Isao Tomita: Sonic Adventurer

Composer, arranger, and Moog alchemist Isao Tomita illuminated the possibilities of synthesizers and electronic music to Japan--and the world.

 



Though Tomita didn’t start learning music until high school, he picked up on it quickly. Then, as a student at Keio University, he discovered an interest in tinkering with electronics. “At first, my interests in music and electronics were quite separate,” he said in an interview with Keyboard magazine. “It was the marketing of synthesizers that unexpectedly merged my two hobbies.” Hearing Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach sealed the deal; Tomita decided he had to acquire a synthesizer.

He traveled to the United States to purchase a modular Moog synthesizer in New York, and after waiting a month for the new and little understood instrument to be released from customs, began the task of figuring out how to use it. Since there was little precedent for synthesizer music, Tomita began by using the machine to emulate existing sounds, like whistles and bell peals.

Inspired by Wendy Carlos’s modular take on Bach, Tomita decided to reinterpret Debussy’s tone poems with his synthesizer. After about fourteen months of working for six hours a day on his intricately layered rendition, Snowflakes Are Dancing was completed.

Japanese record companies had no interest in releasing the album, at a loss as to how to market it. At the time, Switched On Bach was being sold in the sound effects section of Japanese record stores. It wasn’t until Tomita tracked down an open-minded producer in America that Snowflakes Are Dancing saw its release. The groundbreaking 1974 album was nominated for four Grammys, earning Tomita the distinction of being the first Japanese artist to be recognized by the Recording Academy. Tomita went on to release numerous synth-driven solo albums and soundtracks for television and film.

At a time when few knew what a synthesizer was and even fewer knew how to use one, Tomita dove in headfirst, patiently learning how to harness its capabilities, then applying them in a fresh, adventurous way that would ultimately help pave the way for the sounds of the future.

 

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