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.
SNOWFLAKES ARE DANCING: ELECTRONIC PERFORMANCES OF DEBUSSY’S TONE PAINTINGS 
MUSSOGSKY: PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION 
THE PLANETS 
SPACE FANTASY 
BERMUDA TRIANGLE 
DAPHNIS ET CHLOÉ 
GRAND CANYON 
SPACE WALK – IMPRESSIONS OF AN ASTRONAUT 
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.
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’
Isao Tomita, born April 22, 1932, Tokyo
Returned to the Kosmos May 5, 2016