Perfect Sound Forever


RCA publicity photo

Mono-Monikered, Poly-Symphonic, and Uber-Talented
by Marc S. Tucker
(October 2006)

Well-known through his surname, Isao Tomita, for all his success over a longish period of time, has been little discussed with any degree of seriousness in non-classicalist venues. This stems from the musician's cross-genre wont, melding a classicalist base into progressive, classical electronic, modernist electronic, even classical lite, and sometimes eccentrically satiric, veins. Like few others in the field, his initial LP, Snowflakes Are Dancing, hit the market in a storm, catching the music-buying crowd off-balance and keeping it that way for years, through a string of excellent releases, one of the best track records in electro-music history. Accordingly, it's long past time his output was accorded analysis in something other than the BBC Monthly Anal Retentive's Classicalist Truffles Gazette.

Tomita was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1932, moved with his father to China while very young, then returned to Japan. In college, he studied art and music, paying his way by writing for orchestras. In 1955, after graduating, the freshly minted newbie, 23 at the time, commenced a career composing for TV and film, early on winning a competition that used one of his songs as theme music for national choral competitions. The next year saw a second composition favored, also by the government, and selected as the musical byline for the Japanese gymnastic team in the Melbourne Olympics. These rather noteworthy achievements under his fresh-faced belt, Tomita was assured success and prestige. From there, a liberal flow of commissions followed.

In the late '60's, then-Walter Carlos' groundbreaking Switched-On Bach reached his ears, leading to the purchase of a customized Moog III and the creation of a home studio allowing extensive experimentation in sound-crafting. 1974 saw the release of Snowflakes. Its impact was massive, a soul brother to Carlos' work. The difference between the two though was marked. Carlos, for all his embellishments and colorations, was deeply in love with the classics. By contrast, Tomita, though enjoying the classics immensely, secretly grounded himself in modern progressive rock and such (Pink Floyd remains one of his favorite groups), taking the classics as a fascinating groundcloth upon which to build spirallingly intricate interpretations as racked with beauty as, and perhaps even more so than some of, the originals. To hear his set of takes on Debussy is as breathtaking as encountering, ironically enough, Debussy's own arrangements of Satie.

His first LP opens with the brief title cut and immediately catches the listener in its supernatural use of volume variance. Tomita's one of the very few musicians in any genre to really understand the emotional content of varying decibels in presentation (as opposed to, say, the faux sophistications of alleyway Radio Shack "electronicists" like Brise Glace), a device he uses not only thoughout the LP but in every item in his catalogue. Few composer-players have demonstrated the virtue - Fripp once did but has since mostly relinquished it - and each song breathes in realistic rhythms, pulsing with a systolic/diastolic ebb and flow. Tomita plays as though he were an unusually gifted singer, inflection becoming more important than melody, every cut showing it.

Uniqueness also figures in as an equally precious virtue, and the composer goes to great lengths to obtain exactly the sound wanted in even the smallest embellishments. In many ways, Tomita's the Ennio Morricone of electronic music. Morricone has that same unearthly ability to use instruments and genres in astonishingly unorthodox ways, divorcing them from ages-sacred confines and clichés, setting up colors and contrasts no one had previously imagined.

Tomita's play of a pseudo-orchestra against modified chorales (with bubbling pulses washing above time signatures and sliding vapors, everything wafting in sussurating breezes) is ceaselessly novel and arresting. Each note's carefully considered, not encoded until achieving exactly the right twist, even then re-analyzed in context. Such a standardly mixed marriage of oddments and atmospheres, extraterrestrial exotica and terrene staples, is inevitable to the electronic milieu, but Tomita achieved a higher consonance between the two than any before him, while none who have come after quite figured out how to maintain such a pristine atmosphere with so singular a set of otherwise oft-inconnubial traits. "Arabesque #1" introduces a melody line that combines a clucking chicken with a helium-shifted Al Jolson, a humorous jape bizarrely not out of place, once again due to an inexplicable grasp of place, timbre, and juxtaposition. Sly humor's equally a constant presence in the early catalogue but painted with such master strokes that it becomes drolly quintessential in its ancient literacy, bulked up like a sonic Dickens. Later, we'll unfortunately see this lost.

In the meantime, one never knew quite what to expect. In the side two opener, "The Engulfed Cathedral", all manner of environments are bounced in, spacily, ethereally, but also perfectly congruently. The listener relaxes in a bath of lightly discharging energy contrails sprinkled by Wagnerian angels, then pleasantly percolated through the intro to "Passepied," itself incorporating divers scenics, shifting radically but pleasantly. That's the key to Tomita's success. He thinks fluidly in hues and chromatics most musicians never grasp. Thus, interpretations end up sounding like original music, providing a trifold foyer in the marketplace: 1) the classics-hating electro-aficionado relishes the incredible palettes and convincing atmospherics; 2) the anal-retentive classicalists find themselves flabbergasted by the brilliant swipes, incorporate reverences, and astute observations; and 3) all-up aesthetes appreciate the whole, above and beyond whatever paraphenalia's injected atop, athwart, and below.

A take on Moussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition (1975) followed Snowflakes, chasing its success, and one can't help but conjecture that at least a partial motive lay in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's 1971 well-received release of the same. Like Emerson, Tomita clearly saw Modest's bursts and negative spaces as gripping tools, capitalizing their saw-toothed hills and valleys, but Tomita's own sublimations on the opening theme are brilliantly eerie, cosmic afterthoughts to the brute power of the meter. The mood's a good deal more arch than ELP's retooling, not having Greg Lake's warm and friendly folkie voice softening the tone. The Japanese composer saw many of the alien structures ELP had noted (look at the paintings on the rock LP's inner gatefold), but injected them full-blown, subordinating the earthly under a weirder umbrella. It worked deliciously. His rendition is listened to as though hearing the opus for the first time.

The hit parade continued, Stravinsky popping up for reupholstering in The Firebird (1976), but the composer was also exploring a new wrinkle, anthologization, reprising his last two writers, Debussy (in "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn") and Moussorgsky (in the perennial prog favorite, "A Night on Bald Mountain,' which Fireballet had also taken on in '75 - since completely forgotten but still much favored by devotees of the obscure). Oddly, Firebird's a tamer affair than would be expected, especially as a take on the more flamboyant maverick Igor. It doesn't lack for surprises or vigor but remains more homogenous than previous LP's. Some of the depth has been excised and it appears Tomita spent a good deal less time on probing it than might have been expected.

"Prelude" is toned down but that's actually on par - as with Satie, one can only go just so far and still claim to cleave to the song. As he had in Snowflakes, Tomita takes huge liberties here but the essence and substance remain intact, so the listener's transported back to his rapturous initial LP. "Bald Mountain" treads straight up a Planets path, and, because Tomita had ever more equipment to toy with now, roughly twice as much as before, integrity and quality are prominent without compromise. Still, as the song proceeds, one hears, as in "Firebird", that he seems slightly tired, a bit weary, heart not fully engaged. It may be that the collection was turned out a tad prematurely.

Those chestnuts covered, what was next? Holst, of course. The Planets (1977) came into sight, happy to receive the Tomita Mutations. Rather than adopt the standard introductory brooding Martian presence, we get a music-box lullaby followed by a particularly drunken alien barbershop quartet, interrupted in bursts by loony radio broadcasts aping speech patterns burbled out in nonsense gibberish before encountering clouds of static that resolve into the spine-chilling theme, now all the more unsettling for the contrasts. That decays into a rush hour, the melody tinnily recessing from a cosmic taxi. The listener waits for Jovian commercials but soon realizes the driver's a dimwit and grabs the imaginary wheel, dodging through choked-out traffic. Holst never envisioned such things, Tomita saw them clearly and playfully turned "Mars" inside out. Again the market stepped back, astonished at his dexterous temerity, using visionary impulses unsaccharinized by the standard classicalist kowtow to antiquity. The release entire reeked of modernity, but in as considered a light as when Moussorgsky himself chewed thoughtfully over how to make the listener understand what he wished them to see. The Planets, it was obvious, like Pictures before it, was a completely new old experience.

It remained so throughout, going from sphere to sphere with fresh binoculars. Each Tomita album, in fact, became a sojourn through wilds and familiarities rarely so well delineated and often, when in other hands, with infinitely less imagination. Listening to a Tom slab was the surrogate of watching a great sci-fi flick. The composer had picked up much from his Pink Floyd enamorment. What those guys had done in so much of their material (esp. Ummagumma), he applied with equal grace and artistry to the catalogue ancien.

Kosmos (1978) came next, a complete departure from the expected: a full spectrum anthology of eight different works, all short, three with Tomita palimpsesting Bach, Strauss/Wagner, and Rodrigo. He was venturing more straightforwardly into modernist and neoclassicalist territory, choosing not only Ives and Honegger but Dinicu and Heifetz as well, then going much too far in regarding John Williams as similarly worthy of inclusion, in a "Star Wars Main Title" japingily, and thus appropriately, covered. Overall, this LP, like Firebird, was a bit rushed - not terribly so, but it doesn't ring with the integrities of the predecessors. It hovers leagues above genre norms and, certainly, no one's expected to exert 110% all the time, but such crestfallen eventualities are often indicators of the future. In Rodrigo's "Aranjuez", we see Morricone making another backdoor visit, but in the Bach/Tomita "The Sea Named Solaris", there's an incipient New Age tang, a texture classically descriptive but modernly subdued, biting with molars instead of incisors.

The next album, The Bermuda Triangle (1979), followed suit. A fairly homogenous New Age-leaning fantasia upon love and the supernatural, it also featured a completely new "twist": some songs had been fully written by the composer. Leaning heavily on Prokofiev - and one must suspect Sergé was originally the sole subject of the LP but got artistically waylaid - Tomita puts his spin on everything. In "Scythian Suite," he winds up, for example, with a demonic little dance more a demented satanic two-step than Sibelius' "Valse Triste," the waltz preceding it. He also cuts to the best thing the mundane and regrettable John Williams ever did, that five-note ditty for Close Encounters, punching it up, recalling the delightful cosmic jam in the movie: the musical duel between leviathan spaceship and fragile control tower.

The self-written songs, however, reveal a bit about the composer's personal powers. More like introductions and segues than anything else, they lack the vivid dimensionality he injected the classics with. Like so many who pursue this sort of thing, we find Tomita's in love with art but not so personally imbued with it as to create in equal step with those he admires - well, who could? - his genius deriving from a position as an aesthete, not as a long-steeped composer-musician. In any event, though, Bermuda bursts with life, pastelline and vivacious simultaneously, a broad panorama of earthy scenes leaping off into the ether, a strong Romantic vibe informing the lion's share.

1980 saw Bolero, thankfully all-Ravel, as germane a choice as one might hope for, Maurice being one of the Big Three in the Impressionist cadre - Debussy and Satie the other two. The selection choices are obvious, the arrangements, as usual, are not. Tomita's take on the "Mother Goose Suite" opens as arboreally dense as Debussy's "Afternoon." Pregnant with cross-currented atmospheres and wisps, it wends its way in grand order, much like the early LP's - punctuations and volume mechanisms back in rare form, the beautifully alarming counter-shades in order, as well as exhilarating crescendos breaking and frothing on grand and glowing boulders. "Bolero" as a cut here, though, is greatly abbreviated, a strange choice for someone who likes a playground to roust about in, and especially for a tune offering so much for the adventurous creator (and which, surprisingly, none have really cracked the shell of - especially not Stanley Jordan and his ludicrous potboiler). Still, the song's clean, bright, half-sassy, and stands ably enough on its own two legs.

Grand Canyon (1982) changed things yet again. Side 1 and most of Side 2 carry a reworking of Ferdi Grofé's suite, wherein Tomita resumes much of his lyricisms. Throughout, the heavens reach down to touch the earth and Tomita's take is more descriptive of the mysteries of the Canyon than Grofé, whose time-honored original is rather dry and plebeian, almost a TV score for a bad Disney movie. Tomita's not up to par with the first few cuts but good nonetheless. Irritating, though, is a bizarre attenuation of atmosphere several places in the final movement. Amidst a marvelously elongated storm quotation, Tomita radically breaks form to inject buzzes with no thematic or even ornamental value. Hideous. Ending the LP is a short near-hilarious cover of Leroy Anderson's well-known "Syncopated Clock," a non-sequitar that one would be hard-put to find more out of place, except in the inappropos gigue-hornpipe at the end of Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Yet the damnable number is somehow perfectly at home: don't ask why, I couldn't say.

The Canon of the Three Stars (1984) marked Tomita's fall from the public's larger graces. He, at least in the states, had been falling after the first few LP's. This demonstrates why: sharpness and clarity had been fading, his preternatural sensorial acuity blunting, and the rebellious fires quieting. Tomita, though by no means a traditionalist, was cozying up a little too facilely to source materials. Pachelbel's "Canon In D" here illustrates that inarguably. Too transparent an affinity for symphonisizing was leaking through and watering down the quirkinesses that had marked the man as an eccentricity worth following. He was becoming merely a good transcriber rather than an iconoclast. Normally thumbing his nose at history books, now Tomita honored them. Very bad, very bad indeed. With no People magazine incentive to stay interested, the public began to stray. About the most exciting thing going here was his injection of a Berlin pulse into Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras #7." Listenable, and much so, as a good electronic transcript on yet more timeworn chestnuts, Canon just wasn't remarkable in any particular way, a grave sin in the market. The fact that the interpreter had based his tones on galactic electromagnetic discharges was merely a novelty, a triteness, it hardly mattered. The songs were only quite good recitations, nothing more.

Back to Earth/Live in New York (1988) proved his conversion with deadly finality. Tomita, now backed by orchestra, opera singers, and choral groups, was coming undone. Much of the LP is confused (especially "Mars"), poorly recorded, ill-arranged, and seemingly non-supervised. Tomita has stated more than once that he's not really a performer; this proved him right in spades - not all that bad, per se, but he'd lost his edge and was just putting on a gaudy event with the frivolity of things like exotic speaker placement and a lot of foofrah. Worse, the linguistic overkill in the liner notes is almost as bad as all the harmonic convergence gibberish that accompanies a Christo installation. A weeping matronly re-do of Dvorak's "Goin' Home" put the kibosh on everything. RCA had carried our lad on their prestigious Red Seal label but now cut the connection permanently, leaving ex-composer-celebré to fend for himself. The decision wasn't an unwise one. Back/Live was by far the weakest Tomita release, unmarked by any briefest scent of what had made him a striking curiosity and solipsist. After this, he'd depend upon homeland Japan to resume its sponsorship.

As may be seen, and as is so often the case, initial releases are oft the most evident fruit of anyone's genius, marking the body of the composer's individualistic thought; from there, a slow erosion (with a few brightly glowing hot spots) occurs. Whether or not he'll ever resume a position at the table remains to be seen. Presently, his post-Live output is more in the Kitaro/Akira Itoh vein than in Carlos' and given the milieu at the moment, that's probably the most profitable venue for him. Movies and TV pay well up front and are rarely reliant on audience acceptance, only on director discretion, but Tomita's slot in the electronic back-catalogue is well-deserved, though overlooked. He's one of the few who managed to craft releases as, or nearly as, timeless as the works they crib from. Moreover, the musician who inspects his output carefully will find much to reward the study, by which all - listeners and creatives alike - might greatly benefit, especially when considering the tin-earedness and febrility of much of the electronica output current in the market.

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