Toru’s Mist (2001)

for shakuhachi, violin, piano and Japanese percussion

This piece was written for the Ensemble Tozai for a series of performances starting in May 2001. The combination of performers - two playing western instruments, two playing Japanese - gives a unique flavour to the instrumentation, and is the source of many of the musical ideas within the piece. It represents a kind of memorial to Toru Takemitsu, whom I met for the first time in Tokyo in the mid-1980’s, and whose ability to reconcile (so-called) Eastern and Western sensibilities produced a subtle and moving synthesis. For my part, I have had a long and sustained interest in Japanese culture: I was active in judo as a teenager (taking a greater interest in the aesthetic formal structures than fighting); I attended classes of the late Christmas Humphries at the Buddhist Society in London and, following my time as a philosophy student, find Zen Buddhism to be the most coherent form of religion; I studied Japanese written language (as a hobby) for three years in the early 70’s; and the performances of Gagaku which I saw at the Albert Hall in 1969 struck me forcibly as being as close to ensemble perfection as it is possible to be.

In bringing these four instruments together as an ensemble, I sought to form some kind of hybrid - rather than fusion - from the individual elements. The “western” piano and “eastern” percussion form a single sound world at times concentrating a great deal on resonance, while the shakuhachi and violin adapt to western norms, for example in a series of quasi-baroque suspensions. The percussion instruments, almost entirely untuned, or rather with unspecified pitch, are those which form part of Joji Hirota’s multi-percussion set-up.

The piano is also used in such a way as to generate selected overtones which accord with the tuning of the shakuhachi. Given that the shakuhachi is essentially a pentatonic instrument, from a given pitch (here D) I concentrate on those ‘open’ notes which form the essence of its normal tone production, although the context is far from modal. The chromatic world in which it finds itself in this piece is often at odds with the instrument’s modal character but constantly seeks to find an accommodation. The instrument can, of course, be completely chromatic but I use this element sparingly, either by implication or through inflection.

The title refers both to the sense of atmosphere and veiled recollection in Takemitsu’s music, but also to the climactic conditions in the Western Isles which produce the single malts that he and I enjoyed together.

Gavin Bryars