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Isao Tomita — Pioneer of Electronic and Space Music

  • Music
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Isao Tomita, best known simply as Tomita, was a Japanese composer and is regarded as one of the pioneers of electronic music and space music. He was among the most famous producers of analog synthesizer arrangements.

“I saw a synthesizer on the record jacket, behind Bach. For the first time, I discovered that the synthesizer is not an instrument to compose music by using the sounds of existing instruments, but a new instrument or new machine which creates unlimited sound sources”.

Isao Tomita

Isao Tomita was born in Tokyo in 1932, and at the age of three moved to China with his father, where he remained for five years before returning to Japan. As a student he took private lessons in composition, orchestration and theory while reading art history at Keio University in Tokyo. At the same time, he honed his art and supported himself by composing for local orchestras.

Upon graduating in 1955, he embarked on a full-time career as a composer for film, television and theatre. An early work, ‘Wind Mills’ was accepted by the Japan Federation of Choral Organizations as the song to be used for all entrants in the national choral competition, and more commissions followed, including writing the theme music for the Japanese Olympic gymnastics team for the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia. Over the next fifteen years Tomita consolidated his reputation in Japan with major commissions for NHK, the national Japanese television network, including regular soundtracks for long-running historical dramas, and a tone poem based on his score for a popular TV show called ‘White Lion’, which was performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic.

By the late 1960’s, and with the impetus of Wendy Carlos’ and Robert Moog’s work with synthesisers, he had turned his interest to electronic music. Upon acquiring a customised Moog III synthesiser, similar to the one in the photo on the sleeve of ‘Switched-On Bach’, he began building his home studio.

The classical nerd on YouTube has produced a short bio that hits all the salient points in about 10 minutes — worth the quick watch.

Probably his best known work is his renditions of Claude Debussy’s classical works, including Claire de Lune, but I’m more interested in his more modern work. His first published complete work of popular music was his album Switched on Rock, a title obviously inspired by Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach.

As mentioned, Tomita also composed original music, and that is perhaps his most compelling work, but in all cases, he pushed the limits of the available technology at every turn of the musical phrase. On YouTube, Michael Devletoglou has compiled this huge playlist of music by Isao Tomita.

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