Hear the Greatest Hits of Isao Tomita (RIP), the Father of Japanese Electronic Music

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Moog Syn­the­siz­er Changed the Sound of Music

Meet the Dr. Who Com­pos­er Who Almost Turned The Bea­t­les’ “Yes­ter­day” Into Ear­ly Elec­tron­i­ca

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

Dis­cov­er­ing Elec­tron­ic Music: 1983 Doc­u­men­tary Offers a Fun & Edu­ca­tion­al Intro­duc­tion to Elec­tron­ic Music

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.

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