Recently one morning, on the bus ride to the subway, I chose not to spend those 15 minutes of my daily commute the way I normally would, that is, by reading or gazing out the window. Instead, I closed my eyes, wanting to listen to the sounds the bus made, wanting to know if those sounds might constitute a kind of music.
What I noticed first was the thrum of the engine, rising and falling as we lumbered down the road. At first, this noise seemed like nothing more than an indistinct mass of sound, quiet, generally featureless. When the driver applied the brakes for the first time, I heard a noise like a distant French horn—it was then, while stopped at a light, that the engine’s vibrating whirr began to take on a different character: it was like a cluster of microtones, out of which I began to hear individual notes emerge. When the bus started up again, it discharged a gentle whoosh—puh-paaah, the acceleration producing a high-pitched jangling, a whistling sound, something metallic. The sound of the engine had shape—it would crescendo and decrescendo—and every bump in the road resulted in more than a gentle jolt; I heard the striking of a bass drum, or some other percussion instrument. Somewhere beneath me, from the bus’s undercarriage, came another percussive noise, another beating of a drum: bum-baaah, bum-baaah, bum-baaah. Then, a gentle rain began to fall, and I became aware of the faint click of the windshield wipers, a regular rhythm that seemed to provide a structure for all the other surrounding sounds—sounds governed by their own, irregular sense of time. I had never noticed any of this before, and when I opened my eyes, I felt not only as if I had indeed been listening to a piece of music, but that its hum and throb and percussiveness were inside me. Even the computerized voice announcing, Silver Spring Station, transfer to the Red Line, had a noticeable cadence, a lilt, as did the sound of a man talking softly on his cell phone several rows ahead of me. Had I any talent at all for composition, I could have put all this down on staff paper, and called it my opus 1.
Last week, I wrote about the music of Toru Takemitsu, and I must admit that I got the idea for this little sound experiment from one of his essays, which appears in a collection called Confronting Silence (published in English translation in 1995). One day in 1948, Takemitsu was stuck on a crowded Tokyo subway when he became “conscious only of the rhythm of the train and its physical effect on” him. This pulse “coursed through our bodies,” he writes, “pounded inside our perspiring skins; and I and the others in the subway leaned on this rhythm, receiving some kind of rest from it.” It came to Takemitsu like a revelation: that the sounds and rhythms to be encountered in the wider world might be introduced into his musical compositions. “More precisely,” he writes, “it was then that I became aware that composing is giving meaning to that stream of sounds that penetrates the world we live in.”
What is noise, and what is music? Perhaps a more compelling question is: After the cultural cataclysms of the 20th century, need we even distinguish between the two? Great music can be harsh and discordant, it can jar and grate, it can take its inspiration from the factory or the countryside. It can be systematically structured, or it can rely heavily on chance, as do the aleatoric scores of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Witold Lutosławski. In the mid-1960s, Edgard Varèse, a composer who knew a thing or two about the possibilities of sound, wrote, “To stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise. … What is music but organized noises?”
For Takemitsu, the divide between noise and sound became far less great when he understood the sonorous potential of such Japanese instruments as the flute-like shakuhachi and the percussive, lute-like biwa. “The major characteristic that sets [the biwa] apart from Western instruments,” Takemitsu writes, “is in the active inclusion of noise in its sound, whereas Western instruments, in the process of development, sought to eliminate noise.” He refers to a book written during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867) that instructs the biwa player to imitate the sound of the cicada. As for the shakuhachi, only a true master can supposedly achieve this most difficult act of mimicry: to re-create “the sound of wind blowing through an old bamboo grove.”
Takemitsu composed a magnificent work called November Steps that introduces these sounds into the context of western orchestral music. The conductor Seiji Ozawa, who heard an earlier piece of Takemitsu’s that was scored for biwa and shakuhachi, played a tape of this work for Leonard Bernstein, after returning to the United States from a trip to Japan. Bernstein was no less enthusiastic, and soon, the New York Philharmonic was commissioning Takemitsu to write a piece for the orchestra’s 125th anniversary. The premiere took place in 1967, appropriately enough, given the title of the piece, in November, and though the performance was a success (Aaron Copland and Krzysztof Penderecki, among others, raved about the work), it had taken a bit of persuading for the notoriously intransigent musicians of the Philharmonic to be won over.
This is complex, modernist, thoroughly enchanting music. According to Takemitsu, “it may sound contradictory to refer to ‘beautiful noise,’” but here we have it: nearly 20 minutes of the most beautiful noises imaginable. It isn’t just the novelty (to western ears, at any rate) of hearing the Japanese instruments so compellingly blended into the forces of an orchestra—without the music ever descending into the realm of exotic kitsch. In this eerie, otherworldly soundscape, the western instruments themselves seem to transform in character. As Takemitsu writes, “Sounds are ever-present as new individual realities. Let us start listening with unfettered ears. Soon sounds will reveal their turbulent transformations to us.”
Although November Steps consists of a set of 11 variations, I confess that even after repeated hearings, I have a hard time discerning this form—the way I can pick out the variations in the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, for example, or the Passacaglia of Anton Webern. I am confronted with the illusion that this organization of noises has no organization at all. This is, I think, the point: form, as it is understood in western music, is far less important here than sound. When I hear the biwa, the strings plucked and snapped, I do hear those cicadas swarming in my ears, but the sounds are not necessarily imitative gestures. Whatever the composer’s intent, for me, they are not part of some piece of nature painting; they represent pure sound, pure timbre, pure sonority, emitted in a stream that seems to have no end. In Confronting Silence, Takemitsu describes the act of composition as “mathematical alchemy.” The wonderful contradiction contained in that phrase, the tension between science and magic, the known and the unknown, lies at the heart of this most beguiling piece of music.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.