Next Friday at Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will celebrate the 75th birthday of one of the most individual and iconoclastic composers of the 20th century. Not that Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) is a household name, even in classical-music circles. And it’s hardly simple-minded to ask who exactly he was, since Takemitsu has been assimilated into Western tradition more fully than any other Asian composer. He himself is quoted as saying, “I have recognized my own culture through studying modern Western music,” and “I consider myself self-taught, but I consider Debussy my teacher.” So it wouldn’t be surprising if you thought of him as a composer of Western art music first and as an exemplary Japanese musician second.
It’s a mind set that BMOP music director Gil Rose thinks is understandable but mistaken. “There’s a real inclination to try to see him from Western eyes. But I think that wouldn’t be quite right, because he’s not really a Western composer looking back to his roots. He’s really the model of a contemporary Japanese composer. It wasn’t like he was living in Paris and looking back to Japan for his musical idioms.”
Whatever its sources, Takemitsu’s music has a unique concept of instrumental color. Finely grained dissonances float almost casually through the atmosphere. Nature remained his deepest well of inspiration, as a glance at the titles of his works confirms: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, Garden Rain, How Slow the Wind, Toward the Sea. No wonder Debussy comes up as his primary influence.
Yet France — he also took much from the interrelation of time and sound color in Messiaen — was hardly his only Western source of inspiration. He wrote in a dazzling array of styles, something that becomes apparent, Rose says, if you study his huge number of film scores. “The stylistic variety in the film music is voluminous. You can’t even list all the styles. He never stops anywhere — he just flits around from one idea to another. He wrote music for something like 92 films, and when I started looking through the music, I realized that he was using the film projects as test tubes and proving grounds for ideas that appeared in symphonic or chamber music later. They were really an experiment for him.”
Next Friday, the film music will be represented by Three Film Scores, a short suite published in 1994 that offers a sample of Takemitsu’s range. Then there’s the Requiem for Strings (1957), which Stravinsky praised as a masterpiece of “sustained intensity,” and November Steps (1967). The latter, a commission for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, is one of Takemitsu’s best-known scores, and one of many that uses traditional Japanese instruments, in this case the biwa (a vertical flute) and shakuhachi (a fiddle).
BMOP had planned an all-Takemitsu program, but as Rose explains, “It’s a dangerous business doing a one-composer concert. Even though the variety of the pieces might be substantial, there are very few smallish orchestra pieces.” So they added two memorials: Tan Dun’s Water Concerto (1998) and Kaze-no-Oka (“Hill of the Winds”), which BMOP commissioned from local composer Ken Ueno and which includes parts for biwa and shakuhachi (“We thought they were sort of underutilized coming all the way from Japan”) as well string orchestra, contrabass clarinet, and bass saxophone.
Takemitsu’s diversity is further attested by a story related to Rose by Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston, which is co-sponsoring the event. “Takemitsu was injured at the end of World War II. He was laid up in an army hospital and heard a lot of American military broadcasts. He’d never had any formal musical training, and evidently he told Peter that he learned everything he needed to know about composition from Duke Ellington.
“He had his ears open, this guy. He was really a listener.”
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project presents its “Takemitsu Tribute” next Friday, May 27, at 8 p.m. at Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough Street in Boston. Tickets are $10 to $38. BMOP and the Japan Society of Boston are also hosting a benefit dinner on Wednesday May 25 at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $250, with proceeds to support the concert production. For both events, call (617) 363-0396.