Thursday, June 2, 2016




We can analyze a finished piece of music, but there will be something of that music that escapes our analysis. If music is something that moves us, the mystery is even deeper. Of course I do not believe analysis is meaningless.

I am aware of the great benefits we have gained from contemporary analysis of the human body, for example. Now, through minute DNA, we know of that immense and universal system we all share—yet, we do not understand the power that creates life. And in that ignorance we turn to music—an act that will continue in life and in intelligence yet to come.

Just as people lack self-awareness, there are also many unknowns in music. This also applies to nations that show various unconscious differences.

As a composer I have studied modern Western music. Through works by many composers and fine performances of their music I have come to know their accomplishments—a different tradition from that into which I was born.

I do not compose for simple personal gain but to be reassured of my own being and to explore my relationship to others. Naturally, as one growing up in Japan I could not be independent of my country’s traditions. But that awareness of my own national tradition has special meaning, since it came to me after I had studied modern Western music.

There is no doubt, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out, that from the early twentieth century (especially after 1930, with the rapid development of the airplane), the various countries and cultures of the world have begun a journey toward the geographic and historic unity of all peoples.1 And now all of us, individually and collectively, share in incubating that vast universal cultural egg.

For me, a Japanese, the West was a single enormous mirror. The strong reflected light of that mirror overwhelmed the light of other cultures. But since I became aware of Japanese traditions, quite naturally I became interested in the reflections of other mirrors. Japanese culture reflects the influence of those other mirrors.

Of course cultures have been borrowing and lending for a long time, but those that are completely different from European culture still exist without any signs of decline. The music of China, Korea, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and many other countries continues to attract us endlessly. And it is meaningless to compare their value to that of modern European music, or to make that simple division into East and West. Indian and Japanese music, for example, are generally referred to as “Eastern,” but they are quite different. Naturally they have influenced each other and at the same time have developed their own distinctive characters.

About a century ago, Japan began to absorb Western culture. Aggressively it sought the modern technology that Europe had been developing since the Industrial Revolution. Since this was done at such a great speed, certain warping occurred as the government tried to introduce both technological and cultural changes. It was some time after World War II that the conservatories began to teach traditional Japanese music, with the result that you might find the bizarre situation in which a student studying koto could not graduate because of insufficient piano technique.

It is true, of course, that many of the Japanese intelligentsia had a deep craving for Western culture, intensified by many years under a feudal system during which they longed for a breath of fresh air. That was the force of history. But history is not merely chronological movement. It is the active course of human energy, something like blood in an artery. I do not deny my country’s adoption of Western culture in the last century (to do that would be to deny my own presence), but I have many criticisms of the way in which it was done.

Japan and I have arrived at the present with great contradictions. Political attempts to resolve those contradictions may bring on a crisis and, indeed, may not be possible.

Speaking from my own intuition, rather than from a simple-minded resolution to blend Western and Japanese elements, I choose to confront those contradictions, even intensify them. And those contradictions are for me a valid visa for the world. That is my act of expression.

It is extremely easy for Western music to adapt traditional Japanese music. It is not difficult to blend the two. I have no interest in either of these procedures.

It may sound old fashioned, but I think music still has the power to affect people’s lives. It is also extremely personal.

Nothing that truly moves us will come from the superficial blending of East and West. Such music will just sit there.

I need not lecture on the processes of modern Western music of the recent past nor comment on the current confusion. I, too, am in the middle of that confused scene and may even have contributed to it in some small way. I neither approve nor disapprove of the obvious Eastern influences on modern Western music since 1950. I feel the same way toward a certain Romanticism I find in the faithful believers in electronics and toward music that may appear to be new and different but is self-contradictory. To me those composers are somehow cowardly as they face their own traditions.

Certainly now the dictating position of modern Europe has declined, and that huge mirror that reflected my own image has been shattered. And at the same time many Western composers have come to notice the reflections of other mirrors previously overlooked—a necessary development perhaps, but to me it appears to be too hasty.

In political logic, denial is negative and absolute; but to apply political logic to art is to misunderstand its real nature. Without resorting to simple-minded compromise or adjustment, allowing the coexistence of contradiction—theoretically illogical perhaps, but very important—is at the core of meaning in art. And this should not be done solely by feeling, because art is also partly objective and needs a firm logical basis.

To hatch this universal egg we all incubate, perhaps the current trial-and-error approach is necessary. Anyhow, the centuries of modern European music, which is such a brief time in the history of music, is still a tradition too long to be ignored completely.

A year ago I traveled to Indonesia with a group of French musicians. During that visit, after hearing a Javanese gamelan, one of them started talking to me, very excited about the “absolute new resource” in music. His excitement struck me as very strange because I knew that many decades earlier it was the French composer Debussy who, after hearing a gamelan performance in Paris, was profoundly influenced by that music. Moreover, the logical sense of Debussy’s music was strengthened by that experience.

In hearing unknown new music, surprise and excitement are most important. Music is not a static art: it is constantly born anew. If this is true, while an electronic recording of the drone in Indian music is not necessarily bad in that it may broaden our musical experience, it really does nothing beyond that.

In the same spirit as the comment by that French musician, to us Western music is still a new resource. In other words, modern European music, along with other kinds of music, is one part of the musical resources today—probably nothing more, nothing less.

Speaking for myself, in contrast to John Cage this recognition came to me in learning Western music. For that reason I am even more concerned than John Cage is about the future of Western music.

This may sound contradictory, but if it is, it is still a profound truth to me. Unless based on a deeper experience of the old, confronting the new will not result in a universal world of new sound. Without a conscious effort music will be static.

To replace the great shattered mirror of Western music, to include the reflections of other mirrors—that is our task today. This may be a creative task possible only in music.

Only in the nest of accumulated individual imaginations will our universal egg hatch.

My words may have been a bit too abstract. Anyway, our imaginative power does not arise from “bespectacled murmuring” but begins with our contact with sounds.

This is an edited and expanded version of notes originally written in English for a lecture to a small group of composition students at Yale University Lecture March, 1975. It avoids special musical terms as much as possible. At the same time it may have lost some of the immediacy of the original spoken version. It was presented in rather special circumstances in that it reflected my personal point of view at that time.—Author’s note.


Gardener of Time by Toru Takemitsu (May 31, 2016)
Le Picadilly by Erik Satie (1866-1925) by Ya-Ling Chen (May 25, 2016)
Sound Aesthetics: Xenakis (January 7, 2016)
Pinhas Deleuze Sound language (January 21, 2016)
Angle(s) VI John Cage (April 30, 2015)
Morton Feldman (March 16, 2015)
Morton Feldman and painting (October 3, 2014)