Monday, 9 May 2016

Remembering Isao Tomita (1932-2016)

Isao Tomita, a Japanese synthesizer pioneer who achieved world fame with his over 20 studio albums, has died age 84.

He literally brought synths to Japan, and apart from his soundtrack work, his unique and even today unparalleled electronic re-imaginings of classical works made his name globally recognised.

Tomita was the first Japanese artist nominated for Grammy, actually four Grammys (for his 1974 Debussy-inspired album Snowflakes are Dancing).

One must say "re-imaginings"... His synth transcriptions of Debussy, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Bach, to pick just a very few, are light years away from what one traditionally understands as transcriptions.

One critic once said that Tomita's works were "too perfect" - even if unintentional, this was a perfect compliment. The synthesizer poems were musically perfect, following in every detail the original scores... However, where Tomita truly set himself apart from the other electronic artists who chose to re-work classics was his unparalleled way of projecting the works into a mesmerising astral sound world, perfectly capturing the original works' artistic intent and mood.

It is perhaps a sacrilege to purists' ears to say that Tomita often augmented the original works' emotional effect.

Whilst sometimes he has taken more liberties with the materials, combining different sources into compositions on a certain theme (as he did on the Kosmos album for example), his faithful electronic re-imaginings of e.g. Debussy and Mussorgsky are to this day unsurpassed.

In a way that extremely few synth artists managed in the heroic '70s and '80s, Tomita demonstrated that electronic music can indeed be deeply human, emotional, thought-provoking and imagination-stimulating at the same time.

As a personal note... must say that as a teenager listening to electronic music as fantastic escapism from the realities of a totalitarian dictatorship, for me Tomita, too, was one of the synth artists I must remain forever grateful for the sonic journeys they took me on.

Isao Tomita kept working into his 80s, even before his passing he was working on Dr. Coppelius with premiere scheduled for November this year.

Tomita passed away of heart failure, surrounded by his family.

Photo: Michael Ochs / Getty Images

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