painting. One part is called
Mystère [Mystery], and the other piece is called Les yeux
clos, which means Eyes Closed. [He apologized for his awkward
English, and I reassured him that I understood what he was trying to say.]
BD: As with your music, you are bringing your ideas
across very well. Do you have any trouble expressing your musical
ideas, which are contained in your heart and in your mind, through the paper,
and then through the other musicians?
Takemitsu: It’s a very hard question. Always,
when I compose music, I need some concrete interpreters, so I can’t compose
music for someone in an abstract sense. Every time I write music,
especially chamber music, I always imagine some specific musicians.
This time it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. An orchestra has
many functions, and so many different musicians. There are almost
one hundred different people, and they may have different thoughts, different
ideas, different time cycles of life. However, this time, Daniel Barenboim
will conduct my piece. I don’t know him personally well, but I know
his music very well for quite a long time. And, of course, I know
the brilliant sound from Chicago Symphony Orchestra. My music is
sometimes very calm, and not like a golden brass sound, so it was, for me,
quite a challenge to write a piece for this orchestra, and especially the
brass section. I love the brass section, but it is quite different from
my music. So, I expected very much to expand myself by the Chicago Symphony.
BD: You let your ideas be molded by the possibilities
of our orchestra?
Takemitsu: Yes. Now, I’m getting so nervous
because I did so many new things in the orchestration. I used many
low instruments including contrabass clarinet, bass flute, bass trumpet...
BD: [Sneaking in my own background] Contrabassoon?
Takemitsu: [Smiles] Contrabassoon, of course,
and some brass chorus playing forte. Mostly my music is pianissimo,
not forte, but this time I used many fortes.
BD: Does this reflect the loudness of the orchestra,
or just the loudness of the city of Chicago?
Takemitsu: No, it’s the influence of the Chicago
Symphony, but a very gentle forte, I think.
BD: When you’re writing a piece of music, and
you’re putting the ideas down on paper, are you always controlling the
pencil and the notes that go on the paper, or are there times when the pencil
is controlling your hand?
Takemitsu: [Laughs] Oh, I’m mostly erasing,
using the eraser.
BD: You are finding better ways to express your
Takemitsu: I don’t know. When I was young,
sometimes I could see some inspiration between myself and the pencil. Some
inspiration came, and the pencil would run, which was a treat. But
now as I’m getting older, unfortunately, the inspirations do not visit
BD: Then do you rely more on your technique?
Takemitsu: I rely on my experience, although it’s
not good. Music should be sensual. I mean, of course, some
musical knowledge and technique is very important, but I really love to have
something from a medium. I don’t like to use the word ‘heaven’,
but maybe some voices from there help me.
BD: You are the medium from Heaven?
Takemitsu: Through my body, yes.
BD: And then your music goes through the pencil?
Takemitsu: Yes. Through my pencil.
BD: And then to the audience?
Takemitsu: Sure. I think composers should
be listeners first. Of course, composers like composing music, but
composers should be first listeners. When I listen to something new,
I like to always train my own imagination to be young. I love doing
BD: You bring the rich Japanese tradition and
ideas into your music, and you’re combining that with Western styles.
Are you making a soup where they are blended, or are you making a
multicourse meal where everything is distinct?
Takemitsu: I have tried to do some blending between
East and West. I am using the Western conventional instruments,
the Western orchestra, but at the same time I admire my own tradition. I
really love to write something Japanese, but it’s very hard to blend each
to the other at once. I have tried many times, but I fear there is
some contradiction in the sense of timing, and sense of color, and sense
of space. There are some essential differences. I'm a Japanese,
but my daily life is just like yours. I wear Western clothes, and
I eat sandwiches and beef steak, but still, I feel there is some difference.
Maybe the younger generations in Japan haven’t got
feelings like mine. They can provide blending of the East and West.
They are able to combine. When I decided to be a composer, it was just
after the Second World War. At that time, I hate everything from Japan
because of the war. During the war, we had very sad times, especially
musical. The Japanese government said very stupid ideas, and mostly
never permitted us to listen to Western music. So, I was real thirsty
to listen to Western music. Then, just after the war, I decided to
be a composer, but I wanted to be a Western composer. I didn’t like
all the Japanese traditions. I didn’t know anything, and I didn’t
want to study my own traditional music. But ten years later, after
I had studied Western music, I have realized the importance of my own traditions.
Then my way became very difficult to be composer, but still I dreamt
to be a good Western composer. I don’t know whether I am a good Japanese
composer or a bad Japanese composer, but I am Japanese composer. I
really want to express something good in a Japanese way. I use the
Western conventional orchestra, but it’s still very difficult.
BD: Are you pleased with what you have come up with
in your music?
Takemitsu: I like some of my own pieces, but I have
never been really satisfied with my music. I think I am still a student.
You have a long tradition of your Western music. I have a long
tradition of Japanese music, but Western music is more than that. We
have just 400 years now. You have more than 600 years. Still,
I’m on my way to be a composer and to be great or good. I would like
to be great, but it’s okay if I’m only good.
BD: Does it please you that your music has traveled
around the world through performances and recordings?
Takemitsu: Yes. Fortunately, yes. Very
much. I am very happy.
BD: Are you basically pleased with the performances
that you hear either in the live concerts or on the recordings?
Takemitsu: Oh, I love live concert. Of course,
the recording sessions are very good as documents, but musical performance
is like social activity. An orchestra is like a society. Sometimes
a composer’s life is very unhealthy, because I am sticking on chair for
a long time and facing just five-line music paper. Sometimes I need
a place to hide away, to be isolated.
BD: To hide from the outside world?
Takemitsu: Yes, but not from other composers.
That would be very selfish, very egotistical. But when a piece
is played by the orchestra or by other musicians, we have some collaboration,
and this is very, very good. For me, it’s very
important to meet other musicians who have different ideas from you. It’s
very good. They suggest things to me very much. It evokes me very
BD: You get your ideas from all over the place?
BD: Are you ever surprised with some of the ideas
you come up with?
Takemitsu: Oh yes, sometimes.
* * *
BD: What do you expect of the audience, if anything
at all, that comes to hear your music?
My music is not just for entertainment. Sometimes, or mostly, people
don’t like my music, but I hope that they sometimes love my music. They
sometimes do love my music. I hope, when the audience listens to
my music, and after listening to my music, they would change just little
bit from before. Then I am very happy.
BD: Change their ideas of life?
Takemitsu: Yes. It’s okay to say anything about
it. I do not need the world to change, but this means they go away
not the same as they were. It can be a Japanese or Western orchestra.
This impression is very good, when someone writes music even in
this difficult society. Even when one writes such stupid music, this
is very good. It means someone is doing music. This recognition
is very important. Artistic music is very much decreasing. Now,
what we call music might be any pop music, and not classical music. But
I’m doing Western classical music. Why am I doing classical music?
After listening to my music, someone thought this is very good.
BD: Do you have some advice for other
Takemitsu: I don’t teach at all. I have
no students at all, but I really love to talk with young musicians, young
composers. I am very curious to know what’s happening
in the younger generation.
BD: So, rather than advise them, you
learn from them?
Takemitsu: Yes, I learn from them.
BD: [Gently pressing the point] What can
they learn from you?
Takemitsu: I don’t know.
BD: Perhaps, just when listening to your music
they will learn?
Takemitsu: I think so. I hope so.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of music?
Takemitsu: Sometimes I am optimistic, but other times
I’m getting so pessimistic because now it’s very difficult
to write orchestral pieces because of situation of the orchestra today.
Economically, they have many big problems. Many young composers
want to write for the orchestra, but it’s quite rare to be performed.
Many, many, many in the audience have left the new music, contemporary
music, and this is the fault of the composers. In the ’50s
and ’60s, new music was getting so intellectual. Of
course, some think it’s very good, but most of them are too intellectual,
and most of the time they are using the blackboard for instruction. So,
it’s not good. They have left the real joy and sensuality out of
their music. The mathematical way to construct music is quite good,
and has helped, but music is not mathematics. Music is for the imagination.
Now, many composers recognize the efforts from the ’50s
and ’60s. Now, we are not afraid to use atonality,
twelve-tone, and electronics. We can use everything. We can combine
them together in some eclectic way of composing which makes good sense.
Many composers are doing that, and I think it’s
good, but some music is getting written just for entertainment, and just
BD: That’s too far the other way?
Takemitsu: Too far the other way. It’s very,
very different, I think.
BD: Then where is the balance between the sensuality
and the intellectual stimulation?
Takemitsu: I would like to know that! [Both laugh]
We, the artistic composers, should think about the existence of
human beings in this world today through music. As a composer, I am
always thinking about relation between nature and music, nature and arts,
and my music is very much influenced from nature. Now, our atmosphere,
the environment is getting to be very worse, and beautiful nature is losing.
The environment is damaged. I wrote a piece called Toward
the Sea, for flute and guitar. It was commissioned by Greenpeace
and written for the Save Whales Campaign. The titles of my music are
mostly related to the nature, garden, rain, water.
Takemitsu: Winter, of course. It’s important.
|Toward the Sea (海へ, Umi
e) is a work by the Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu, commissioned
by Greenpeace for the Save the Whales campaign.
Towards the Sea exists in three separate versions:
- The first, composed in 1981 for alto flute and guitar
- The second, also composed in 1981, is for alto flute, harp
and string orchestra
- The third, written in 1989, is for alto flute and harp without
Each version lasts around eleven minutes. There are numerous recordings
of each version.
The work is divided into three sections—The Night, Moby-Dick, and
Cape Cod. These titles are in reference to Melville's novel Moby Dick,
or The Whale. The composer wished to emphasize the spiritual dimension
of the book, quoting the passage, "meditation and water are wedded together".
He also said that, "The music is a homage to the sea which creates all
things and a sketch for the sea of tonality"; Toward the Sea was written
at a time when Takemitsu was increasingly returning to tonality after a period
of experimental composition.
Most of the work is written in free time, with no bar lines (except
in the second version, to facilitate conducting). In each version, the
flute has the primary melodic line, based in part on a motif spelling "sea"
in German musical notation: E♭–E–A (S-E-A) shown above. This motif reappeared
in several of Takemitsu's later works.
BD: Despite all this, is composing fun?
Takemitsu: Sometimes it is difficult, but I love composing.
While I’m composing, I’m very happy.
BD: Are you also happy when you hear the finished
product being performed?
BD: Have you conducted some of your music, or
do you always leave that to others?
Takemitsu: I never conduct.
BD: Do the conductors or performers ever find things
in your scores that you didn’t know you had hidden there?
Oh, yes. Some conductors interpret beautifully, even more than I
expect. It’s very good. It’s the real joy of music for me.
I didn’t realize the importance of the conductor’s role, but now I have many
experiences with conductors who perform my pieces. When my piece is
performed by a different conductor, musically each one is different. Each
one has changed every time, and this changing is very interesting. I
BD: Do they ever change it in a way you don’t
Takemitsu: Sometimes, but that’s my fault. It’s
BD: You have to be more clear in your directions?
Takemitsu: I don’t want to fix it 100%. I’m
not a perfectionist. I like to leave some room for the musicians,
the interpreters. I need their help. My music is always changing,
like the landscape, the scenario, a garden. Yes, there’s much variety
of performances, which is very interesting. At the same time, it’s
very important for me. It evokes me to walk the next step.
BD: Thank you for being a composer, and thank
you for coming to Chicago.
Takemitsu: Thank you very much. I’m very
honored to be invited here.
BD: I look forward to hearing this new piece.
Takemitsu: I hope you like it.
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 6, 1990.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that day, and again
in October of 1990, 1995, and 2000. This transcription
was made in 2020, and posted on this website
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was
Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its
final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various
magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues
his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as
well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information
about his work, including selected transcripts
of other interviews, plus a full list of
his guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.