An Introduction to Isao Tomita, Part One

Isao Tomita was nine years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In the years that followed he found himself surrounded by destruction: Half a million men, women, and children–the majority of whom resided in Tomita’s home city of Tokyo–would be killed in air raids or die from starvation.

To know where the bombs would fall next, Tomita and his family would leave the radio on throughout the night tuned to the national military service. One evening toward the end of the war the usual news and propaganda briefly vanished. In its place, through the static, Tomita heard music that would change his life.

Japan had been closed to Western culture throughout Tomita’s childhood. On this night, with U.S. aircraft carriers getting closer, radio crosstalk had caused a trace of Western music to reach Tomita’s ear.

And when Japan surrendered, the strange music proliferated.

“Jazz, pop songs, and classical music was filling the airwaves of Japan” after the war, Tomita recently told Tokyo Weekender. “To me, that music sounded like it was coming from aliens in outer space. That was really what I thought. I thought I was listening to music from outer space. […] I was inspired by those sounds, and this was the catalyst that began the creative spirit within me.”

As a young boy, Western music sounded literally alien to Isao Tomita. So he would spend the majority of his life making Western music sound alien to everyone else.

“Space Fantasy”

With spaceship launch sound effects, alien duets, and track titles like “Venus in a Space Uniform Shining in Florescent Light,” the world of Isao Tomita is not for the realist. A Grammy-nominated electronic music pioneer who rose to prominence in the mid-70s, Tomita was inspired to electronically interpret classical music after hearing Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach in 1968. Tomita’s approach, however, was more ambitious, liberal, and cartoonish, often using classical music to create sweeping space epics. Because of this, a Tomita interpretation can go from heartbreakingly beautiful to unbearably campy, often within seconds. An inspired interpretation of a passage from Holst or Mussorgsky can be quickly shattered by a synthesized alien “bwap,” fake chicken noises, or some gee-whiz sound effect.

But ultimately Tomita’s good moments can be counted among the most epic, lush, richly-layered, and romantic electronic music ever created. But they are also borne of a deep and infectious excitement. After being surrounded by death, hunger, and the ruined landscape of war-torn Japan, Western music’s ubiquity following the war’s end was likely associated in Tomita’s mind with hope and reconstruction. The result is a canon of albums that warp Western classical music through a lens of wide-eyed optimism, particularly optimism about space exploration, the promise of technology, and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

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“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn”

Tomita was an accomplished composer before he’d ever heard of the Moog, with credits including the theme for the Japanese Olympic team at the 1956 Summer Olympics, and the soundtrack to the animated series Kimba the White Lion (from which The Lion King would later be based). But he was artistically unsatisfied. As he told Resident Advisor, “I arrived to the conclusion that everything that could be achieved in orchestration has already been done in Wagner’s time and, eventually, I realized that I wanted to make my own music using my own sounds.” After hearing Switched-On Bach, Tomita realized that his wish to make his own sounds was attainable, and he bought a Moog.

Given how often artful Tomita’s professed ambitions were, and how brilliantly he would eventually realize them, his first album, Electric Samurai: Switched-On Rock, is bafflingly bad. Released without an artist credit in 1972 for reasons unknown, the album is a collection of cover songs by the likes of The Beatles, Elvis, and Simon and Garfunkel, and it serves as a catalog of the worst excesses of which Tomita was capable. From a gravely, beep-bwaping robotic voice singing “Let It Be” to the harmonies of “Ms. Robinson” played on what sounds like a fart and a ghost, the album is the sort of cloying, goofy Moog novelty album now bought for a dollar and given ironically by hipsters. Even a drum kit and rhythm guitar of the type used in that era’s Muzak is featured. The album went nowhere, and was virtually unknown even among analog music fans until it was rediscovered in the late 2000s.

It remains unclear why Tomita chose an album of pop covers (perhaps as a rehearsal?) as his first effort, but for his second album he opted to fulfill the spirit of his original ambition.

“A Spaceship Lands Emitting Silvery Light”

“Bach’s music to me sounds like drawings with lines but no color,” Tomita told Keyboard in 1977. “The notes can be played equally well by an organ or by strings, or can be sung by a choir.” It was composers like Ravel and Stravinksy, he continued, that understood the importance of tone color and the interplay between different instruments to achieve it. For his next effort, Snowflakes Are Dancing, he set out to create an album interpreting the works of one of these more tonally-oriented composers, Debussy, to show off the new possibilities for timbre inherent in the synthesizer.

To achieve this, Tomita pushed the limits of technology beyond any other electronic musician of his time. Images of Tomita from the period show him in a dimly lit, tomb-like studio sandwiched between stacks of component equipment and towering Moog systems vomiting out audio cables. And unlike most other synthesists of the era interpreting classical, he incorporated a Mellotron on Snowflakes, and a Fender Rhodes and Clavinet. His sprawling lists of equipment, meticulously cataloged on nearly all of his album covers, are legendary.

But while his equipment provided the foundation for more richly-realized sounds, it’s what Tomita did with that equipment that brought an elegance and grandeur to electronic music. And even now, it’s astonishing how detailed and complex his interpretations were. On Debussy’s “Reverie” for example, the solo piano piece is fractured into dozens of timbres, the melody bounced between multiple lead tones while shimmering layers of accompanying textures shift underneath. Further, this all happens in a massive aural space created by using a wide dynamic range along with stacks of reverb and echo devices.

Perhaps no one explains how Tomita’s sound transcended that of other electronic musicians of the time better than Mark Jenkins in his book Analog Synthesis: Understanding, Performing, Buying—from the Legacy of Moog to Software Synthesis:

“[Tomita] had a better appreciation for the ambience needed to create a recording as strong as that of a symphony orchestra. (Tomita was an experienced composer for large orchestras, while [Wendy] Carlos was not.) Tomita particularly used phasing and flanging to add movement to an analog sound; on carefully listening to any of the Tomita recordings, a great majority of the sounds are found to be processed in some way, each sound sweeping gradually during the course of a note, and any tendency to thinness is removed in the note. Tomita was also a master of adding reverberation, and excelled at placing sounds and moving them across the stereo spectrum.”

Snowflakes was a drink of cool water in an era where the most well-known electronic music seemed to be either gritty academic experimentation or cheeseball novelty albums. Here was a synthesist who had artistic bona fides through skillfully interpreting a classical master, yet he also made the synthesizer more beautiful, lush, and accessible than much of what came before—a walk in the garden instead of a clockwork orange. Snowflakes Are Dancing would earn him international stardom and five Grammy nominations, and was Billboard’s best-selling classical album of the year.

But in addition to its initial success, Snowflakes has gone on to have one of the most fervent cult followings of any electronic album from that era. If sampling is a good indicator of cult status, Tomita samples are prevalent throughout a variety of hip hop and electronica tracks. Talib Kweli and Hi Tek created “Too Late” using mostly samples from “Reverie” and “Passepied,” and other artists sampling Snowflakes include Notorious B.I.G., Usher, and Future Sound of London. Mike Viola of Candy Butchers buys Snowflakes as a gift for “at least” one person every Christmas. And “Arabesque #1” would become the theme to PBS’s astronomy show The Star Hustler, thus guaranteeing nostalgic affection in millions of Gen Xers.

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“The Engulfed Cathedral”

Where Snowflakes feels like a walk in a garden, its follow-up, 1975’s Pictures at an Exhibition, feels like a shift on a factory floor. Unfortunately abandoning the lushness of its predecessor, Pictures clangs, pings, hammers, and thunks its way through Mussorgsky’s symphony, Tomita’s choice of tones becoming more harsh, metallic, and often grating. Moments of grandeur remain, mostly in the form of reverb-drenched Mellotron choirs, but Pictures mostly just seems anxious to impress. Like the novelty Moog albums Tomita both dabbled in and helped drive out of fashion, Pictures rarely seems satisfied simply letting its source material provide the inspiration for its choices of timbre; instead, it uses the symphony as a hollow vehicle to showcase the more in-your-face and cartoonish capabilities of electronic sound. Yet even when Tomita does seem to use the source material from the score for inspiration, it ends up being camp: “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” is played with synthesized chicken noises.

Pictures also showcases the most consistently frustrating obstacle to losing oneself in a lot of Tomita’s output: his fascination with making the Moog go “bwap” and “bwoop” in a variety of octaves and timbres. Making the Moog sound like it’s talking may have seemed interesting or cutting edge at the time. It now comes off as jarring, goofy, and cloying.

And if the words “goofy,” and “cloying” apply to anyone, they definitely don’t apply to Igor Stravinsky. For that reason and others, The Firebird, released the same year, is an odd match for Tomita. While there was an inherent playfulness to Mussorgsky’s Pictures that could occasionally excuse the cartoonish tone of his interpretation, the overall darkness of The Firebird contrasts oddly with Tomita’s showy approach. It continues Pictures’ reliance on the Mellotron and more metallic timbres, though with more restraint than on its predecessor, and certain passages return to the lushness of Snowflakes—most notably (and appropriately) Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Though a decent effort, The Firebird is probably the least memorable of Tomita’s 70s albums, being neither as beautiful and groundbreaking as Snowflakes or as over-the-top as Pictures.

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“Mars: The Bringer of War”

For a man known worldwide as a master of the synthesizer, The Tomita Planets begins oddly: with a recording of “Jupiter” played on a real acoustic music box, followed by two alien voices speaking and singing the theme over a radio.

Despite having a studio with equipment to rival NASA, Tomita seems to have gone to almost unnecessary effort to get this authentic radio sound, having driven to a broadcast station at the top of Mt. Fuji, transmitted the alien voice over shortwave radio, and recorded it in his car with a tape recorder and microphone aimed at the speakers. In fact, “Mars: The Bringer of War” is filled with radio effects like static, fuzz, interference, Morse-code like beeping, and sine loops. It feels like being in the radio communications room of the Death Star. After the climax is reached, nothing else is heard but the fading sound of radio signals and inference, which give way to “Venus: The Bringer of Peace.”

For a young Tomita huddled at the radio listening to where bombs might fall, radio must have had a powerful association with war. This association seemingly in mind, Tomita’s interpretation of “Mars” uses radio-like filters and signaling to great effect, taking the mediums’ grating static and aura of urgency to create a surprisingly gripping interpretation. The harshly filtered synthesizers and radio blips contribute to a sense of chaos, almost as if any minute the music will break up completely into nothing but white noise. Further, another theme of Tomita’s early life is present: a sense of innocence affected by war. The opening’s music box evokes childishness, and is soon overtaken by the radio chaos and dark rhythms of “Mars.” Whether Tomita consciously reflected his childhood during the war in his interpretation of The Planets is obviously questionable. Yet the unorthodox and inspired creative decisions he made in The Tomita Planets, and their alignment with his early experiences, seem more than coincidental.

For better or for worse, The Tomita Planets was when Tomita’s space fantasy tendencies began in earnest, a tendency that would reach an apex several years later on The Bermuda Triangle. Mission control and spaceship sound effects often bury Holst’s original score, and sometimes cause Tomita to truncate the score altogether—like on “Uranus,” which Tomita includes for a whole 30 seconds only after several minutes of spaceship warp drive sound effects.

Purists grumbled about Wendy Carlos; they raged about Tomita. The Tomita Planets even resulted in a lawsuit from the Holst estate which, for a time, successfully blocked the album’s distribution and pulled 30,000 copies from record store shelves. Understandable perhaps, since at times it feels like Tomita inserting alien bwaps in something as artful as The Planets is the musical equivalent of dumping Jar Jar Binks in the middle of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But when Tomita sticks to the score, as on “Venus,” it’s among his finest work—blending a more complex palette of sounds into a lively, grand, and eerie album that evokes, while not the subtlety, at least the spirit and mysticism of Holst’s original symphony.

The Tomita Planets was also when Tomita began to embrace an identity as a “space music” artist. In the next post we’ll explore his adoption of this identity, which caused him to make artistic choices that now seem alternately exhilarating, dated, charming, or obnoxious, but that reflect the excitement of an era where we believed the vastness of space could be explored through our living room speakers.

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