[Music/Science] The Kosmos of Isao Tomita (1932-2016)
Psychic Garden pay our respects to The Electric Samurai; Godfather of analog science fiction music and intergalactic classical electronica.
Isao Tomita is widely considered to be one of the most influential Japanese composers of all time and is hailed around the world as the grand wizard pioneer who popularised electronic synthesiser music. A truly innovative musical maverick and forward-thinking technological virtuoso renown for his groundbreaking electronic re-interpretations of classical music compositions.
Isao Tomita was born in Tokyo in 1932, but spent his early childhood years living in China with his Father, later returning to Tokyo with his family in 1939. It was sometime during the American occupation of Japan during WW2 (1945 - 1952), when Tomita first discovered the sounds of Western music, an experience which he likened to "hearing music from outer space".
From a young age Isao Tomita began avidly studying classical music, as well as jazz, latin, rock, pop and anything he could find. Tomita would go on to study art history at Keio University during the early 1950's, this was also around the same time that he started pursuing his own passion for music and electronics with private lessons in Music composition and Orchestral Theory. Tomita's deep fascination for the synthesisers of Robert Moog inspired him to begin researching the history of electronic music and led him to discover the ingenious work of Leon Theremin and Maurice Martenot, the godfathers of the electronic music medium.
It was way back in 1927 when the Soviet Russian inventor Leon Theremin devised the world's first electric musical instrument to be mass produced, the Theremin, the strangest and most otherworldly instrument ever created. To be a virtuoso of the Theremin at the dawn of its inception was likened to performing magic or even casting a spell. Notes and tones are conjured and controlled via hypnotic movements of the hands and fingers as the player manipulates the electromagnetic fields around the two antennae. The vertical antenna raises or lowers the tone, whereas the looped antenna controls volume, the pitch was controlled by placing hands near to or away from the vertical rod. The Theremin is the only musical instrument controlled entirely without physical contact, thus the performer becomes part of the instrument as they conduct the air. The invention of the Theremin was a landmark moment in history that transformed the landscape of music.
A year later, In 1928, Maurice Martenot, a French musician, invented the Ondes Martenot, which is widely considered to be the grandfather of the present music synthesiser. The Theremin and Ondes Martenot were both groundbreaking inventions which led to Robert Moog's revolutionary creation of the modern synthesiser, a machine that Tomita would use all throughout his career. Everything in electronic music stems from these two innovative inventions from the late 1920's. After learning about these impactful musical inventors as a student, Tomita believed that it was essential for all young musicians to study electronic music history.
As a student, Tomita regularly composed music for local orchestras to fund his education, this meant that by the time he graduated he had amassed an impressive amount of experience, knowledge and skill as a composer, leading him to transition into a career creating musical scores for films, television and theatre, which he pursued for the next 15 years until he eventually discovered an album that was so groundbreaking that it completely changed the course of his creative life.
"In 1969 I happened to discover and listen to a unique record entitled 'Switched on Bach' by Wendy Carlos, which opened up a new world to me and triggered a revolution in my musical life. At the time I saw on the jacket of the record, behind Bach, a synthesiser, which is to say a palette of sound. For the first time I discovered that the synthesiser is not an instrument to compose music by using the sounds of existing instruments, but is a new instrument or a new machine which creates unlimited sound sources and sonic possibilities." ~ Tomita (1975)
The young maestro was forever changed by Wendy Carlos' groundbreaking Classical work on the Moog synthesiser that combined electronic and classical music together with painstaking attention to detail, emphasising meticulous note by note transcriptions and the recreation of traditional acoustic sounds using the new Electronic medium. Hearing this album triggered Tomita to purchase and import his own Moog III synthesizer (identical to the one pictured on the Switched on Bach album cover). After acquiring the Moog III and building a recording studio in his home, Tomita went on to form the electronic musical collective known as Plasma Music.
"What is the sound of music? An enigmatic answer: The music of sound. Compared to all the traditional instruments with a history of many centuries, electric musical instruments have a history of only 50 years at this current moment in time. In addition, the shapes are not yet established, so the player is apt to become disoriented. It has been said that electric sound is not expressive because it is not a natural sound but an artificial one made by a machine. However, I think the electric sound can be truly expressive and dynamic with boundless potential, evoking the emotions of a high musical experience" ~ Tomita (1975)
Tomita understood the unlimited potential of the Moog III synthesizer and soon turned his attention to the work of French composer Claude Debussy, and, in contrast to Carlos' emphasis on note-for-note renditions, he focused on re-conceptualising the source material utilising the infinite array of sonic possibilities inherent in the mysterious Electronic medium, such as layering multiple monophonic sound sources to achieve polyphony, which Tomita referred to as the "Pyramid Sound". This maverick composer anticipated the zeitgeist of electronic music and entered the arena of technology based musical innovation at the right time in history, and he was determined to explore new sonic territory through the unlimited electronic medium.
The end result was Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974), which received four grammy award nominations for best classical album and subsequently led to the distribution of Tomita's future albums all around the world. Snowflakes are Dancing is a sonically mesmerising and undeniably innovative album that proved to be a revolutionary step forward in synth-based programming and became a considerable commercial success, revered especially for Tomita's ingenious rendition of Debussy's Clair De Lune (Suite Bergamasque, No. 3).
"I had some truly revolutionary intention or theory when making this music. Carlos' emphasis when realising Debussy was on the level of description and depicting. My emphasis was more on the timbre or color of the music... I experimented with my theory to create first the color of the sound which the conventional instruments could never bring out. The intention of my playing was that with a synthesizer I could break the limitations of such instruments and go into the unlimited world, and I started with the color of the sound, and the result was this piece. But we are going beyond even the color; we are going to the form of music composition and finding new aesthetic rules and creating a new world of music. So the album was a total experiment." ~ Tomita (1975)
Snowflakes are Dancing was the project that sparked Tomita's impressive solo career as a synthesiser composer, which led to a series of incredible albums throughout the 70's and 80's that pushed the boundaries and possibilities of composition through the electronic medium. Tomita's follow up to his acclaimed debut was the striking Pictures at an Exhibition (1975), which utilised a broad variety of electrical sound-producing & controlling devices to radically re-create the classics of Russian composer Mussorgsky. Within the same year, Tomita released Firebird (1975), an electronic re-interpretation of Stravinsky, Debussy and Moussorgsky, in which Tomita carries interpretation into new sonic realms - into the music of his sound.
"In painting the artist is free to use whatever color(s) or material(s) he/she may choose. In other words the medium for his or her form of expression on the canvas is free and unlimited. There are plenty and abundant mediums, whereas in music we have had to use very limited means in order to create: the musical instruments. In painting one could use unlimited variety in color, but in music only certain numbers of timbres were available to express composers' ideas and feelings.... My doubt at the time was, should music always be like this? Couldn't it get some new source of sound beyond existing musical instruments? That was my doubt and at the same time my dream." ~ Tomita (1975)
In 1976, Tomita recorded The Tomita Planets, an intergalactic electronica reinterpretation of The Planets, a seven-movement orchestral suite originally composed by the English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 - 1916. The Tomita Planets (1976) introduced a new creative direction in the composer's work centred around a bold science fiction space theme. Tomita infused classical synth music with dynamic futuristic sound design, utilising polyponic sounds and immersive cosmic soundscapes to transport listeners into otherworldly sonic dimensions. The album became rather controversial upon it's release, as the daughter of Holst was unhappy with having her father's music re-imagined in such a futuristic sci-fi fashion with extensive sound design that expanded upon the original suite, so the album was withdrawn from circulation, thus making the original vinyl rather rare.
Each of the seven movement in the Holst suite are named after a planet in the solar system; Mars, The Bringer Of War - Venus, The Bringer Of Peace - Mercury, The Winged Messenger - Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity - Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age - Uranus, The Magician - Neptune, The Mystic.
After the explosive Tomita Planets album, Tomita drew upon on his extensive wealth of experience scoring jingles and scores for films and televisions to create the Kosmos album, which delved even deeper into the composer's fascination for scoring epic science fiction audio fantasy experiences. Kosmos features renditions of classic scores such as the Star Wars main theme, Rise of the Valkyries, the theme from '2001: A Space Odyssey' and "A Sea named Solaris", inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972).
"I have made these last five albums in the current series all by myself. The reason is that in the case of synthesizer music it is extremely difficult to write a description of the original sound. I often use the analogy of an artist's palette to explain about synthesizer music. First, an idea comes to my mind, and in order to express that idea in reality I use the synthesizer. This is almost like a painter who mixes his own colors on his palette using paints of some original colors in order to express the images he has in his mind. I try to create certain four-dimensional images in space, and I imagine in my mind a hall that can hold about 1,000 people. Therefore, space is integral and becomes the basis for my sound images in this collection." - Tomita (1977)
The Electric Samurai was famed for using truckloads of technology, which he always proudly listed on the back of the recordings artwork from the very start. Tomita was actually one of the few musicians capable of operating (let alone affording) these large modular synthesisers, which were manufactured by the American 'Moog' and Japanese 'Roland' companies. His innovative productions represent a mastery of the science and technology behind electronic musical instrumentation that only a handful of others can match.
"All of Tomita's albums are sonic encounters, a musical fantasy of science fiction - composers musical inventions transcribed into sound colors incapable of being generated by conventional instruments. Yes, Tomita imitates with his electronic devices, but with the infinity of resources at his command he can blend into the musical fabric glittering threads of such sounds of nature as humans whistling, the wind rustling, insects humming, waterfalls, rain - from the whisper of a dragonfly's wing to the violent sounds of worlds torn asunder. Projecting such sounds into the musical world of great composers brings our perception into closer touch with their imagery." ~ Sayao Komatsu / Sci Fi author (1978)
Tomita's follow up project after Kosmos would become his most mysterious and technologically masterful work of music to date, The Bermuda Triangle, the soundtrack for an imaginary musical fantasy of pure science fiction, a project which saw Tomita at his most experimental and innovative, since becoming one of his most rare and sought after records for vinyl collectors.
"In the year 1978, Isao Tomita has created THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, where he weaves his own sonic inventions into excerpts of Prokofiev, Sibelius and John Williams to depict a science fiction fantasy - A story at once plausible and imaginative, the details of which are largely elucidated in the mind when subjected to Tomita's sound. I have no doubt that this is one of his greatest works to date" ~ Sayao Komatsu (1978)
"A storm rages in a ocean near Bermuda, the area of mysterious disappearances of many ships and aircraft, the dreaded Devil's Triangle. In the mist of the storm something approaches from the sky guided by an eerie signal underwater. It is a craft from outer space - a UFO. The fantasy conjures up a giant pyramid built on the bottom of the sea by the super civilised ancient people. They have contact with outer space and guide the UFO to the pyramid. The story unfolds through the moods of the music..."
"Perhaps a new concept: Science fiction in Sound. Through this can we overcome realistic daily life, our time and physical limitations and contact our fantasy imagination? We can, and though that we can reach into limitless space, touch the super intellect, be any object or being and cast ourselves, all powerful, into the universe" ~ Sayao Komatsu (1978)
After recording the beloved Daphnis et Chloé, (A.K.A Bolero and The Ravel Album) Tomita continued to record solo albums and group projects with the Plasma Symphony Orchestra throughout the 80's and 90's into the early 2010's, all the while continuing to score films and television. Tomita's musical prowess earned him recognition as perhaps the first virtuoso composer of the electronic music medium, boasting a revolutionary discography and an unquantifiable degree of influence on modern popular music.
Tomita is universally regarded as the grandmaster of electronic music who paved the way for synth pop, trance and electronica dance, his futuristic and painstakingly arranged compositions possess an undeniably otherworldly and timeless quality, despite the fact that most of his catalog is decades old, nothing he has made sounds remotely dated. Tomita was an immeasurably talented and innovative force, decades ahead of his peers and his legendary body of work has instilled an immeasurable influence on the medium.
Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson adored him, Yellow Magic Orchestra credited him as one of their key inspirations, and producers like J Dilla, Flying Lotus, Slum Village, Earl Sweatshirt, Kanye West and Anderson Pak have all sampled him. Tomita's discography has made a direct influence on some of the most iconic musicians in modern history. His music manifests the infinite and beautiful sounds of the cosmic universe with electronic technology to showcase the unlimited potential of the synthesiser. Tomita's legacy is that of a legendary pioneering artist with an oeuvre of music spanning from the 1950's until his death in 2016 at the age of 84.