Sound is like human life


Toru Takemitsu

A special lecture, given at Sapporo Citizen Hall on June 27th, 1982


Thank you very much for attending to the concert today, on a Sunday afternoon. After the beautiful performance by the conductor Mr. Iwaki and the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, I feel nervous if my speech would totally make it spoiled. I had a request from a planner of “Rondan-magazine” to talk on this stage about what I am thinking currently, although I had been thought over from my lecture experiences, which were not so much, and to tell the truth, I wouldn’t say I like to lecture. I had lectures once or twice. Once, I had to stay awake the night before the lecture to write the script, then I walked out of the stage and read the paper. But it took only 2 or 3 minutes, and the result was not very well or exciting at all. When traveling, I think it better to have no plans as possible. This kind of planless travel gives us more freshness, joy, and surprise at the destination where we go and see. Today, similar to that, I would like to tell you about the things that I always think, maybe in an unorganized way. I would be pleased if you could listen to my speech, my thoughts, music, and so on.

     Maybe, I won’t tell the whole idea, but later, if time allows and someone has a question for a composer, I will answer. Today, the concert program has three of my recent pieces, and the orchestra had already performed two of them, and after this lecture, my newest and large orchestral piece will play. First, I will mention the motivation for my composing, how I do that in such a way and my opinion about the sound of music as a composer.   



     Sound disappears as soon as it borns. That creates the incomparable beauty of music made with many different sounds. However, I think it is wrong that people believe the characteristics of sound are fragile or empty. There are physical strengths or weaknesses of sound, although they are not regulated as tangible. Sound is like human life, repeats ceaseless birth and death, continuing to generate under the universal orders. It appears around us with complex qualities that have been affected by enormous nature. When any sound reaches the human ear as if they are mechanically repeating, such sound has constant different aspects that are affected by time, space, and temperatures in nature. For example, sometimes the human ear hears birds’ chirp repeatedly as the same sound. However, according to a paper of an ornithologist that I read, birds’ chirp never repeats the same way. That piece of information has impressed me very much. Sound constantly appears around us with various faces. If one would not hear and recognize its difference, that’s because of human laziness.    


John Cage, an American composer, said a fascinating thing, and I would like to introduce it. He is a well-known composer and came to perform at my annual music festival “Music Today” in Tokyo, where Mr. Iwaki also performed his new piece. John Cage has used new techniques in his compositions as “Chance” affected by Eastern thoughts such as Japanese Zen, Buddhism, Chinese I Ching as an avant-garde music pioneer in America.

At one point, he had an opportunity to enter an experimentally created “Anechoic chamber.” It is a space made intentionally and physically limiting resonance echoes, suppressing 94% air vibration in a space like a box-space with no echoing. At first, when John Cage entered the anechoic room, he thought that it was probably completely silent and wondered what the complete silence was all about. “Though I had such expectation towards the room, after a while, I could hear two sounds clearly”, he said. Cage was so surprised by the two sounds that he felt strongly. In the beginning, he couldn’t recognize the sound, and soon he found out that one of them was the sound of his heartbeat, and then the other one was the sound of his blood flowing like a torrent in veins of his body. He said that he was so surprised by the experience, and he could reach a philosophical theory, which was that silence would be filled with innumerable sounds. When we imagine what absolute silence is, that would be our death; at the time of death; the space of death as absolute silence. However, when we think of the silence for sound, John Cage said the silence is filled with various sounds, which is a matrix born with various sounds. The essential thing would be how we, humans, independently and actively listen then find sound among the silence. 

     In an ordinary life, it is said that we are in a flood of sounds. We might hear music wherever we go, whether to a department store or a hotel. It seems that our sensitivity to sound is declining in surplus sound. The most important job for a musician, especially for a composer, is actively listening and finding sound with that attitude. You will notice rich sound expressions among usual ordinary sounds that are buried deep inside. That does not mean, that the composer makes music by sound, and the person who listens to it or plays it to hear it, but the composer must first the first audience. That’s what I'm always thinking.




     Today, the conductor Mr. Iwaki, and the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra played two pieces of mine. It may be a little surprising to those who knew my music so far. I guess that because it was made of relatively common sounds such as the musical notes of CDEFGABC under equal temperament, which has been used for over hundred years. I used the ordinary way of music, that is, the way music commonly sings. In my early age of composing, I had found myself very opposed towards the music of our past and created music with such an attitude. Now that I am older, I have continued my music life for more than 30 years; the way of feeling or listening to Beethoven or Mozart has become different from my younger days. I wonder if my understanding of Beethoven or other classical music has deepened as my life goes on. Then I have noticed that something encouraged the new me as a musician among the music of our ancestral composers like Beethoven, Mozart, or Debussy. At the same time, I can call myself a Western composer who writes music categorized as Western modern music. However, they are not just modern Western music that are significant for me, for us humans living in the small world on this planet. The appearance of such music has many faces, and I think Western music is one of them.

     Therefore, I went to Australia to listen to the music of the natives, Aborigines’, Indonesia to the gamelan music in Bali Island, Chinese music, and of course, Japanese traditional shakuhachi or koto. I have noticed a critical thing among those music, which support our lives in challenging times. We are aware that there is something very important in keeping us alive in the future. And that is a remarkable thing for me to think about my music. However, the fact that oriental music is especially important means that various irrational things in the modernization of the West are reasonably cut off from the things that are inconvenient for the modernization of the West. So, I think such recognition would still be important to us.  


     John Cage said again about encountering sound, and I would like to introduce that. He was an expert in music and very famous in the world as an amateur researcher of mushrooms. He told me that mushroom is 90% water, and the time it takes from birth on the ground to death which their shape disappear by rotting, is brief as it were for a moment that compared with our human life. It is fantastic that we encounter mushrooms, which appear beyond trees from the ground, wandering mountains. It is so rare for us to have such a chance. The splendor of mushrooms, the joy of encountering mushrooms, the joy of walking in the mountains, and finding mushrooms that are popping out of the soil behind trees is a really valuable opportunity. And then, it is proper to sound as well. When we encounter mushrooms, he said it exists, but it is not just for mushrooms, but also for sound. For a human, the encounter with sound is more fragile than that with mushrooms. The encounter with sound is a beautiful opportunity. And it happens not by chance, but just by waiting, and actively by ear opening, it happens, I think.     

Let me mention Cage’s episode again. He sent new year cards to his friends with a new year greeting; “HAPPY NEW EAR”. Everyone writes “happy new year” on their cards in English, but by his hand, “year” changes to “ear”; it has the same sound as ear in English. He says happy new ear with the same sound. I dare say it would have a rich “cage” (it means revelation in Japanese, and it has the same sound as Cage) that his saying is very suggestive.




    I would like to move my talk to the piece performed today. The first piece performed by the string orchestra is “A WAY A LONE.” The program note has a column of the interview; it seems to have a misprint. It shows the wrong spelling of “vinegans” or something, but the true one is “FINNEGANS.” For, the title “A WAY A LONE” is named after “FINNEGANS WAKE.” James Joyce, an author in Ireland, wrote the novel, it is just the 100th anniversary of his birth, whose I took that title from the words at the end of the book. The novel “FINNEGANS WAKE” is so difficult to read, even for English speakers, that I am far from understanding it well and deeply. James Joyce brought his imagination into words itself, which are free from the syntax of sentences. I can’t entirely agree with our past musical scheme of musical composing, which treats sound just as function in scheme, forms, and methods only in a name which has been preceding constituted till now. We should be free from the scheme that remained only in name and should look intentionally sound itself again, I think. So, I feel deep respect, interest, and sympathy with the attitude of James Joyce as an author.  


     I have written music name after water, a series of water, “A WAY A LONE” is one of them. And the next piece, “TOWARD THE SEA,” performed by alto-flute and the string orchestra, of course, is one of them. The reason why I particularly like to talk about water. I live in Higashimurayama city of Tokyo, and everyone laughs at the city’s name when I say the name, Higashimurayama. After returned from America, when people asked where I would move, I replied as, to Higashimurayama, and they laughed at me, hahaha. Ken Shimura, a famous comedian, sings “Higashimurayama Ondo (dance),” which made him an honorable citizen. I am not an honorable citizen, just a citizen of Higashimurayama city without an honor. As the lyrics of the song mentioned, “the other side of my garden is Lake Tama,” truly the other side of my garden is Lake Tama, an artificial lake, the reservoir of Murayama, and is the origin of water supply for Tokyo. After I moved one day, archeologists came digging with draining water because they suspected there could be Jomon potteries. At the artificial lake site, I went to see. There was a hole with no water, where all scholars dig or worked. I found out that two villages collapsed to make the artificial lake there. So stone frames and stoves were remaining that were used by people who had lived there. I came to the entrance of the lake. I was surprised by the clean and beautiful stream that was flowing. Initially, there was a stream. After building an artificial lake, the original stream is hidden. We cannot see it and can’t notice it anymore. When I recognized one clean, beautiful stream in the lake, I was moved and touched.

    However, I consider the ocean around us, and various tides are flowing. Each tide flows at a different speed and has a different temperature. I noticed that though we thought of water, ocean, streams that move in different cycles, the music also must have such movements. Because, in our social life, our ordinary working life, there are many different thoughts, ages, genders, races, and colors of skin that create one big society or world or a move. Then, music must sound like a society. So, water is essential for me as a metaphor. That is why I named my music after water.

     At the same time, I myself will use Japanese instruments in composing; when I am using Western instruments with tonal sound CDEFGABC under equal temperament, I treat them from new aspects, with scales or modes spontaneously together. And because the contemporary music is tight, from a different perspective, a social standpoint, I am willing to activate them.  


“A WAY A LONE” was drawn under such intention. The program note says it is performed by flute, harp, and string ensemble, but as you saw or listened, it is performed by an alto-flute, which is 4 degrees lower than a standard flute. “TOWARD THE SEA” performed by alto-flute and harp, initially divided into three parts, the first one’s title is “THE NIGHT,” the second one is “MOBY-DICK” is the white whale, and the third, “CAPE COD”.   

There is a lovely landscape in New England, America, beautiful but full of gray-color, which I prefer. I began to compose this piece by a request from the environmental protection group, Green Peace, which is well known in Japan as they are against hunting whales or claiming that the Japanese treat dolphins in cruelty. Because they asked me to make, I made, and I composed with the feeling that the ocean should revive. However, now the ocean is polluted, so more cleaner and more beautiful ocean should be returning, but human foolishness makes the ocean polluted. Fish seems to have harder life to live, then that fact leads human life harder to live.   

When I started writing with such intention, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, a film director, happened to be shooting a documentary about the Minamata disease in the Minamata region in Kyushu, which is called as “the MINAMATA NO ZU MONOGATARI “(A Story of the Picture of Minamata”), featuring Michiko Ishimura, and a picture made by Iri Maruki. Because their intentions matched with my feelings for the ocean, I used my music to make the piece’s first movement into the movie in today’s form. Indeed, I wrote the second movement of the piece and the third later. 

“DREAMTIME,” which will be performed after this lecture, is literally a dream, as the word says. For indigenous people of Australia, the whole myth of natives is called Dreamtime, and they have another dream of their daily life, not a dream while sleeping, but a dream while awake. I have read many of the myths, when I stayed in Great Island, which is 200kilometers north far from Darwin, Australia, where I could not use any electricity but allowed me to live together and listen to their music. I made music what I felt, but that doesn't mean that I used the songs sung by the indigenous people, the rhythm of the dance of the indigenous people, or anything like that. I made my music with joy and surprise that I have received there.




     Well, that is almost all. I feel sorry that I can’t tell any productive or organizing stories, but please forgive me because I don’t get used to conducting lectures. If someone wants to ask anything from Takemitsu, I have 5 or 6 minutes; please raise your hand or signal to venue staff to bring a microphone to you to ask your questions.


I would like to add one thing. I felt delighted that a planner of Rondan asked me about the enterprise this time. Because this is a chance to work with the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, I accepted this request soon I received. The Sapporo Symphony Orchestra is one of the greatest orchestras. From the standpoint of the world, it is so rare that an orchestra would have so many active musicians, who I have mentioned before. I think that is because Mr. Iwaki, the incredible conductor, trains them and makes music together. And also, the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra has a miraculously warm tone. I have never met an orchestra that performs with such affection to my music. I am touched very much. So then, you, Sapporo citizens who have such an excellent orchestra, should feel very proud of them very much. In Tokyo, there are 8 or 9 professional orchestras. The Sapporo Symphony Orchestra might be better than them. Undoubtedly, it can’t help to say that the music would be better than the others with comparison. The most impressive thing for me with the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra is that the performers are very positive to music. Although technically, they have minor problems comparing to the NHK symphony orchestra, I am afraid to say. Still, it means little in creating music, and technical problems would be improved by time or training. However, an orchestra won’t improve characteristics well. 

Does someone have a question?


     Question 1: After the world war, John Cage or some musicians had done many experiments for music. I think there would be nothing to do now as experimental things. Do you agree?


Answer 1: I disagree with that opinion. Because young Western composers, including John Cage, like Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Luciano Beriot, had an act of treason against their cultural tradition by their war experiences. They were rebellious towards their past music and had repeatedly experimented to find new values through music. The experiments, touching through the other approaches, Oriental cultures or the other thoughts, and acquiring new vitality to revolt against their heritages, like as Picasso found his vitality into the African art. And then, the experiments have continued for a long time, but my music would never have been born through the experiments. At the same time, the experimental spirit should not be overwhelmed to find new values and improve the society better. Because after passing the age of 50, I think my life will end after a while, and I think I had better do just my favorite things. However, we have new technologies, like new computers. It has been many decades since the war when they have never dreamed at that time. Not just used by machines, but by man hands, we need to do experimental trials. It would be a problem to produce just for comfort by computers or synthesizers. I guess the question meant that such experiments produced nothing, after all. I don’t think so. Thanks to such attempts, current music has born through the experiments of John Cage or Boulez. Talking about Debussy, now we are not surprised by listening to music of Debussy. At the early age when his piece was performed for the first time, he was called as a very experimental composer, so was Beethoven. 


Question 2: What kind of music will come in the ’80s?


Answer 2: I don’t prefer the saying like the ’80s, which is called by generations. I don’t think that way because I might not live in the ’90s. But it sounds like a head title of a magazine, right? How the music goes in the ’80s. How will it go? I have no idea. However, music isn’t created just by composers. It isn’t performed just by musicians. Maybe, people like you who asked such questions create the music like that. I think it better if the music which you want comes in the latter half of the ’80s.


Questioner: thank you.


     I felt embarrassed that you responded with thank you to my answer after I said such a thing. I would be delighted that people listen to my music rather than having a lecture. May I be dismissed? 


     Question 3: Especially in contemporary music, there would be a term with no sound. That is “nothing” we can say or “pause”. What do you think about the time which has no sound?


      Answer 3: I don’t think about time which has no sound is nothing. As I mentioned before about the silence, I said that when we listened and find sound, I don’t mean just listening to a C or a D tone on the white key of the piano. I think every single tone has plural aspects. Like cells of animals, they have many movements. In terms of physical acoustic, we can say it is called the colors of tone or overtones. I had a better answer to this question in the point of Japanese traditional music. The nature itself or qualities or aspects of a tone by biwa or shakuhachi are more complex than the Western instrument. Instead, in terms of the ideas of Western music, it might be almost a noise. That is, the sound of biwa or shakuhachi is not simple. It is complex. For example, a sound by flute usually has pure and simple sine curve on its wave of sound, but a sound by shakuhachi in the method, muraiki, which means bold breaths in Japanese, does not have a simple shape of a wave, but a dirty shape. Even though it is one tone, one sound has many movements that constitute one sound.

In Japanese music, to listen to and taste such sound, there are many ma, which means a term has no sound in Japanese. For this purpose, there is ma, the pause. Then the ma or the pause don’t mean a dead time. In terms of tuzumi, it is said very well; The ma creates music rather than having sound by the instrument. For example, a space-time between “pon” and “ton,” which are the sound by tuzumi, our imagination would hear many sounds among such space-time. In contemporary music, as I have mentioned before, turning their scope from European way to un-rational Eastern way of thinking, for example, the music of John Cage has many ma in our way of explanation or has long silence. So, when you are listening to contemporary music, comparing with modern music ever, you might feel that they have surprisingly long pause or term of ma. However, it doesn’t mean that every movement would stop. There would be many sounds during the pause, which you can hear. Depending on people who listen and find the sound, there would be a different way of listening, and according to the way of listening, the sound shows its many expressions. Ma or pause never means a dead time. I am sorry that I cannot answer well. 


     Questioner: As you said now, you have written many masterpieces like “November Steps”, or “Eclipse”, or “Kaidan” in film music, which are composed with affective use of Japanese instruments. Currently, you have composed frequently with Western instruments. 


Answer: Yes. In my work with Japanese instruments, I have only the pieces which you mentioned now. Other than that, I almost always use the Western instruments in my work.


Questioner: After that, I should not distinguish between the Western instruments and the Japanese instruments. It is time to take off the fence between them, I think.


Answer: Yes, I think so too.


Questioner: Each instrument has nature.


Answer: Surely. If shakuhachi is better than flute for me, a flute is not interesting for me, and I won’t write a piece for a flute. I think there would be beauties of a flute. I might be a very simple-minded guy, but it means nothing comparing to their beauties by shakuhachi and flute. As you said, I have no fence between the Western instruments and the Japanese instruments. When we should take away the fence, just people say as they like, we should know where it is. Though there would be a stiff fence, differences, and distance between them. It is significant to know its existence.


Questioner: I think “November steps” a masterpiece, which impressed that Western and Japanese instruments seemed to conflict. I feel very sorry that you don’t write like that recently. I want you to write more.


Answer: Everyone say so. I accept the requests. However, Japanese instruments create an intense world of sound when one sound is born. It seems to contradict my saying before, and it works not okay when I create one imaginary world with such sounds by Japanese instruments. I was scared of the sound itself because it creates its own world, which would exist. I feel as if when a performer of shakuhachi creates one sound with his breath, “hyu,” all my musical notes would be blowing away. Even though, in the action of composing itself as writing musical notes, I think it does not have much meaning. However, for 30 years as a composer, with trying to do the latter half of my life, I compose and write my musical notes. Recently I have made my score which strictly directs the way of performance so that its performers cannot play in the other way. But my experience of using Japanese instruments means a lot to me or my music until now.

 Well, thank you today, I dismiss!


Question 4: Recent composers don’t use a melody. I feel as if the music were drifting in sounds. Won’t an avant-garde composer sing a melody at all?

Answer: My music is full of melodies. I am proud of myself that no composer creates more beautiful melodies than me. Thank you! 





(translated by Saki Ito)

this music
Takemitsu in Sapporo
1. Special Lecture by Takemitsu in 1982, Sapporo
2. Essays and Dialogue by Konuma, Minato
3. Interview with Ueda, Takayama, and Footprints of Takemitsu in Sapporo
4. Special Lecture in English
related events