The truth of the illogic

Merlijn Twaalfhoven
4 min readMay 8, 2017


Exciting times for a Dutch composer in Japan

Written March 2002

The most beautiful way to discover an unknown culture is through the arts. It was in music that I had my first contact with Japan. Already years ago, I felt a strong connection between my ideas as a composer and the Japanese contemporary music during a performance of the Nieuw Ensemble in Paradiso. Three years later it was again because of this profession that I could travel to Japan. However, what I learned was certainly not restricted to music only. My experiences during my stay in Japan for 2 months strongly affected the way I think about my own culture, and made me realize how my ideas of art can be connected to an attitude towards life itself.

Ever since I started my study at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I wanted to create music with a strong connection to natural processes. I love the way sound grows and tension appears when music is gradually building itself. When the sound develops slowly, the composition can unfold in a natural way. Sometimes I feel that the work of a composer is not in first place creating new material, but more just giving space to the sound in order to let it develop in its own natural way.

The first time I listened to Japanese contemporary music, I heard exactly that kind of balance. The balance in movement, a flow of events, and natural breathing of time was precisely what I was looking for. I started studying traditional Japanese music, and it seemed to me that in many aspects it is the inverse of Western music.

In the west we love big things. When something is big, it is important. In some Japanese styles though, a solo performance is the highest art, and the power of music is the intrinsic silence. In the west the power of music is made by its loudness and bigness. The big classical composers competed to make monumental, long and huge works. In the whole western world, importance is actually the only reason to do things. It sounds logical: something that doesn’t make an important statement, is not interesting.

During my time in Japan, I was very surprised about a lot of things. Seemingly, logic was often not of primary importance. Sometimes it was even as if confusion was the foundation of society. Until that moment, I was sure that logic and efficiency were universal principles, but it appeared that it is just a specific western way of thinking! It seems universal, because the west has been so strongly influencing the entire world, so you might think that the west is the world.

So what is it that is more basic than importance and logic in Japanese society? This is the hard question. I learned that harmony is a central principle, which is certainly true in the sense that I felt as if there was no need to fight anything. I also discovered a matter of equality; a small thing can be regarded with such care and concern, as if it were the most precious. In the traditional arts like ikebana and chado, a seemingly ordinary and non-important act is deeply refined and performed as if it were a holy ritual. At first I regarded these things as remarkable and strange, but I realized that actually our whole life consists of rituals, and as long we think it is important, we will live in the illusion that that the things we do are important. So, when you choose serving tea as your “religion”, it will always be clear that it is not the tea that is holy, but it is your concern and affection that is developed and may turn an ordinary act into a sacred moment. The focus of many traditional Japanese arts, seems to be not on the creation of some physical masterpiece or performance, but more a mental attitude that eliminates the unessential. It’s the way of creation that really matters, not what will be created.

In the west people will say you are just depressed when you claim life is meaningless and our behavior solely consists of social rituals. In Japan, such thoughts could be part of a basic view on life, and people are not so afraid of it, because it is not emptiness what is left when you take away importance; it’s essence.

In Japanese aesthetics, I discovered that it is actually great to get rid of all Explanations, Statements and Big Ideas that cover the essence of art in the west. Because what is the essence? It is hard to describe, but it might have something to do with naturalness. Nature is perfect. But nature will always consists of good and bad, light and shadow, birth and death. In the western spirit (which is so strongly determined by the Christian worldview), we have to fight bad, bring light in the shadow and be scared for the death. But it is an illusion to think this will bring us closer to perfection.

This subject actually needs a lot more space to be described in a more accurate way, and maybe I am much too strong in my analysis (yes, as you see, I want to make Important Statements too!). But it gives an outline of my impressions during my musical studies in Japan.

I realized it is so important to experience a foreign culture. I don’t want to say Japan is more perfect than Europe, but for me it was very interesting and refreshing to see how basic things can still be regarded so differently.