Dreams and Nightmares: A Discussion with Composer Mari Takano Print E-mail
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Written by Jeremy Marchant   
Tuesday, 09 October 2012

Dreams and Nightmares: A Discussion with Composer Mari Takano

Mari Takano has been described as one of the leading Japanese composers of the post-Takemitsu generation. She received her first musical education from her mother, who encouraged her to compose a little song at the age of five. We discussed her music, both that on her new BIS CD and her large work in progress, an opera on the children’s story The Snow Queen. But we started by talking about the influence on her of György Ligeti.

Q: What was it like studying under him? What sort of student were you?

A: The time I studied with Ligeti was the most important study time of my life. Of course, I had studied composition before in Japan, and in Freiburg with Brian Ferneyhough. In Freiburg I got a thorough training in serial techniques, which became my basic compositional device at that time. However, Ligeti loved my pre-Freiburg works much better, and he helped me realize that I had a very original world of my own that deserved developing. Most of all, he told me to find my own technique, my own compositional grammar, and my own professionalism. If I hadn’t studied with him, I might not have been able to compose the way I am composing now, or develop my own style at all.

Ligeti was very strict and, at the same time, he relied very much on his intuition. He was critical about nearly all his students’ works as well as most avant-garde music. Because of his strictness, students were often reluctant to show their works to him. Ligeti would almost instantly find what was wrong with a composition, and he would very often use comparisons, sometimes rather sarcastic ones. It was rather unusual when he praised or admired something (but when he did, he was very sincere).

When I showed a piece to Brian Ferneyhough, he would analyze it and try to develop my material by means of serial technique. Therefore, my compositions back then had a strong tendency toward serialism. At Ligeti’s lessons, because of his strictness, students mostly brought only nearly finished works, no sketches. His teaching style was totally different from Brian’s. He was no teacher for beginners. First, he asked the other students what they thought. After that, he had the final word—suggestions and criticism. His criticism was very intuitive, often symbolic. Often he used very visual comparisons; he also showed “reference works,” not only music, but also pictures, literature, architecture and so on. As far as I understand it, he wanted the students to think for themselves and find their own way.

Maybe I was a rather impudent student, very unlike the typical Japanese female composition students whom most Europeans imagine to be polite, friendly, and a bit shy. For example, Ligeti called me gifted, but he never called me a “lady” or “lovely woman,” a word he reserved for the other Japanese students (like Tamae Okatsu). Most other students, especially men, respected Ligeti very much and all of them were awed by his intelligence, genius, and artistic abilities. Perhaps I sometimes lacked that absolute respect a bit. For example, Ligeti once showed us his Piano Concerto and, of course, everybody admired the score. But I was cheeky enough to mention that, while he had tried new things in the second movement concerning tone color (for example, the use of the ocarina), the overall structure and especially the form of the movement didn’t differ so much from things he had done before, for example creating form using ambitus to produce a well-defined climax.

Q: LigAlien I and II take the Ligeti Horn Trio as their starting point. Are III and IV specifically related to Ligeti’s music and, if so, how?

A: Initially, I wasn’t so much influenced by Ligeti’s style and music. In 2002, I was in a bit of a slump. I was a bit at a loss to know how to develop my own style. Back then, I spent three months in the U.S. at Northwestern University as guest composer. I attended some jazz classes, and I gave two lectures, one about my works and one about Ligeti. Preparing the lecture about Ligeti, I studied again his compositional techniques and systems. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could absorb his material like DNA into my own pieces. So, I composed LigAlien I and II under his influence before the influence became more remote in LigAlien III and IV and I found my own way again.

Q: In the CD notes for LigAlien you say that, in I , having incorporated material from the Horn Trio into the piece, the interruptions become “bolder and more prominent, until nothing is left of Ligeti’s idea. Instead an alien being has come into life.” Would it be more accurate to say that the “alien being” is you? That, in this piece, you have grown and moved away from the influence of Ligeti?

A: Yes, you are right, the “alien” is me. In LigAlien IV , I tried at first to continue what I had done in LigAlien I and II , but I was not satisfied with the results. So I took the new ideas that came to my mind and worked with them. Perhaps I can put it like this: in LigAlien I and II , I tried to work with Ligeti’s DNA, his idiosyncratic techniques and tendencies, and apply them to my compositional world in order to create something new. LigAlien III is more emotionally composed. LigAlien IV is free of any direct Ligeti influence, but it is as if my DNA had been influenced by Ligeti’s DNA, and I tried to create the music and develop it in my own way. At first, I tried to write a real finale, like in the Flute Concerto, but somehow I didn’t succeed and so I said to myself, let’s leave it as it comes.

LigAlien III is not related to the Horn Trio, rather to some material Ligeti used often in his compositions. As this piece was composed for his memorial concert, it is more emotionally related to him. “Memory with Ligeti,” if you want. I had several dreams about Ligeti, rather abstract but very clear dreams. They reflected very much his real situation at that time—which I became aware of only later, after I had called his secretary, partly prompted by their vividness. The first was in October 2005. In it, I was in a train station in Japan. On the platform, I saw Ligeti. I looked at him. But it was a very strange sight. He floated in a bowl like a baby; he had only a body, no hands and no legs anymore. One attendant stood beside Ligeti. I asked her what I could do for him. She answered that he needed better hospital care. After this dream I called his secretary. I explained my dream to her, and she told me that now Ligeti couldn’t eat or move anymore on his own because of his Parkinson’s disease.

When I dreamt about Ligeti again in February 2006, I was convinced that he would die soon. In the dream, I was somewhere in a big room, like a concert or exhibition hall. Then Ligeti entered. He could speak and walk, but there was something like white wax in both his ears. He looked at a kind of purple jewelry I held in my hands and said, “Somebody else made something similar.” Then he went away. After his death, I had another dream. It was a white world, and there were many pillars, people were walking all in the same direction. I saw Ligeti among the people, but he went very fast and didn’t look at me. The images of this dream are reflected in LigAlien III.

Q: How did you approach writing the Flute Concerto?

A: When I started to compose my Flute Concerto, I still had no idea how I could adapt my style for a large ensemble. I was not sure how my style would lend itself to the organization of larger structures (larger time spans, larger ensembles). Additionally, to write a flute concerto seemed to me a rather conservative endeavor (using a string orchestra had been the idea of [BIS Record’s head] Robert von Bahr [who had commissioned the work]). By chance I got the score of Stockhausen’s Trans and realized that there were some similarities between the ensemble writing there and that in big band music (especially that of people like Bob Brookmeyer). Both use complex chords in unison movement. Also, in Trans there are some melodies that really sound as if they came straight out of an improvisation. This was for me the starting point in developing my own style of orchestration. My approach to writing for soloist and orchestra may have also been influenced by Miles Davis and his band. Miles gives the band a stimulus and they play their own improvisation, often in a very lively way. I thought to give the flute in my concerto a similar role. The flute is leading by stimulating what is happening in the orchestra.

I choose my performers with great care, especially for the CDs. The Flute Concerto was composed for Sharon Bezaly. I had already known her for several years before writing the piece; she is a very gifted flutist. As for the orchestra and the conductor, I talked many times to Robert von Bahr and explained to him what kind of performers are good for my music; for example, a good rhythmic feel is important, and they have to be open to understand my music.

Q: I felt there wasn’t an extended passage of slow music in the concerto. What is your view about expressing emotions in music?

A: Now you mention it I think that’s curious, too! I love some adagios , especially those by Mahler and Berg. It is rather by accident that there is no extended slow passage in the Flute Concerto; I think there will be more slow passages in my opera.

Q: How do you feel about Full Moon ? This is a work that places the solo violin against a recorded background of electronically modulated samples of the soloist playing. Did you meet all your objectives for that piece?

A: For me, Full Moon is a finished work. It is new territory for me on several accounts. It’s my first work with electronics, and it required a different compositional technique from my other works. As I was not so deep into Cubase then, I had to work with somebody else to put the sounds together. (In my new electronic piece—which will be part of the opera—I did the whole job alone.) First, I wrote a score in common notation and tried to imagine what kind of sounds I wanted to use. Nevertheless, since electronic sounds offer many possibilities and are a little bit less well defined in their behavior than, say, a saxophone, my musical ideas were initially a bit rougher and more flexible than in my other, acoustic, works. After that, I started the electronic realization. Normally, many electronic pieces tend toward working with “sound objects,” or toward ambient. But my idea was, from the beginning, to write a more genuinely musical story, in the way I normally write for acoustic ensembles. On the other hand, I didn’t beforehand compose all the details that I incorporated into the electronic realization, and occasionally I changed things while working on the electronic details. This new style has, in turn, influenced my new acoustic pieces as well as some new electronic pieces that I’m writing now.

Q: You say: “In general, my music tends to reflect multitudinous influences from avant-garde to jazz, pop, ethnic music, classical and pre-classical European music, etc., and I think this tendency will become even clearer in the opera.” This is a very wide range of styles. How are you integrating them? Or is this not your intention?

A: Perhaps I should mention at first that it is not my final purpose to assimilate any style of music, and the methods of assimilation vary from case to case. This is difficult to explain in detail because I’m working here very intuitively, guided by instinct and sometimes by chance. For example, let’s take the Pérotin and techno mélange I will use in the second scene of the third act of The Snow Queen . The scene starts with electronic music that I produced with Cubase—I had the somewhat surreal vision that, in the Sleep Castle, the dreams are “chatting” to each other. I showed this music to a student of mine who is interested in many kinds of music (he is about 24 years old), and I said that I was not quite sure how to continue with the music for the crows, the Prince, and the Princess. He came up with the idea of using techno music and introduced me to Kraftwerk. At the same time, I gave a lecture at my junior college about the music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As I played some Pérotin to my students, I felt a common point—so the idea for the second scene was born. So, that is one example of how I hit upon an idea by accident.

But there are also music styles that impress me deeply which I can’t assimilate. One of these is Miles Davis. I love his music, but his influence is difficult and sometimes dangerous for me (because there is a danger that my music becomes too similar to his). I am interested in many kinds of folk, ethnic, and traditional music. Of course I am interested in traditional Japanese music, but I love African music as well, and Asian music outside Japan, for example Myanmar/Burma (hsaing waing and saung music). There are also varieties of folk music that have been influenced by contemporary culture and become popular thereby but, in general, I am more interested in original folk, ethnic, and traditional music. Sometimes I hear music in my head. When I composed LigAlien IV , I had a very clear vision of the beginning, a strange mixture of nonexistent folk music and Duke Ellington. I continued to compose up to the middle of the work and then I had another “vision.” This time I heard very clearly the end of the work—this ragged big band thing. It was not a matter of choice or decision, it just popped up in my mind.

I don’t know if I’m successful at integrating highly disparate styles. And, of course, there are times when the result bears some risk, for example of not being clear enough or of bordering on kitsch. In that case, I’ll try to ask my intuition whether something has gone wrong or not and, if something has gone wrong, I’ll try to find by intuition and self-analysis what it is and try to correct it. I’d say that I work both intuitively and analytically. I start with my imagination, be it some melody, harmony, sound, or structure, then I begin to compose. But, at a certain point, I tend to lose my way. Then I usually analyze what I have done in the composition so far, and what kind of meaning or tendency is hidden in it. When I find the meaning or tendency, I look again at what I have composed and try to correct, order, or align it according to the system I found analytically.

Q: Stockhausen said that many of his works—including Trans —came to him in dreams. You’ve spoken about your dreams of Ligeti and, clearly, you freely use your intuition—your unconscious—to assist your compositional procedure, as you’ve just described. Are dreams a source of ideas for you?

A: No, music doesn’t come to me in my dreams directly. Only images that later may have an influence.

Q: How do you approach composing The Snow Queen?

A: When I begin to compose a new scene of my opera, I’m thinking at first about the imagery of this scene, and I sketch out a libretto and what I want to happen there. In order to realize the imagery, I need some stimuli. I am looking for musical stimuli. And I have a tendency to go for unconventional musical imagery. For example, I am currently writing the music for the Sleep Castle, which is inhabited by a Prince and a Princess. I don’t want to write some “rococo music” for them. Instead, I find a stimulating influence in techno and in Pérotin’s music. Both work with fixed rhythmical cycles. The Prince and the Princess are visited by two crows—and, of course, by Gerda—and I will use music that is closer to Pérotin for the Prince and the Princess, and music closer to techno for the crows.

I started composing The Snow Queen more than 10 years ago but left it in a state of limbo for a long time. Finally, I have decided to finish my opera. I am working very hard on it, and am confident that it will be finished by March 2013. The libretto is in German and I am writing the text myself. After the composition is finished, it is possible that I will make an English version. The original story is, of course, the well-known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In the tale, the heroine Gerda travels many lands to look for her friend Kai who has been abducted by the Snow Queen. Gerda’s quest is, at the same time, the story of her growth as a human and as a woman. However, it is not my idea to write just an opera based on the fairy tale; I would like to relate its content to contemporary society and modern psychology on the one hand, and to explore the pre-Christian and shamanistic roots of the tale on the other, thus presenting Andersen’s plot from a more universal point of view. And I want to keep the end of this opera open, so that everyone can form their own ideas about the ending.

The triple catastrophe of March 11, 2011, in Japan—the earthquake, which was strong in Tokyo, where I live; the devastating tsunami; and the explosion of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima—all had a strong influence on my ideas about the plot of the opera. In the wake of these tragedies, I somehow had a vision of the overture of the opera, and it was only then that I realized how the opera could start. Twenty years ago, I had dreamt that I was somewhere alone and looking at the sky. From there, glittering things were falling; I knew it was radioactivity. But, of course, back then it was hard to believe that anything like that could happen, because nobody could imagine that, for example, another atomic bomb could fall on Japan or an atomic war would break out. I use the tsunami and the accident at the nuclear power plant to represent any similar catastrophe. As you know, March 11 was the worst day in Japan after World War II. First the earthquake and tsunami, and then we experienced the unbelievable—nuclear stations exploding. Everybody thought this would be the end of East Japan (including Tokyo). I remembered my dream and thought, if we could hear radioactivity, it would be a very high noise. This I tried to express with kagura bells, triangle, and high string tones in the overture. The idea came to me directly after the accidents in Fukushima.

In the third act, the relevance of the tsunami and the Fukushima accident will become more apparent. The first scene of the third act contains the Snow Queen’s aria. The text shows the feelings of the Snow Queen on the one hand, and predictions of calamities to come on the other. The second scene plays in the dream castle; here, dreams are “chatting” with each other (Internet-like), and they speak about horrific things to come. At one moment, when the heroine is talking with the Prince and the Princess, suddenly all the lights go out. One hears three times the sound of a siren (the warning sign that a tsunami is coming), then a chorus, “All electricity is out; where is the emergency supply? It has been flooded,” etc. This imitates of course very closely the reality back then in the Fukushima plant. Stupid TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator] wanted to save as much money as possible, so they didn’t build the emergency power supply higher up the mountain slope immediately behind the plant, but at the same level as the plant.

A few other things around the opera interest me. Firstly, the psychology of the people. For example in the first act, the children cast a spell on Kai because they are angry that he frees the White Fox [the Snow Queen metamorphosed]. Here, I am thinking of bullying (a serious problem in Japanese schools). And, I don’t want to depict the Snow Queen only as a negative character, I want to show a woman who is beautiful, intelligent, but very alone, and thus she takes the boy who has been kind to her. I think there are many women like her: They may seem perfect, but are anxious toward human relationships.

Secondly, I especially want to reflect the life of young people. In the second scene of the third act—dream castle—the Prince and the Princess try to find Kai by using the Internet. Each time they press Enter, the orchestra plays a short sound like a signal sound in a game. I analyzed some of these sounds. Of course, there are limits as to how realistically one can imitate electronic sounds with an orchestra, but I hope I succeeded in emulating some key features of these sounds—and composing something new out of them. By the way, the scene begins with electronic music that I created with Cubase. This music shows my idea of “many dreams chatting with each other.” Although using electronic sounds in the context of an opera may have become less shocking nowadays, it might still be startling for the audience when suddenly, in the middle of the opera, computer and game sounds appear. But I think that today we, and especially young people, tend to live in a totally electronic world. I think that the feeling and thinking of young people (especially of the smartphone/iPhone-generation) differ from those who grew up in a time when all these things didn’t exist. And I think it is important to express today’s reality in the opera.

Q: So, more generally, what do you feel your purpose is as a composer?

A: I think I have three major purposes as a composer. Firstly, technically. I would subscribe 100-percent to Ligeti’s challenge: to compose works that are original, but nevertheless rooted in a firm technique. (That sounds perhaps simpler than it is.) Secondly, in broader terms, I think the world has become very global; we are literally flooded by information in this very “electronized” world. I feel that the younger generation has a different perception of life than we had and, as a composer, I want to speak to that generation and compose works for the modern music of a new time. Thirdly, we live today in a world that is convenient on the one hand, but stressful, insecure (for example financially), and sometimes lonely on the other. So, what kind of meaning would music have in this world? I think that, among the arts, music speaks most emotionally to people. I want to write a music which gives a positive and warm feeling, especially to people who are sad or who have lost courage, and which conveys a sense of beauty. I think people are especially susceptible to this feeling of beauty if they are unhappy.

However sad or stressed I may feel, if I listen to appropriate music, I can become happy again and gain hope. So, as far as my technique is concerned, perhaps I want to compose music that gives a feeling of freedom, and that means it can also be influenced by many different genres and styles. And I want to show that, in my opinion, there is no hierarchy, no ranking among the genres. If I can pass on to other people what I feel when listening to good music, I am very glad. It means love, hope, positivity, emotion, warmth, aid, and healing.

TAKANO LIGALIENFlute concerto. 1,10,11 LIgAlien I. 3,4,9 LIgAlien II. 2,5,8 LIgAlien III. 5,7 LIgAlien IV. 3,4,9 Full Moon. 6 Jungibility 9 1 Sharon Bezaly (fl); 2 Shoko Ikeda (ob); 3 Nathan Nabb (sop sax); 4 Masahito Sugihara (tenor sax); 5 Kioko Yasuda (vn); 6 Mari Kimura (vn); 7 Kazuko Nambara (hp); 8 Miki Maruta (koto); 9 Winston Choi (pn); 10 Anne Manson, cond; 11 Swedish CO BIS CD1453 (75:47)


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