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Aesthetic Meaning of Mixed-Media and Intercultural Composition: Water Music (1960) by Tôru Takemitsu and Hisao Kanze

Makoto Mikawa

Makoto Mikawa, Performance and Media Studies, Institut für Film,Theater und empirische Kulturwissenschaft Johannes Gutenberg – Universität Mainz


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During the last century various composers attempted to integrate the “others” in the musical composition using different techniques. The “others” in this context were other genres of art as well as cultures foreign to the common practice of Western musical composition. With interdisciplinary and intercultural approaches to composition, electroacoustic music has played an important role in the development of new compositional forms and styles, as well as innovation in performance practice. As a consequence, a piece consisting of electronically produced music, a visual image, and a non-Western theatrical element, for instance, is no longer unusual, perplexing, or intrusive for the audience of our time. This may suggest that boundaries between different cultures as well as different disciplines of art have become blurred, particularly due to the advances in the information and communication technology, and their availability for personal use. However, it is a mere generalization, as these boundaries do exist, and the recognition and consideration of these now and then are a source of inspiration for composers and their collaborators.
A half-century ago in Japan, during the period in which the terms “mixed-media” and “interculturalism” were rarely used, the Japanese composer Tôru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and the outstanding Noh performer and theorist Hisao Kanze (1925-1978) undertook a collaborative project that aimed to create an original musical theater style by combining electroacoustic music and Noh choreography. This mixed-media and intercultural piece was Water Music (1960), the first electroacoustic composition for a Noh performance or, in other words, the first Noh-theatricalization of electroacoustic music.
Instead of using sounds recorded in a Noh performance, for Water Music Takemitsu utilized almost only recorded sounds of water droplets. Some sounds in the piece retain the identity of water drops, due to a lesser degree of modification, i.e. “raw” use of the recorded sounds. In contrast, other sounds with a greater degree of modification have distinct sonic characteristics similar to those of Tsuzumi, a traditional Japanese percussion instrument used in the Noh performance. The sound structure as a whole is immune to the idea of sound density; on the contrary, it creates an impression of a non- metrical, quasi-pointillist form. The irregular occurrences of silence with irregular durations along with the oscillation of Klangfarben between the concrete and the abstract sounds generate unique musical tensions. For this idiosyncratic soundscape Kanze composed original Noh choreography. Excluding the literariness and emotional elements that were typical for traditional Noh play, his performance at the 1960 premiere demonstrated a high degree of clearness and purity, which resulted from his thorough interpretation of the music.
The concurrent presentations of the placidity of the tape music and the various movements of the Noh choreography created a distinctive visual-sound space and the tension within. A further implication is that the musical-theatrical tension was derived also from the collision between different artistic disciplines as well as different cultural components. This particular collision, instead of the smooth integration, was the product of the aesthetic principle of Takemitsu and Kanze. This, however, also raises the question of what essentially the two artists’ aesthetic was and why the new approach to theatricalization of electroacoustic music was necessary. Bearing this question in mind, this paper contextualizes the aesthetic spring head of Water Music in interdisciplinary and intercultural terms, rather than compositional-theoretical. The study seeks to explore how electroacoustic music, as a specific realm of postwar new music, affected the composer’s and the Noh performer’s conception of cultural identity in the context of the massive mixture of traditional and imported cultures in Japan.

EMS14 Proceedings