Toru Takemitsu’s I Hear the Water Dreaming

I’ve long been fascinated by the music of Toru Takemitsu, one of those post-War Japanese artists who incorporated Western ideas in music while maintaining a strong sense of Japanese traditions. My first run-in was with November Steps on vinyl, bought when I was in one of those experimental moods I get into in music stores. I loved it, which happens about 50% of the time with those purchases.

This collection, with Patrick Gallois on flute, although largely centered on the theme of water and featuring the flute, shows something of Takemitsu’s range as a composer, and also makes plain the influence of nature on his work – it’s hard not to think of the natural world while listening to these selections.

“I Hear the Water Dreaming” was written for American flautist Paula Robinson in 1987. It’s an episodic, spare piece of music, based on the ideas of water and dreaming; the latter, especially, is a theme that recurs in Takemitsu’s music again and again. The solo flute drifts through the melody – a melody that says in no uncertain terms “twentieth-century avant-garde” – punctuated periodically by the full orchestra, which sometimes comments on, sometimes re-interprets the flute passages. It really is a dreamy piece of music.

Takemitsu did three arrangements for “Toward the Sea,” for alto flute and guitar; for alto flute, harp and orchestra; and for alto flute and harp. It’s another one of those very spare compositions, and again one can’t help but think of water – as Takemitsu said, “meditation and water are welded together,” which seems kind of a strong image for something as insubstantial as meditation and water, but it suits. Something that struck me in this piece, in all three versions, which I’ve found also in the music of Morton Feldman, another of my favorite twentieth-century composers: Takemitsu uses silence to shape the music. A pause becomes a moment for reflection, spaces between the notes seem to somehow mold not only the sound of the piece but the space it inhabits, and at times the sound itself takes on a “different” quality, a guttural tone completely unexpected from a flute. There are variations in the character of these three versions – it’s hard to be understated when you’ve got a full orchestra behind you – but they are remarkably consistent in feel.

“Transcription for Flute and Harp of ‘Le Fils des Etoiles’” is an arrangement of one of Erik Satie’s preludes to the play. I’m not familiar with Satie’s original, but there is something about this transcription that bears the unmistakable mark of the French composer while retaining Takemitsu’s leanness and grace.

“And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind” reflects Takemitsu’s take on the line from Emily Dickinson. This one’s almost a reverie, about dreaming (again) and the movement of air. (There’s a punchline here, but I’m saving it for the end.) Like the other works on this disc, this one’s fairly free-form, the results of constantly changing time signatures.

“Air,” for solo flute, is somewhat of a play on words, being not only a term for “song,” but also the means by which one makes sound with a flute. (That’s the punchline.) It is a somewhat fluid piece, even more so than the others in this collection – it does have the feel of soft, intermittent breezes, revealed through a very spare, almost sculptural melody that once again plays sound against silence to mold not only the music but the space it occupies.

Gallois is very much in tune with this music, and shows some remarkable agility when necessary.

There are notes in English, French and German accompanying the disc, with an essay by Anthony Burton on Takemitu’s writing for the flute, which was extensive, both the traditional Japanese shakuhachi and the Western transverse flute. It’s an excellennt introduction to the composer.

(Deutsche Grammaphon, 2000)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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