Performative Gestures
and the Performance of 
Takemitsu's 'Equinox for guitar'

by Fabricio Mattos

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Toru Takemitsu and Equinox, for guitar

Toru Takemitsu (Tokyo, 1930 – Tokyo, 1996) was the first Japanese composer to achieve international recognition in the Western musical world in 20th century, also producing important texts about Aesthetics and Philosophy of music and arts. Takemitsu started his musical life only after World War II, deeply influenced by Western music that he heard during US occupation of Japan. It was during the long period which he spent hospitalized and bed-ridden after the war that Takemitsu was submerged into Western music, which led him to start a career in composition, studying with Yasuji Kiyose, and, some years later, with Fumio Hayasaka. Although Kiyose and Hayasaka’s instructions have been important to the young composer, Takemitsu has been largely self-taught during his whole artistic career. It does not mean that the composer was not influenced by other composers, artists, or art forms from Western countries and, later on, from his native Japan.

In 1951, Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop) [1] was founded. Takemitsu, as one of its founders, participated actively in performances of mixed media projects in collaboration with many other artists, and premiering pieces by Western contemporary composers in Japan. In the late 1950s, Takemitsu’s Requiem for strings was heard by Igor Stravinsky during a visit of the Russian composer to Tokyo. Stravinsky later mentioned in interviews his admiration for the Requiem and, shortly after his return to the United States, Takemitsu received his first international commission from Koussevitsky Foundation, probably under Stravinsky’s recommendation.

The most important musical and philosophical figure which exerted key influence on Takemitsu’s artistic conception and methodology was John Cage. It was indeed after listening to Toshi Ichiyanagi’s performance of Cage’s Piano Concerto in 1961 that the Japanese composer started to apply other compositional procedures and experiment with graphic notation. However, the most important influence Cage represented in Takemitsu’s artistic life was in terms of his approach to traditional Japanese music. Some years earlier Takemitsu had had a closer contact with Bunraku, the traditional puppet theatre, and was struck by its music and by how different it sounded from all Western music with which he was presently involved. The friendship with John Cage was essential, some years later, to spark in Takemitsu the interest not just for Japanese music, but for his traditional culture in general. In fact, some years later when he was already an established composer, he wrote:


I must express my deep and sincere gratitude to John Cage. The reason for this is that in my own life, in my own development, for a long period I struggled to avoid being "Japanese", to avoid "Japanese" qualities. It was largely through my contact with John Cage that I came to recognize the value of my own tradition. [2]


One of the ways Takemitsu started to recover his own tradition was through intense contact with old arts and philosophy from Japan, which resulted in new compositions using traditional Japanese instruments. The first of these was November Steps (1967) for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra, perhaps one of his most famous works, in which he first attempted to join Eastern and Western instruments. However it is possible to understand, listening to this piece, the natural difficulties the composer found in doing so, as the soloists seldom play together with the orchestra; some years later Takemitsu composed a lesser known work for the same solo instruments and orchestra entitled Autumn (1971). In this work a clear change in attitude can be perceived in the approach to Eastern and Western instruments, as both groups maintain their musical integrity and personality even when playing together. Many years later, after different stages of philosophical and artistic approach to his compositions and being influenced by a number of composers [3] and styles, he recognizes his attempt to unite East and West was a conceptual mistake, and started to compose pieces that would expose their differences rather than uniting them.

His book Confronting Silence  brings a better testimony of these changes:


How will I take the first step? By cultivating within my own sensitivities those two different traditions of Japan and the West, then, by using them to develop different approaches to composition. I will keep the developing status of my work intact, not by resolving the contradictions between the two traditions, but by emphasizing the contradictions and confronting them. Unstable steps perhaps, but don’t (sic) matter how faltering they may be they will stop me from becoming a keeper of the tombs of tradition. I wish to search out that single sound which is in itself so strong that it can confront silence. It is then that my own personal insignificance will cease to trouble me. [4]


Indeed his future works, not only the ones using Japanese instruments but also for solo Western instruments, start to present a fresher approach to his own artistic and personal situation. His collaborations with performers and conductors have been of utmost importance for his achievement of composing pieces for instruments he did not play, such as the guitar. [5]

Particularly from the mid-1970s, the style of his music started to consolidate towards a set of concepts that he developed during his earlier experiences. Besides the already mentioned influence of Japanese music, concepts and techniques such as the ‘stream of sounds’ and ‘sea of tonality’ [6] began to appear as constant and integral part of his compositions; concepts of the Japanese philosophy such as ma  [7] were much more clearly employed; his film scores [8] started to capture the essence of sound and silence as part of the visual ideas of the directors; and his particular fondness to the general concept of Japanese gardens deeply influenced the way he employed structurally abstract concepts such as time and transmutation into his music.

Takemitsu died in Tokyo, on 20 February 1996, shortly after finishing his very last pieces for two instruments that helped him to earn international recognition and shape his musical style: In the Woods (Three Pieces for Guitar), and Air, for flute. The repertoire and technique of both instruments have been greatly complemented by Takemitsu’s ideas and explorations, sparking the interest of many other composers to further explore the colours and textures of their sound and expressive qualities.

Equinox, for guitar

Equinox was composed in 1994 in Tokyo, to be played in the recital of commemoration of the 25th anniversary of guitarist Kiyoshi Shomura’s debut, on April 04, 1994. The piece belongs to what is considered Takemitsu’s mature period (in fact, it was one of his very last compositions), and this is clear in his use of harmonic language as well as his rendering of musical form. The connection with nature is also present in the title, and relates directly to the real time of the year in which the composer was writing (the piece was probably finished in March, and premiered in April, spring time in Tokyo).

One of the characteristics of the piece that stands out is the approach to time, so important to Takemitsu according to his own writings about Aesthetics; in fact, when one has the first contact with the score, the graphic elements in relation to time can be noted due to the organization of various rhythmic elements combined with a relative approach to tempo. On this matter, Takemitsu wrote in his book Confronting Silence :


Westerners, especially today, consider time as linear and continuity as a steady and unchanging state. But I think time as circular and continuity as a constantly changing state. These are important assumptions in my concept of musical form. Sometimes my music follows the design of a particular existing garden. At times it may follow the design of an imaginary garden I have sketched. Time in my music may be said to be the duration of my walk through these gardens. I have described my selection of sounds: the modes with their variants, and the effects with shades, for example. But it is the garden that gives the ideas form. [9]


In fact, the approach to time in Equinox  is completely connected to these ideas, and the circularity affects not only time (rhythm), but also space (structure). The transformation of ideas that repeat but are slightly different is a striking feature of the piece, as well as the clarity of presentation of motifs. The piece brings the same title of Joan Miró’s lithograph, which presents a clear circular approach to the natural event of equinox.  [10]

Equinox, by Joan Miró.

Technically, Takemitsu’s pieces belong to some of the most difficult of the guitar repertoire of 20th century, and Equinox  demands high efforts in order to accomplish its technical and musical ideas. The usual difficulty of Takemitsu’s pieces for guitar is partially explained by his wife, Asaka Takemitsu, in interview for the book A memoir of Toru Takemitsu :


Toru didn’t know much about the guitar, so he would ask Mr. Shomura (Kiyoshi Shomura) if it’s possible to do a certain technique, and Mr. Shomura would say, “I can try, it should be fine”. So I guess the music turned out to be difficult. [11]


The output of the collaboration with guitarist Kiyoshi Shomura was of great importance to the development of Takemitsu's style on the guitar, and his understanding of the technical and sound characteristics of the instrument are reflected by the striking combination of relative freedom in tempo and detailed dynamics and colour markings. [12]

Analysing Equinox

In the next video, it will be possible to have a better idea of Takemitsu's approach to many of the abovementioned structural and conceptual characteristics of Equinox, as well as external influences that might have had a greater impact in his compositional ideas. Finally, some spots will be identified where gestures should be carefully considered, in order to either enhance the musical message or to identify musical gestures where musical ideas are enough to convey a complete message. The video is followed by the images of the analysed score. The performance quoted during the video by guitarist Andrea Dieci can be found here. This was one of the three performances of Equinox  by other guitarists considered as source material for this research.

Performing Equinox

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[1]  Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) was an avant-garde collective based in Japan, which brought together artists, musicians, designers, choreographers, film-makers, and photographers.’ Source: (Accessed on 29/09/2013).

[2]  Takemitsu, Tōru, Contemporary Music in Japan, Perspectives of New Music. Vol. 27, no. 2, (Summer 1989).

[3]  N.A. Composers such as Debussy, Cage, and Messiaen, to name a few.

[4]  Takemitsu, T. Confronting Silence. (Fallen Leaf Press). p.52.

[5]  Even though many people believe Takemitsu was himself a guitarist, his wife, Asaka Takemitsu, says in the book A memoir of Toru Takemitsu that he would always rely on the opinion and advice of Japanese guitarist Kiyoshi Shōmura, to whom he dedicated many of his works, including Equinox.

[6]  "I have referred to the ‘stream of sounds’. This is not only an impressionistic description but a phrase intended to contrast with the usual method of construction in music - that of superimposing sounds one on another. This is not a matter of creating new space by merely dividing it, but it does pose a question: by admitting a new perception of space, and giving it an active sense, is it not possible to discover a new unexpected, unexplored world? This is the same as recognizing sound as an object. Listening to the sho I began to think of a basic creative approach to negative space." Takemitsu, Tōru Confronting Silence. (Fallen Leaf Press, 1995). p. 07.

Sea of tonality’ referred to a particular harmonic approach in which relationships between chords are created based on a set of notes originated by the word S-E-A (E flat; E natural; A), which according to the composer generated pantonal chords. 

[7]  Ma is a complex Japanese philosophical concept that in music means, according to Takemitsu, “the interval which gives shape to the whole”; it can also be defined as “a pregnant pause that creates tension and emphasis”. Japanese theatre (Nō and Kabuki, particularly) employ the same concept as part of their holistic approach to space and time during plays. For further information on ma, please refer to: Cavaye, R. & Griffith, P. & Senda, A. A guide to the Japanese stage. (Kodansha International, 2004).

[8]  Here one may find a particularly good example on scores Takemitsu wrote for Akira Kurosawa’s films, such as Dodesukaden (1970) and Ran (1985).

[9]  Takemitsu, T. Confronting Silence. (Fallen Leaf Press, 1995). p. 119.

[10]  N.A. Nature and change of seasons have traditionally served as sources of inspiration for the performing arts in Japan. Equinox is a natural phenomenon that happens twice a year, around March 20 and September 22. Its main characteristic is the equal duration of day and night, due to the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun.

[11]  Takemitsu, Asaka A memoir of Toru Takemitsu. (iUniverse, 2010). p. 78.

[12]  N.A. It is known, however, that markings such as sul tasto on the guitar may have many different resulting colours, not just dolce. In this sense, even when attempting to be so precise Takemitsu's music results organic and open to changes in interpretation.