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20 years after his death, Toru Takemitsu still sending signals in his music

In a short meditation about nature and time that Toru Takemitsu wrote for a Tokyo newspaper in 1993, three years before his death, the composer who simultaneously brought a Japanese musical sensibility to the world and a Western musical sensibility to Japan wrote: “My music is something like a signal sent to the unknown.”  

That signal has reverberated widely as Takemitsu, revered in Japan, has become universally regarded as one of the most important postwar composers of concert and film music. Thursday night, here, the unknown took on a new dimension.

The occasion was a concert in Takemitsu Memorial concert hall marking the 20th anniversary of the composer’s death. Involved in the planning of the hall, the composer did not live to see its opening in 1997. It turned out to be an acoustically transparent venue ideal for music in which every bar appears like a mysterious sonic event coming out of nowhere.

The acoustical consultant for the hall was Leo Beranek, whose career might have ended with his design for the New York Philharmonic’s unsuccessful home at Lincoln Center, now named the David Geffen Hall, and about to be gutted and completely redesigned. But the Takemitsu hall restored Beranek’s reputation 35 years later. Though unacknowledged, the concert also proved a memorial to the Boston acoustician, who died Oct. 10 at age 102.

But mainly this was an extraordinary decoding of the strange, haunting Takemitsu signal. A palpable sense of awe filled this beautiful, futuristic yet rustic shoebox-shaped hall, its triangular ceiling giving it the aspect of a Space Age church. British composer Oliver Knussen conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the oldest if not the most highly regarded or adventurous of the 11 full-time orchestras in the greater Tokyo area.

Yet this was the finest playing I have ever heard from any of them. In performances of four experimental Takemitsu scores from the 1960s, along with a more amiable one from 1991, the orchestra became like an enchanted body able to set the entire building in audible vibration.

If this sounds mystical, it might have been had Takemitsu been a mystic. He wasn’t. But who was Takemitsu?

He was a largely self-taught composer whose career followed a vague trajectory from the avant garde of the 1960s to a French period of ethereally moody music influenced by Debussy and Messiaen, winding up in a more Romantic, even nostalgic, style. But that’s leaving out one of his key innovations, combining traditional Japanese music with Western music.

It is leaving out his love for pop music. (His Beatles arrangements for solo guitar have never been bettered.) It is leaving out his more than 90 film scores, which ranged from such classics as “Woman in the Dunes” and “Ran” to samurai films, Japanese science fiction movies and documentaries.

In his score for the underrated 1993 Hollywood thriller “Rising Sun,” starring Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes and Harvey Keitel, Takemitsu goes through more than a dozen styles, including breathy Japanese flute music, something in Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western style, Mahlerian angst, pulsating car chase music, tense, angst-ridden modernism, lush Mahlerian romanticism and, for a sex scene, pure kitsch. Sometimes the music mirrors the film, sometimes it stands in striking contraction to what is on the screen; sometimes it’s meant to be noticed, sometimes not. The ultimate Takemitsu trait, no matter what he did, was to keep you guessing.

Everyone who knew Takemitsu has stories. He was intentionally vague. He had a wicked sense of humor. He saw more than 200 films a year, and after a few drinks he could hilariously recite the plots of obscure B movies you’d never of.

Knussen had been a close friend. They were an odd couple — the tiny Takemitsu a fraction of the size of the Brit. Before the concert, I reached out to Knussen for a few anecdotes.

“The first time I met Toru was when I conducted ‘Rain Coming’ in 1982,” Knussen recalled. “He was very nervous, actually shaking. I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said, ‘Very nervous, first time I ever wrote piece without harp.’ ”  

In fact, the piece sounded terrible, even though he had carefully followed all the metronome markings. “I asked Takemitsu if he had any comments,” Knussen explained, “and he said, ‘Everything perfect.’ ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to be one those: “Are you sure?” “Everything perfect.” ’ 

“Then I went back to the beginning and lifted my arms to give the downbeat, when he said, ‘Just one thing. All tempi twice too fast.’”

A quality of Takemitsu’s scores is that they can seem to offer only clues as to their intentions. He always needed a title before he could begin to compose, and those titles were often elusively Zen-like: “I Hear the Water Dreaming,” “How Slow the Wind,” “A String Around Autumn,” “From Me Flows What You Call Time,” “Twill by Twilight,” “Static Relief,” “Far calls. Coming, far!” “Away a Lone” and, getting the English poetically wrong, “For Away.”   

The music itself is, nonetheless, absolutely precise in its tiniest details. Nature was Takemitsu’s lasting model. Each musical event is placed like stones in a rock garden of a Kyoto temple. Climaxes, Knussen notes, are never in the right places but rather, it has been said, like changes in the weather. And for Knussen, who laughingly noted that Takemitsu called himself a “schizo eclectic,” the music makes an ideal example for today’s eclectic young composers eager to juxtapose a variety of sources.

Still, the key to Takemitsu is in getting the details right. Otherwise, you wind up with what he dismissed as a “beautiful mirage.”

There were no mirages Thursday. In “Dorian Horizon,” the harmonic areole of 17 shimmering strings was more real than a rainbow. The five-minute “Green” for large orchestra became a meticulously controlled phantasmagoria of jostling musical styles that somehow all had room to breathe, not unlike the way Tokyo civilly accommodates such a variety of humanity in tight spaces. “Textures,” a seven-minute piano concerto featuring Yuji Takahashi, wove arresting patterns. “Choral Island” (with soprano Claire Booth) sent sonic shards into the atmosphere.

In “Quotation of Dream — Say Sea, Take Me!” Debussy’s “La Mer” becomes the Sea of Japan. It was written when Takemitsu turned 60, a time in Japanese culture for considering mortality. The sea took him, when Takemitsu died unexpectedly of pneumonia at age 65.

Japan went into deep mourning for a composer who had done more than any other to give the country a national music. The Internet was still new at the time, and many Japanese fans wrote on anonymous English language list serves that this was their first opportunity to express emotion not easily done in traditional Japanese culture.

Twenty years later, Takemitsu’s signals to the unknown have never been stronger.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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