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Of course November Steps was important in introducing shakuhachi to classical audiences in the United States and around the world, but it also re-introduced Japanese audiences to their own traditions. You could say that Miyagi had done something similar years earlier, but Takemitsu did it with a sound that was totally fresh: it wasn't quaint or orientalist, it didn't rely on pastiche or on Western or Japanese cliches, but it somehow spoke from a deep understanding of both traditional Japanese music and modern western music. Rather than trying to appeal to his audience through cultural reference, he wrote soulfully and intelligently from his own unique musical experience.
Takemitsu had been an internationalist from the beginning. In 1951 he helped organize the Experimental Workshop in Tokyo and presented music by new Japanese composers as well as Messiaen (his hero), Bartok, Satie, Schoenberg, etc. He became a colleague of Cage, Stockhausen, etc., touring music festivals around the world. All this time, I think, he was bringing some of the spirit of the traditional Japanese arts with him.
Here's a quote from his essay on November Steps in "Confronting the Silence":
"Just as Seiji Ozawa had remarked that 'the NY Philharmonic is hostile toward contemporary music,' some performers openly demonstrated their antagonism as the opening of the piece was rehearsed... In contrast to the belligerent mood of the orchestra, Tsuruta and Yokoyama sat serenely with closed eyes. After the opening section the biwa and shakuhachi entered. The mood of the orchestra began changing, slowly, but nevertheless changing. The orchestra sound came alive, as if something beyond technique had been added.
"November Steps has a section near the end where only the Japanese instruments play. During the eight minutes or so that it lasted the orchestra members listened intently. Yes, of course there was a curiosity about the 'mysterious East.' But there was something more than that. They were enchanted by the music of two fine performers. The final orchestral coda was so alive that it was hard to imagine that it was played by the same orchestra that had begun the piece. After the designated final silence, bravos and applause exploded from the orchestra." (translated by Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow)
And thanks in part to Takemitsu I think the mood of the "contemporary classical" music WORLD has begun changing, slowly, but nevertheless changing -- something beyond technique has been added.
I probably read the same article, he was almost defeated with the challenge to combine the two Musical forms. I so appreciate that 'November Steps' exists, it reaches into perceptual depths beyond mere words and I treasure that experience.