Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries – stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water…Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.
-Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”
The ocean took on metaphysical significance not only for Herman Melville but also for the twentieth century Japanese composer, Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996). Takemitsu, whose music is filled with evocations of water and nature, referred to the sea as a “spiritual domain.” He described his 1981 work, Toward the Sea, as an “homage to the sea which creates all things and a sketch for the sea of tonality.”
Toward the Sea was commissioned by Greenpeace for the Save the Whales campaign. It was originally written for alto flute and guitar. Takemitsu created a second version for alto flute, harp and string orchestra. The piece is divided into three sections which reference Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick: The Night, Moby-Dick, and Cape Cod. Originally notated without bar lines, these three brief episodes unfold like fleeting dreams. Meditative sonic currents ebb and flow. There is a sense of quiet, awesome majesty that evokes the mightiest giants of the deep. Paying homage to the impressionism of Debussy, the music is a sonic kaleidoscope of shimmering colors. It is built on the three note motif, E-flat-E-A, which translates to the “SEA” in the German notation. The alto flute is distinctly warm and mellow. At moments, Takemitsu calls for a fluttering effect that bends the pitch in a way reminiscent of traditional Japanese music.
This recording features harpist Yolanda Kondonassis with Joshua Smith (principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra), and the ensemble Oberlin 21:
I feel that water and sound are similar. We know water only in its transitory forms – rains, a lake, ariver,or the sea. Music is like a river or sea. As many different currents create those oceans, so does music deepen our lives with constantly changing awareness.
- Takemitsu: Toward the Sea II, Yolanda Kondonassis, Joshua Smith, Oberlin 21 Amazon
- Takemitsu: Toward the Sea, Robert Aitken, Norbert Kraft (original version for flute and guitar)
Featured Image: A sperm whale in the depths of the ocean