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Friday, April 16, 2004

Arts & Letters

Zen Vision: Antigoni Goni and the Music of Toru Takemitsu

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently in classical-music circles about the way artists choose to present themselves. Wall Street Journal critic Greg Sandow has been writing about this issue frequently in his latest ArtsJournal blog entries (see; his chronicles of mind-numbing press releases would be funny, if the truth weren’t quite so pathetic. Press releases (and, I’d add, artist biographies in concert programs) are generally eye-wateringly boring lists of every individual with whom the musician in question has crossed paths: every award won (or nominated for), every orchestra, every teacher, every conductor. It’s rare that we learn anything about an artist’s inner life, or why she has chosen the vehicle of expression she has. If we’re lucky, there’s a toss-away sentence or two along the lines of “Mozart (or whoever) has been a tremendous inspiration to me.” 

What a relief, then, to read the program notes for Athens-born guitarist Antigoni Goni’s recital, on January 22, at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. As part of Miller’s ongoing “Composer Portrait” series, Goni performed an entire recital of both solo works and chamber pieces by one of Japan’s most notable contemporary composers, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996). Yes, there was the obligatory note about the countries in which Goni has performed, where she has taught, and the composers with whom she has worked, but she also offered a note about what Takemitsu’s music means to her:

In my late teens Akira Kurosawa’s Ran left me speechless, utterly stunned. I left the London movie theater only to enter the next record store, looking for its soundtrack. This was my first encounter with the music of Toru Takemitsu. Years later in a concert by the English guitarist Julian Bream I was deeply moved by his New York premiere of In the Woods, the last piece Takemitsu wrote before his death….[We are taking] a challenging journey into a world remotely imagined in its sublime beauty. A world filled with vociferous silence, delicate power, and human perfection.

While Goni is a far better guitarist than writer, it is still refreshing to be afforded a glimpse into an artist’s mind that helps to explain why a particular composer matters to her. Yes, music speaks for itself; often, however, programming choices seem almost arbitrary. Especially when an entire evening is dedicated to a single composer, it’s nice to have some insight into the relationship between creator and performer.

Both Eastern and Western influences loom large in Takemitsu’s music. An avowed devotee of Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen, and at first enamored of the rigorous atonality of the Fifties’ European avant-garde, the primarily self-taught composer eventually developed a singularly Japanese esthetic. By the late Fifties, Takemitsu was beginning to attract international recognition; eventually, Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland became champions of his work. By the end of his life, along with composing the score to Ran, Takemitsu contributed scores to over 90 other films. In the years just preceding his death, he was awarded the Grawemeyer Award (1994) and the Glenn Gould Prize (1996). At the time of his death, Takemitsu was exploring yet another new musical sphere by working on his first opera.

Silence plays a principal role in Takemitsu’s compositions, creating that feeling of positive and negative space that is so integral to the Japanese visual arts. In his soundworld, electronically produced sounds are paired with acoustic ones, and percussion is the peer of melodic instruments. (While Takemitsu occasionally employed indigenous Japanese instruments, he usually turned to Western ones for his music.) Among contemporary composers, he was one of the few to contribute significantly to expanding the guitar repertoire; he wrote five works for the solo instrument and sixteen others that included the guitar. (Perhaps part of the guitar’s appeal to Takemitsu was its percussive as well as melodic capacity — an ideal vehicle for his esthetic.)

Evocations of nature also play a central role in Takemitsu’s work; Goni’s programming reflected that love, with titles that ranged from Equinox to Toward the Sea to In the Woods. 1993’s Equinox, for solo guitar, unfolds slowly and expansively — a quiet, interior world. Goni played one section so hushed that it was nearly inaudible, creating the effect of music emerging gently from total stillness before receding back into the quiet. Air, scored for solo flute (and ably performed by Laura Gilbert), evokes not a dance (as the term “air” has indicated since the Baroque era) but, instead, a meditation on the essential qualities of that natural element: first a meandering breeze, then a series of sharp starts that feel like the near-pain of inhaling the cold on a winter’s day.

Goni continued with three selections from the 1977 cycle, 12 Songs Arranged for Guitar Solo: Akira Nakada’s “Early Spring,” Charles Converse’s “What a Friend (We Have in Jesus),” and Joseph Cosma’s “Amours perdus.” Unlike the preceding piece, these songs make more conventional use of the guitar. “Early Spring” clearly articulates four-voice harmonies and a regular rhythm; “What a Friend (We Have in Jesus)” is a rather conventional — if joyous — arrangement of the famous hymn. “Amours perdus,” on the other hand, comes closer to a more distinctive Takemitsu esthetic, through a generous use of pure-sounding artificial harmonic notes.

As the evening unfolded, Takemitsu’s passion for the flute (as great as for the guitar) was gradually revealed. 1971’s Voice for solo flute, again played by Gilbert, makes use of a battery of alternative techniques. Not surprisingly, considering the piece’s name, Gilbert began with a sharp exclamation on flute, and then started to speak while playing. Takemitsu structures the piece as a series of distinct voices heard sequentially, either by means of instrument or voice (either in what seemed to be Japanese or English phrases). Toward the Sea, written in 1981 for alto flute and guitar, is marked in three movements: “The Night,” “Moby Dick,” and “Cape Cod.” “The Night” uncovered Takemitsu’s distinct gift for color and mood as a series of gentle dissonances, played even more gently, in dark-hued and yet oddly radiant tones. While not exactly programmatic, “Moby Dick” is certainly evocative; Goni’s arpeggios evoked the image of sparkling waves, followed by anguished tritones that suggested a sense of conflict. Through it all, Gilbert’s sustained notes functioned as a narrative voice to the scene Goni was sketching. “Cape Cod” provides a balladic tone, but, by this point, some of Takemitsu’s most beloved gestures — such as flute trills and guitar harmonics — were dulled by overuse.

1995’s In the WoodsThree Pieces for Guitar evokes the memory of three specific locations: “Wainscot Pond — after a painting by Cornelia Foss,” “Rosedale,” and “Muir Woods.” While a showpiece of virtuosity, the piece was simply too much like all the others to have a great deal of impact, despite its loveliness (especially in the first movement, in which lines of melodic lyricism alternate with silence). That’s the grave danger in programming a whole evening of one composer’s music focused on one (or, really, two) instruments.

Gilbert reemerged, this time with fellow flutist Susan Rotholz, to perform Masque (written between 1959 and 1960). This piece was the first one overtly tied tonally to Takemitsu’s fling with serialism; the two flutes first darted around each other, then eventually settled into a series of slowly shifting lines that were, by turn, sympathetic and fractious with each other.

Goni’s last solo for the evening comprised two lighthearted excerpts from the 12 Songs Arranged for Guitar Solo: John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Michelle,” and George Gershwin’s immortal “Summertime.” (Takemitsu often cited Gershwin as another major influence.) In Takemitsu’s hands, “Michelle” took on a sweet, nearly Baroque flavor. Goni’s treatment of “Summertime” was just as sweetly aching — as much, indeed, as anyone could ever wish for. Takemitsu takes the song for an unusual turn — just before it ends, he brings it into a fleeting, quasi-Brazilian groove that is both unexpected and delightful.

The concert ended with 1965’s Valeria for violin, cello, guitar, electric organ, and two piccolos. (Appearing along with Goni, Gilbert, and Rotholz were violinist Deborah Buck, cellist Chris Finckel, electric organist Stephen Gosling, and conductor James Baker.) Although its placement made perfect sense logistically, considering all those players to arrange on stage, the magic of the 12 Songs dissipated in favor of a by-the-book, highly academic, and completely charmless venture into serialism (although the organ’s blasts were a robust reminder of Messiaen’s influence on Takemitsu). It was a disappointing conclusion.

Goni is a virtuosic and extremely sensitive musician, and an able champion of contemporary music. She clearly has a strong affinity and love for Takemitsu’s work and, despite the fact that this much Takemitsu in one go proved to be too much for all but his most ardent admirers, she made a strong case for his life’s work.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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