The Turtle and the Crane was written in January, 1988 for the pianist Aki Takahashi, who asked me to write a piece that would, among other things, "encourage women". When I asked Aki to give me an example of such music that I might be able to use as a model, she replied that that was just the problem: There wasn't any; somebody had to start writing it. (In fact a considerable amount of music in recent years has been written for and about women, by both women and men: Pauline Oliveros' Gathering Together and Portraits, and Christian Wolff's Bread and Roses and Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida, to name but a few examples. I myself had made an attempt in this direction a few years earlier with Mary's Dream, based on a text by Mary Shelley.)
I tried at first to write a piece that would convey a feminist message, that would tell a woman's story. This undertaking proved to be more difficult than I imagined. The first version had words that were to be spoken by the pianist, which I later struck out. The second version is purely instrumental, but still appears to tell a story. I understand it as an interior dialogue between the male and female parts of the brain.
The title refers to a celebrated rock-garden in Kyoto, which I visited in December, 1987, with my friend Toshi Ichiyanagi. Two large boulders, separated and surrounded by a sea of pebbles, represent the islands of the turtle and the crane. These two animals are both symbols of longevity in traditional Japanese mythology (the first lives for 10,000 years, the second for 1,000). I was impressed by the notion that such gardens, far from being static art-forms (e.g. "frozen music"), combine space and time. By spending a long time in such an environment, the observer becomes attentive to small, short natural events which would otherwise escape notice: the sound of water, a bird's flight, the falling of a leaf. This experience gave me the idea for a piece of music using two durations: one very long and full of many tiny, unpredictable events; the other shorter (although still "long"), in which nothing happens. The "little things" that happen over longer durations have the character of natural events which the pianist cannot control completely: for example, a repeated note whose intensity and timbre fluctuates unpredictably as a result of muscle fatigue and the mechanical peculiarities of the instrument. Such imperfections, when they occur, are not regarded as errors but as revelations of an internal state. The result is a dialogue in which one partner chatters away at length, while the other answers in monosyllables, always having the last word.