A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden

Toru Takemitsu

Toru Takemitsu (1930–1996) grew up in a period in which Japan was not only influenced by western music, but cultivating “parallel music cultures.” Alison Tokita in Bi-musicality in modern Japanese culture noted that the mixture of Western music with traditional Japanese music, particularly between the wars, resulted in a new style in which eventually both sources were sufficiently blended to produce a new age of Japanese music. This happened not only in the 1960’s with the high impact of Western rock musicians and music, but also in serious art music. She explains that “…Western music was effectively ‘translated’ into Japanese culture.” The momentary ban on Western music during World War II (except, of course, Tokyo Rose) could not stop the powerful artistic influence of the Occident. The appetite for western pop, jazz, and classical music became insatiable.

Takemitsu was largely self–taught, and he continually listened to western music during his formative years. When he worked for the US Armed forces during the U.S. occupation of Japan, he listened regularly to the U.S. Armed Forces network. As the years passed, he was deeply influenced by Debussy, Messiaen, Berg, and John Cage. In fact, Takemitsu has credited John Cage with teaching him “to recognize the value of my own tradition.”

After a period of resisting Japanese music and culture (he had been unhappily conscripted into the Japanese army), he later embraced both, and became an important part of the Japanese musical avant-garde, influenced by composers such as Stockhausen, Schoenberg, and Lukas Foss. At one point, he wrote “When I decided to become a composer, I wanted to compose Western music. At that period, quite definitely because of the war, everything Japanese was to me hateful.” Later, with increasing maturity, he wrote: “There is no doubt…the various countries and cultures of the world have begun a journey toward the geographic and historic unity of all peoples…The old and new exist within me with equal weight.”  And, he managed to blend differing musical cultures without incongruity.

For example, in “A Flock Descends on the Pentagonal Garden” he extensively uses the pentatonic scale (called the yo scale in Japanese.) The title reflects the ancient Japanese love and respect for gardens and their influence. One of the basic rules of Japanese gardens is the use of 3, 5 (such as a pentagon) and 7, in the basic layout.

The composer’s obituary in the New York Times reflected his successful syntheses. It was titled “Toru Takemitsu, 65, introspective composer whose music evokes East and West is Dead.” He had composed prolifically throughout his lifetime, in serious music, film scores, pop music, vocal music, chamber music, guitar, piano and “was the first Japanese composer fully recognized in the west, and remained the guiding light for many of the younger generation.”

“A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden” (1977) was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, and premiered on November 30 of that year.  Takemitsu wrote “I love gardens. They do not reject people. There one can walk freely, pause to view the entire garden, or gaze at a single tree, plant, rock, and sand snow: changes, constant changes.” His music reflects reflects “walking freely,” taking pauses, taking time to relax into the moment and into the sound. Nothing is hurried, nothing is highly structured, rhythms are neither aggressive nor controlling.

The composer explained that the work arose from a dream, which may have been connected to a photograph he had seen earlier in the day of the artist Marcel Duchamps, who had cut his hair in the ‘form of a star-shaped garden’. Takemitsu described the work as a “shifting panorama of scenes in which the main motif – introduced by the oboe and representing the so-called “Flock”—descends into the harmonious tone-field called the ‘Pentagonal Garden’, created mainly on the strings.”

The work consists of a single movement, moving through varying sections. Continuing with the idea of the number “5”, each section can have only five transpositions.  Notice the silences and random nature of the work (two of Cage’s influences) and controlled passion.  Melodies are expressed, but exist in small parts, never intruding on the overall construct.  The music begins thoughtfully and quietly as you enter the musical garden. Orchestral coloration is delicately painted, instrumental timbres are clear, and crescendi are short-lived. The respectful mood is relaxed and contemplative throughout: perfect order,  a small scale, serenity, quietness, and freedom from the bustle of the world evoke the reflective traditional artistic purpose of a garden as defined in the Sakuteiki, an Essay on Garden Making written by Tachibana Toshitsuna (in the Kamakura period,1185-1333) and continuing into the present.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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