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Isao Tomita

Isao Tomita was one of the most famous producers of synthesizer arrangements during the heyday of the analog electronic instruments (roughly 1968 to 1983). He was best known for transcriptions of colorful late Romantic or Impressionist orchestral works, but was also a composer of his own original music. His father took him to Peking (now Beijing), China, when the boy was three years old. He lived there until he was eight. He always had an interest in music, but he majored in art history at Tokyo's Keio University. At the same time, he studied both music and electronics with private teachers. His early compositions were for traditional acoustic instruments. Among the first was Wind Mills, a choral song chosen as the mandatory test piece for competitors for Best Choral Group in the Japan Federation of Choral Organizations. This led to a commission to write a theme song for the Japanese Olympic team, and for various film and television projects. The best known of these, internationally, was White Lion, a documentary aired in the USA on NBC. Tomita adapted this music as a tone poem. It won a Special Medal of Merit at the 1967 Japan Art Festival. In 1969, Tomita heard the Switched-On Bach album of American composer Wendy Carlos and became fascinated with the possibilities of the Moog III analog synthesizer. He realized that the device could be used to mimic standard musical instruments as well as create entirely new sounds. In 1973, he organized a performance group called Plasma Music. All members were adept at composing and arranging for the synthesizer. Afterwards, he worked on making synthesizer arrangements of music by Claude Debussy. RCA Victor accepted the product, the album Snowflakes Are Dancing, for the new four-channel LP system the company was then introducing. The disc was a hit -- a classical hit that entered the Top 50 of the pop chart -- and RCA signed Tomita to an exclusive contract. Over the next few years, Tomita produced several discs of transcriptions of Western classical works, including Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Holst's The Planets, and Stravinsky's The Firebird. Tomita favored shimmering, reverberating sounds that suggested outer space. His album The Bermuda Triangle used several different classical compositions (including a movement of Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony) to tell a story devised by Tomita concerning extra-terrestrials. Besides being commercially successful and lucrative for himself (among other things, affording him to build one of the most complete private electronic studios in the world), Tomita's RCA records enabled him to thoroughly understand the techniques and possibilities of electronic synthesis. He subsequently used this to better apply it to his own compositions. In the '80s, he progressively returned more frequently to his own music, often based on Japanese supernatural tales. Tomita moved from analog synthesizers (Moog, Roland, and other equipment) to digital for the 1982 release of Grand Canyon, which used a SynClavier. In 1984, Tomita commissioned a specially built instrument, the one-of-a-kind Casio Cosmo system. On the new machine, he saved all his analog sounds in the form of digital samples. Also during the '80s, he produced immense light and sound concerts such as the "Mind of the Universe" show in Linz, Austria (80,000 people) and "Back to the Earth" at the 1986 centennial of the Statue of Liberty in New York. After the mid-'80s most of his work was devoted to original compositions, and his original LPs were digitally remastered and translated to Dolby Surround Sound for CD. Tomita was also awarded the honorary presidency of the Japan Synthesizer Programmers Association. In 2001, Tomita composed background music for the Tokyo Disney Sea theme park. He continued composing music for Japanese films throughout the 2000s, and released three albums available as SACD Hybrid Multichannel discs during the 2010s. In 2015, Tomita won the Japan Foundation Award in honor of his long-standing influence on the electronic music world. On May 5, 2016, Tomita died of cardiac failure at the age of 84. At the time of his death, he had been working on Dr. Coppelius, a musical dedicated to Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa.
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