Although they were born on different continents and worked in different artistic disciplines, there exists an odd but indelible aesthetic affinity between writer James Joyce and composer Toru Takemitsu. Both worked within a form that develops in a linear fashion: the words, like the notes, read left to right, top to bottom, and are arranged in an order that unfolds and is perceived through time. And both Joyce and Takemitsu write in such a way as to resist that linearity: Joyce's novels are known for their skewed or slippery sense of narrative trajectory and their bending of chronological continuity, while the dramatic trajectories of Takemitsu's works are often compared to the meandering way in which one's eyes or body might navigate freely through the carefully placed objects and open spaces in a Japanese garden. In fact, Takemitsu himself gets the credit for uncovering this affinity: A number of his works incorporate elements from, or otherwise find inspiration in, Joyce's famous and enigmatic novel Finnegan's Wake.
Among these is Takemitsu's A Way a Lone, composed in 1980 on commission from the Tokyo String Quartet to commemorate that ensemble's tenth anniversary. The composer takes the title of his piece from the ending of Finnegan's Wake, one of the most unique and intriguing passages in literature: "The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the." The distant, precarious feeling of Joyce's unfinished sentence and seemingly disconnected words is reflected in the loosely ebbing structure of Takemitsu's quartet, whose harmonic wanderings and exaggerated gestures are perforated with pauses and punctuated with calculated blemishes. A solo violin might in one moment indulge in a rhapsodic melody, then, with a trepidatious breath, float into ethereally high harmonics or wax melodramatic with intoxicated glissandos and portamentos. Takemitsu's dynamic mixture of contrapuntal skill and coloristic sensibility results in dizzying textures made of variously angular lines, intricate patterns, and unimagined hues. Just as Joyce's streams of words approach music in the way they swirl into purely sonic objects, Takemitsu's music unfolds so naturally and with such spontaneity as to become a kind of surreal conversation.
While it is not difficult to read into the musical surface certain general similarities to the work from which the piece takes its title, the composer identifies Joyce's influence operating on a more technical level. Much of the musical material is constructed upon and around a three-note idea consisting of a minor second ascent followed by an upward leap of a perfect fourth. Takemitsu refers to these pitches as the "Intervals of the SEA." Here, Takemitsu reveals a subtle musical encoding of an extra-musical reference: In the traditional German terminology, the note E flat is expressed as "Es," or simply "S"; up a half step from Takemitsu's E flat is an E and a fourth up from that, the A. Takemitsu's prevalent three-note idea thus spells out "SEA" in musical letters.