During his childhood in the Japan of the 1930s, Isao Tomita would have barely had the chance to hear Western music. But when the Second World War came to an end, the introduction of local U.S. Army broadcasts must have felt like the opening of a sonic floodgate: “I thought I was listening to music from outer space,” remembered the man that child grew up to become a respected composer as well as a pioneer of electronic music known for his cutting-edge, intergalactically-minded interpretations of the work of such Western predecessors as Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Gustav Holst.
That telling quote comes from Tomita’s New York Times obituary of this past Wednesday, which describes some of the composer’s struggles to not just master but press into a new kind of artistic service the practically experimental analog synthesizers with which he made his best-known albums, like 1974’s Snowflakes Are Dancing and The Planets. Just getting his first Moog synthesizer past Japanese customs proved a struggle (“I told them that it was an instrument, and they didn’t believe me”), let alone figuring out how to use the new device “to even generate something that’s not just noise.”
Tomita had little in the way of precedent besides Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, which had come out in 1968 (and whose cover Tomita had held up before those customs inspectors, trying in vain to provide evidence of his strange imported machine’s nature). He followed suit in 1972 with his own first album Electric Samurai: Switched on Rock, on which he electronically covered songs like “Let It Be,” “Jail House Rock,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Then came his Grammy-nominated bestselling Debussy tribute Snowflakes Are Dancing, which showed the listening world what he could do: specifically, reinterpreting the classical canon with sounds few had ever heard before.
You can discover some of his music by listening to albums available on Spotify, one Tomita’s 1978 album Kosmos and the other a greatest-hits collection. (Find both above. If you don’t have Spotify’s free software, you can download it here.) Or peruse an even wider-ranging Youtube playlist. We have, of course, now had around half a century to get used to electronic music, and the gear has made enormous evolutionary leaps since Tomita first sat down amid his unwieldy “thicket” of filters, oscillators, generators, amplifiers, controllers, modulators, recorders, mixers, echo units, and phasers. But his music still retains its fascination, especially now in our digital world where its analog sounds seem to come from the past, the future, and outer space all at once.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.