Toru Takemitsu's riverrun
The last of Takemitsu's Joycean compositions is my personal favorite. Like his other Joycean works, he uses the "river/sea" motif of Finnegans Wake to explore a musical world based on the three keys found in the word SEA (the German Es or E-flat, E, and A). And as with his violin concerto, this symbolism is further used to broaden and transform a piece of atonal music into a wider expanse of tonalism.
A piano concerto, the piece begins immediately in an atonal nebula of sound, and the piano wanders its way through the first few minutes supported by strings which pulse and swell like waves, with an occasional burst of muted brass or woodwinds emerging like a crest that never quite breaks. Percussion and various instrumental color add a certain edginess to the work -- perhaps half-glimpsed shapes passed on the riverbank -- and the overall feeling is very dark, both nocturnal and mysterious. It is, at times, reminiscent of Debussy's La Mer and Barber's Fadograph of Yestern Scene. Eventually the piano begins to make more tonal "sense," and the orchestral swells broaden, exerting a gravitational pull on the piano -- which sheds one final shimmer of notes before dissolving peacefully into the sea, repeating a simple motif until everythings fades to silence.
Takemitsu's Wakean suite
Although all four of Takemitsu's Wakean pieces share the same basic idea, they are not simply four different versions of the same music, and each one yields a different perseptive of a complex whole. The first string quartet, A way a lone, is the basic statement of the SEA theme, expanded to embrace a whole orchestra of strings in its "remake." A way a lone is an essentially static work, more meditative than progressive; though there is a sense of flow, it remains largely undirected. In Far calls. Coming, far! Takemitsu adds a new layer of depth by adding a solo instrument and expanding the orchestra -- we now have a lone violin as an immediate symbol of the river. The piece begins in an atonalism reminescent of A way a lone, but the violin is ultimately attracted to the "sea of tonality" represented by the key of C. There is more of a sense of motion, or progression, than there is in the string quartet, and there is a definite feeling of resolution at the end. Finally, in riverrun -- the most directly named piece of all -- the piano is allowed to voice the personality of the river. This adds a new dimension, as Takemitsu has not merely transposed the "river" from violin to piano. As if to highlight the comlexity of symbols, both instruments are allowed to express the river in their own unique way, whether the hypnotic flowing of the violin or the broken bubbling of the piano. And yet the very fact that the piano is a radically different instrument than the violin -- which, after all, has been around since A way a lone -- serves to throw the river into even sharper relief.
Listening to the whole sequence of works is very rewarding; there is the sense of a deeper and more mysterious level that cannot be grasped in its totality, but can only be apprehended through different expressions of the whole. My only question is -- when will we have a release with all four works collected on the same disc?
|Excerpts from the liner notes from the Virgin CD
riverrun for piano and orchestra is a work inspired by James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the same as the string quartet A way a lone and Far calls. Coming, far! for violin and orchestra. These are deeply connected alike with the image of water.
The music flows in the form of a musical tributary dervied from a certain main current, wending its way through the scenery of night towards the sea of tonality. The motif, and the intervals of a major seventh and minor third, almost like simple symbols, gradually disperse and always give birth to a variety of melodic sub-species. While they sometimes do confront one another, they do not necessarily represent dialectic development, but continually keep occurring, disappearing and recurring
Liner notes written by Andrew Clements:
As a non-Western composer taking on the Western art-music tradition, Toru Takemitsu has been able to abstract what he needs from tradition without bowing to the pressures of present day European or American styles and fashions. He can range freely across the modernists, assimilating elements from Debussy or Messiaen or the Second Viennese School, as well as incorporating ideas from the post-war avant-garde, without having to subscribe to any one of their aesthetics. In doing so he forged for himself a language that, while certainly echoing the past, owes very little to any relieved notions of form and musical continuity.
Some of his works are notated using graphic symbols, or incorporating elements of chance and improvisation, others are composed electro-acoustically on tape, or for traditional Japanese instruments. Many are notated conventionally and are scored for familiar Western forces, for despite the heterogeneous sources of his language, Takemitsu's music remains very much his own; the sound world of his pieces is as immediately recognizable as their poetic titles. No other contemporary composer compiles textures with such fastidious care, or sidesteps the problems of large-scale construction with such finesse. At the heart of his music is a very simple expressive impulse: "I probably belong to a type of composer of songs who keeps thinking about melody," he has written, "I am old fashioned. What I desire to reach through the continuation of a melody is beyond the pleasure and the sorrow experienced during this continuation, yet I cannot simply call that for what I reach eternity."
In talking about the details of his music, the composer often uses the metaphor of a garden, an artificial landscape in which he sets out his musical objects. Each work then offers a journey around that garden, with the listeners invited to consider each object in turn, sometimes made to retrace their steps, or to revisit a landmark from a different direction, so that perspectives change and relationships between the musical elements are constantly renewed. It is a fruitful image, and one which conveys very well both the jewel-like precision of Takemitsu's music and the way in which he has been able to reconcile Western and Eastern perceptions in his work. The garden he has in mind is surely Japanese in its formality, rather than anything wilder or European, one in which every feature is of equal importance, and their is no hierarchy or sense of goal direction.
Yet the senses and the natural world have also been of primary importance in inspiring his music, as well as offering analogies to it, underlining perhaps Takemitsu's ambiguous role as an Oriental composer of Western music. His evocations of natural processes, as suggested in so many of his titles, including those of all the works on this disc, reinforce the notion that his music is not so much an expression of individuality, as of some more deeply instinctive, collective feeling: "The art of music in the West has developed throughout its history by means of individual geniuses, and out of the soil supporting them; non-Western musicians were born, and grew like the grasses in the field."
This we have a composer performing the most delicate of balancing acts, holding two opposing sensibilities in perfect equilibrium, and making something rich and strange out of the achievement. In the case of riverrun, the piano concerto written for Peter Serkin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984, the absolute lack of stylistic inhibition and absence of rhetoric in his music allow Takemitsu to juxtapose gestures which from any other composer would seem contradictory, or even bombastic: there is piano writing which would not seem out of place in a Liszt piece, or a Brahms concerto, set against -- or more properly amongst -- orchestral sonorities of Bergian chromaticism or Messiaen-like richness. Yet the mixture never seems anything but objective, and is light years away from the kind of self-willed thought processes that would have motivated such piano configuration in the nineteenth century
Like Takemitsu's other Joyce works, inspiration for this piece comes from the "final & first" passage of Finnegans Wake, 620.11 to 620.15/3.1-3, which I reprint below, with the relevant text highlighted in red:
I'd die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes,
tid. There's where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush
to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us
then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till
thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a
riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
Howth Castle and Environs.
There is only one CD recording of riverrun, conducted by Oliver Knussen and released in the UK on Virgin Classics, 1991, VC 7 91180-2. It is difficult to obtain in the US, and needs to be imported. I know of no Web sites that carry it.
String Quartet No. 1, "A way a lone" -- (1980) A string quartet inspired by Finnegans Wake.
Far calls. Coming, far! -- (1980) For violin and orchestra.
A way a lone II, for String Orchestra -- (1981) An orchestral elaboration of the above quartet.