TOMITA – A TRIBUTE

Japanese synthesiser pioneer Isao Tomita died in the first week of May at the age of eight-four. Inspired by Robert Moog’s electronic instruments and the work of Wendy Carlos, Tomita produced a substantial catalogue of studio albums in addition to several live releases and a significant body of soundtrack work. In a previous post, I wrote briefly about the compiled album ‘Space Walk’.

Japanese synthesiser artist Isao Tomita crafted albums of electronic interpretations of Western composed music. They are carefully arranged, expertly constructed, beautifully realised and always respectful. This is their strength and also their weakness. Tomita’s albums are like the photos of luscious dishes in the window of a restaurant — vivid, lifelike but ultimately inert. Nevertheless, his skill at assembling complex re-imaginings of works from Mussorgsky through Ravel and Debussy to Ives makes him an electronic artist worthy of respect.

Maybe it’s the news of his demise, but today that summary strikes me as a little harsh. Perhaps a better metaphor might be the careful and aesthetically delicate arrangement of a Japanese garden. Alive, beautiful, and scrupulously ordered.

As for the album covers, they were vivid fantasies, often with a powerful sci-fi/fantasy flavour. Here is a selection from the Vinyl Connection collection.

Tomita - Grand Canyon

 

Tomita - Bermuda

 

Tomita - Bolero

 

Tomita Snowflakes

 

Tomita Pictures

 

Tomita - Daphnis

 

Tomita Firebird

 

Tomita Planets

 

Tomita - Space Od

 

Tomita - Space Walk

 

Tomita Kosmos

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FEATURED ALBUMS

SNOWFLAKES ARE DANCING: ELECTRONIC PERFORMANCES OF DEBUSSY’S TONE PAINTINGS  [1974]

MUSSOGSKY: PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION [1975]

FIREBIRD [1975]

THE PLANETS [1976]

SPACE FANTASY [1977]

BERMUDA TRIANGLE [1978]

KOSMOS [1978]

DAPHNIS ET CHLOÉ [1979]

BOLERO [1980]

GRAND CANYON [1982]

SPACE WALK – IMPRESSIONS OF AN ASTRONAUT [1984]

Tomita clearly loved the technology and the electronic alchemy of creating just the right sound for a particular orchestral voice. He regularly listed all the keyboards, synthesisers and outboard gadgets employed on his albums, making the back covers compulsory reading for equipment nerds. I particularly like this example from Grand Canyon.

IMG_6675

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INDIAN, JAPANESE OR RUSSIAN?

Back in my College days* I was majoring in Psychology but heavily involved with Drama and Theatre. A close mate, also a Psych student with strong affiliations to the creative arts area, became something of a lighting specialist and worked closely with the Drama Department’s Theatre Manager on numerous productions. While most of these were in-house student shows (of mostly high quality), The Open Stage was periodically hired by external performers who valued its versatility and accessible location.

One guest was Indian classical dance performer Chandrabhanu. His seasons at The Open Stage were usually well attended, with students of his dance school and their families being much in evidence. At the time, Chandrabhanu used open reel tapes for his musical accompaniment and that meant engaging a tape operator. Via Chris, my mate upstairs in the lighting booth, I landed the gig of ‘sound guy’ and did a run of three nights. It wasn’t too demanding: cue up the next piece during the applause, one change of reel at intermission, don’t trip over any leads. The hardest part was staying focussed on the repetitive, hypnotic Indian music, a form unfamiliar to an Aussie suburban boy.

As I recall, the gigs went well enough (though I think I might have been a little late on one cue, earning a very dark look from Mr C^) and the money was certainly welcome.

On the final night, we hung around while the audience, following sustained applause, two curtain calls, and a lavish floral tribute for the great man, eventually wandered out of the theatre and milled about the lobby for a while before heading off for coffee or a drink. The Theatre Manager (a Department employee) appeared to supervise the serfs (that was us, the students) in the task of returning the space to its neutral state. We were happy enough; it was part of the gig.

For me, the task was easy. Chandrabhanu had already retrieved his tapes and the sound rig was pretty simple; all done and dusted in an hour. Not so for Chris and the TM. Although the set was plain and simple, the lighting rig was complex and extensive because the dancer constantly flitted about the performance space and wanted to be visible pretty much all the time. Sheesh! How demanding! Anyway, I pitched in to help disassemble the grid and return the lights to the racks where they sat, like rows of malevolent metal insects, until the next show.

Going up in the cherry-picker was the key job; you got to operate the lift and stare down into the empty semi-darkness. Needless to say, the Manager took that role, while we sweated away at ground level. By half-past one in the morning, the novelty had well and truly worn off, as had any enjoyment in Chris’s Dire Straits tape. Making Movies had been booming through the theatre sound system for way too long. An excellent audio system it may have been, but you can have too much Mark Knopfler, especially after midnight when your arms are starting to ache and you begin thinking uncharitable thoughts about exotic dancers.

In an effort to inspire us for the last furlong, the Theatre Man fetched coffee… and a tape of his own. It was Tomita’s Pictures At An Exhibition**. Of course I knew the Emerson Lake and Palmer version and had heard the symphonic original, but this was new and enjoyable. Less portentous than an orchestra and less bombastic than ELP.

After slurping through the instant coffee —ghastly but suitably caffeinated— we hauled ourselves to our feet for the final assault on the dark stars still lurking above. Just at that moment, the final piece on side one of Tomita’s album burst out of the speakers. It is called ‘Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells’ and is cheeky, cheerful and very, very funny. In the original orchestral version, the piece is sprightly and light, a brief respite from all the ponderous gravity of the suite. Here it is just hilarious. Especially late at night when your brain is as tired as your limbs. We giggled, we guffawed, we made him play it twice more, grinning as we worked.

Then we were done, and went off to find a 2am hamburger before bed.

Have a listen. Smile guaranteed.

 

* My second tilt at university which I rarely write about because it was relatively successful and therefore boring.

^ Come to think of it, I never got another gig, so maybe it was more of a stuff-up than I remember.

** Also my favourite of the above covers. On the back of the album it says: ‘Bass relief – Gene Szefran’

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Isao Tomita, born April 22, 1932, Tokyo

Returned to the Kosmos May 5, 2016

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17 comments

  1. douglasharr · · Reply

    wonderful tribute to Tomita, Bruce. I did not know he passed…so many artists lately. Very nice to see all of those album covers highlighted and the way he painstakingly noted vary instrument down to the patch. And, …..love those chicks! Thanks for illuminating all of this..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure Douglas. I guess, at 84, it’s more sad than tragic… seems a little more easy to celebrate a life for an artist who has lived a reasonably long one.

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  2. In the near future “VotF” will participate as a member of the discussion.

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    1. I want to know what you were doing in the intervening 5 minutes. (Unless it’s classified)

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  3. When I said near future, I meant NEAR future: This is a great tribute to someone who was completely unknown to me. Also enjoyed the twist on what I might have expected from a story about your liaison with an exotic dancer. I’m liking the Space Walk cover as a different angle on Camel’s I Can See Your House from Here scene… theme cover post possibility? I especially like that The Bermuda Triangle cover for having so much going on in it without appearing messy; I’d definitely read any book that attempted to tell that tale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bermuda Triangle is also on peach-coloured vinyl, adding to its queasy mystique I think.
      I did do some space covers a while back, but forgot Camel. I wonder how many I could pull together…?
      Glad you enjoyed the post, Vic. I don’t think this is your kind of electronic entree, but as you noted, the covers are terrific.

      Here is the previous outing of Space Walk:
      https://vinylconnection.com.au/2014/02/04/space-walk-coverart-31/

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  4. Lovely, heartfelt stuff Bruce. Those covers! Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow indeed. I have to say that I’m not hugely in love with Tomita’s delicate electronic creations… but I love those covers. So much so that one of those above is a ring-in as I have not found a copy myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A while back, while writing my Beatles rooftop concert blog, I came across some videos of Tomita and friends joyfully parodying the Fab Four; slugging it out in a basement “studio” a-la Let It Be. I recalled this when I heard about his passing, but can’t seem to locate the videos using the Google Machine…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let us know if you unearth it.

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  6. Excellent post, Bruce. I’m not at all familiar with Tomita, but you’ve got my music senses tingling! Those album covers are pretty wonderful – particularly Bolero and Kosmos. Space Walk reminds me of The Afghan Whigs’ 1965, too …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The debut (Debussy) shows the delicacy and ‘The Planets’ his vision. Of course, it’s not everyone’s cup of green tea.

      The Afghan Whigs album is great. I feel a series coming on…

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      1. Certainly intrigues me, Bruce. I’ll have a wee scout about the internets!

        The Afghan Whigs are one of my all-time favourite bands … 1965 being an album that’s stayed with me for many a year.

        … and hurrah! for a series!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have never listened to Tomita but have always been fascinated by and loved the covers, seems a little silly to be fascinated by covers and not have heard what is on the inside.

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    1. That’s where on-line listening is handy, isn’t it? But yes, the covers are brilliant.

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  8. ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’ used to be in the Ambient/Synth section of the Notting Hill Record And Tape Exchange every single time I visited it back in the day. Wish I’d bought it. May actually go back and see if it’s still there at the weekend…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tomita has been deeply uncool for so long, it might still be there. (smile). It is a pretty good place to start. I listened in the car today and enjoyed it. Of course you cannot really go wrong with a sweet Debussy melody.

      Liked by 1 person

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