Mark Laporta on Takemitsu: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden

A wildly prolific composer of works in nearly every medium of Western music, Toru Takemitsu achieved more in his sixty-six years than many a composer could during a much longer lifespan. But unlike Carl Czerny, Camille Saint-Saens or, for that matter, Darius Milhaud, his output was not the result of a musicorrhea that led to hundreds of carbon-copy, forgettable works.

Instead, though each piece shares several distinctive traits, it also sounds like a fresh exploration of a few core trains of thought. That makes sense historically, in that Takemitsu lived at the tail end of what was is quaintly named an “experimental music” era. Although I understand the intent, to reconsider the very definition of Western music, what strikes me funny is the immature way the movement insisted on calling attention to a basic function of every creative act.

That is, I can’t think of a single composer worth mentioning who didn’t tamper, tinker, rejigger, realign, explore, innovate and strike out for passages unknown. They did it as a matter of course, with no expectation of receiving a merit badge. Yet for me the ultimate irony of this term is how quickly it slipped into a set of rigid protocols. Hence in the first few measures of many of his works you can hear tropes exploited by other composers.

It’s the same phenomenon I encountered during nearly thirty years in advertising. One is encouraged to “think outside the box,” as long as that thinking is pulled directly from the “outside-the-box” box. Real revolutions that don’t conform to the revolution template are subject to stern rebuke.

But if Takemitsu briefly held the aspiration to “experiment,” it’s clear from his voluminous output that he shook off the pompous trappings of High Modernism early on. And, as exemplified by “A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden” (1977), whatever he absorbed from his fellow experimenters he synthesized in a fresh, memorable way.

Although I suppose that “Garden” qualifies as a “middle period” work chronologically, I’m not sure the composer’s evolution necessarily fell into neat stages. He seems instead to have followed his nose. His music changed as his interests changed. And yet, after surveying several of his pieces, it’s safe to say he worked within a sound ideal he formulated fairly early on. Whether this or that piece has more “influence from Japanese music,” appears to me to be a matter of far less concern than the attempt to create in integrated sound world out of a disparate set of acoustical elements.

Another common thread is Takemitsu’s rhythm. His music seems to float or, like the imaginary birds in his title, to alight only briefly before taking off again. In “Garden,” he achieves part of that feeling with sustained chords of fairly complex sonority that shimmer a bit, due to tiny changes in their make up over time. And, blessedly, for a composer with an interest in indigenous traditions, no fatuous quotations from “folk music” intrude on the work’s effortless, twelve-minute motion.

Yet the piece is not without clichés of its own. The brass build-up/cross fade to strings/fade out at the end is tantamount to the late-20th century’s V-I cadence. Otherwise, the eye-roll count is relatively low in this regard. And at least, if there are a few too many “chords dissolving into the mist,” pizzicatos emerging against a soupy background or, everybody’s favorite, the big, monster brass chord, they are merely passing lapses.

Regarding the latter, while it’s tempting for a composer with a large orchestra to “go big,” it’s fairly obvious that an authentic musical climax must result from an accumulation of smaller tensions over time. A big blast that isn’t earned is either a tantrum or an item on a fastidious composer’s checklist that he or she is impatient to check off.




But allowing for differences in taste, there’s much more to enjoy and admire in “Garden” than to gripe about. Chief among these is the evident modesty of the work and, by-and-large, its expression of genuine emotion. For while Takemitsu isn’t above at touch of sensationalism here and there, “Garden” proceeds with a welcome seriousness of purpose. Welcome, in the sense that, from the first few gestures, there seems to be a good reason to listen on. The man had something in mind, though for the life of me, I don’t see how it could have been a flock of birds.

Rather, aside from what might be a few instances of superficial word-painting, the title seems more appropriately a loose metaphor. On the other hand, a detailed online analysis that I stumbled on works hard to disabuse me of that delusion and includes several interesting biographical details which, if true, confirm what the music tells us: The composer was a contemplative soul, very sensitive to nuance, open to influence and, essentially, “a poet.”

Yet whether a pentatonic scale determines much of the music seems irrelevant, in the sense that, if that’s what you’re thinking about while listening, you’re missing the music altogether. For me, the core of the piece is its mood, tone and “sonic envelope” for lack of a less deplorable term. It is the ebb and flow of sound densities and, as I’ve already mentioned, the artful floating sensation. In that sense, a more appropriate title might be “Delicate Hot Air Balloon Ascending.”

In the end, for my money, the real antecedent to this work is not a series of obscure biographical details, but Debussy’s “Jeux.” The unacknowledged lessons that countless card-carrying Modernists have taken from Debussy’s late ballet are legion, for all that they are consistently buried under the ballet’s titillating subject matter. “Garden” is another example of Debussy’s profound influence, down to the very premise of the work’s moment-to-moment continuity.

Far more than any ideology, philosophy, “experiment,” or dreamscape, it’s the idea that musical form is not necessarily a function of codified repetitions, even in the guise of Lisztian transformation. Instead, musical form, like human emotion and sensory input, can be associative and, paradoxically, clearer for being vague in a very specific way.

From the outset, the prevalence of sustained notes, against which wails a plaintive oboe, sets the pace for a work that rarely rises above the level of a hoarse whisper, especially as it progresses. And progress it does. For if the logic is associative, it is still based on logical connections — as difficult as it might be to pin them down. On a simpler level, the oboe in this piece functions a bit like the clarinet toward the beginning of Bartók’s politically incorrect “Miraculous Mandarin,” almost like a narrator.

Yet it soon relinquishes that role as other instruments and, really, sound-complexes take precedence.

Silence also factors in as a structural determinant, defining the end of one mood and the start of another.

That is, until the oboe returns, now surrounded and amplified by a more intricate environment, including a harp-flute doubling that feels like a direct lift from “Jeux,” not that it matters. From that point on, Takemitsu’s own ear dominates, to create a sensitive flickering that no amount of ideology, nor thumbing through an orchestration handbook could produce. That’s because, it’s more than orchestration, but a way of hearing, thinking and feeling.

And there, I believe, is where the composer’s significance rests: in his ability to combine sound, intellect and emotion in a seamless, shimmering array of sensations for which the word “music,” while still apt, also feels inadequate. “Garden,” is something different — a window into a worldview in the process of formation.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.