Isao Tomita’s seminal album Snowflakes Are Dancing, should be as familiar to synth fans as Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach, but few know that this amazing reimagining of Claude Debussy’s tone paintings almost didn’t happen. Tomita began his musical career in the 50’s arranging orchestrated versions of pop music and children songs and was introduced to the Moog Synthesizer in much the same way as the rest of the world, through Switched on Bach. The idea of basing an entire album around a synthesizer captivated Tomita’s imagination, he thought he could do the same thing, and do it better.
In 1970 tracking down a Moog Modular in Japan was no easy feat and through a little detective work and a lot of tenacity Tomita eventually found himself at the Moog Factory in New York. A little shocked to find a cutting edge company located in such a humble space, Tomita happily paid 10 million yen (the equivalent of $125,000 at the time) for a Moog III C and had it shipped back to Japan.
The Moog Modular arrived in Japan without incident, but languished in customs for almost a month. Completely unfamiliar with the Moog III C and wary of such a large machine being shipped from over seas, Tomita was called to the customs warehouse and asked to explain what exactly he was importing.
“So at customs, they asked me what this machine was,” Tomita recalled in a recent interview with Resident Advisor. “I told them that it was an instrument, and they didn’t believe me. They said, “Then, play it.”
This was a near impossibility for Tomita, he bought the synthesizer without any knowledge of how to operate the enormous instrument. Showing the officials the cover of Switched on Bach had no effect either. Tomita eventually had Moog mail a photo of someone using the modular on stage; the entire ordeal took almost a month.
Once Isao Tomita’s new Moog was home and assembled the long process of learning to use it began. Tomita had thought that the modular would be similar to an electric organ, he had no idea about the nuances and subtleties of using the analog synthesizer. Tomita had to change his entire perception of what an instrument should be, and since the Moog was such a new instrument there was no established synth sound on which to base his work, this was both blessing and a curse. Tomita was free to make whatever sound he desired, but had to start by emulating known sounds like whistles and bells.
With time and experimentation Snowflakes Are Dancing eventually took form. The album enjoyed critical success worldwide and was nominated for four Grammys in 1974 making Isao Tomita the first Japanese to be recognized at the award ceremony.
Speaking with Resident Advisor, Tomita had this to say in hindsight:
“Back then, I was often criticized for using an electronic instrument, but the sound of thunder has been around since the dawn of time, and that’s electricity.”