top of page

ISAO TOMITA: farewell to Electric Samurai

(text + mix)

Isao Tomita ceased his terrestrial existence on 5 May following a chronic heart failure. He was 84 years old. A private funeral was attended by close family members only. His last wish was to complete the musical Dr. Coppelius. It was scheduled to be performed in Shibuya’s Bunkamura Theater on November 11 and 12, featuring a 3D hologram of Hatsune Miku (a virtual character singing synthesizing technologies modeled from Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita).

Tomita anticipated his death when he declared that Dr. Coppelius could be finished after his death:

“My priority right now is staying healthy, but I’d like to finish ‘Dr. Coppelius’ as much as possible so that, even if something happens to me, others could finish it”, Tomita told The Japan Times last December.

Dr. Coppelius is the epilogue of a musical odyssey carried out in over 4 decades of innovation.

'Electric Samurai' is the name under which Isao Tomita produced his first recordings with the modular synthesizer Moog III. Tomita is responsible for importing the first Moog to Japan (1971), an instrument so bizarre at the time that postal workers in Tokyo refused to deliver the expansive package to the young artist. It was necessary for Robert Moog himself send a picture to Tokyo Central Postal Office to demonstrate that the giant metal device was indeed a musical instrument. Only after Moog's intervention, Tomita was able to take home the precious synthesizer.

One of his ambitions was to challenge Wendy Carlos' success from 1968 Switched on Bach, the first classical music album played on synthesizer (Platinum disc, three Grammy awards). To learn to play on Moog III Isao Tomita had to change his perception of what an instrument means and to invent a personal musical language. Unlike the American precedent, Tomita focused not on J.S. Bach's work, but on Claude Debussy's creation and launched in 1974 Snowflakes are Dancing (re-recorded in the quadraphonic format in 2012 under the name Clair de Lune). The album became a landmark in the programming of analog synthesizers and a triumph of electronic polyphony. Switched on Bach is monophonic (the Moog did not allow you to play two notes at once) and Tomita managed to create polyphony by recording each section of Snowflakes are Dancing one by one for 14 months. Thanks to this album, Isao Tomita became the first Japanese artist nominated for Grammy.

Specific to Tomita's esthetic is the reconstruction and projection of classical works in epic space themes, as can be heard in albums as Pictures At An Exhibition, Firebird, The Planets, Kosmos or The Bermuda Triangle. His cosmic vision is explicit in Dawn Chorus (alternate title: Canon of the Three Stars), where he had introduced the sound of electromagnetic emissions from various stars and galaxies into the musical texture of the pieces.

In the second part of his life, Tomita was a prolific composer for television, cinema, and theatre. He is famous in Japan for the score of Tezuka Osamu’s anime “Kimba the White Lion” and NHK Drama “Hana no Shogai”.

Last year he won the Japan Foundation Award for "significant contributions to the promotion of understanding and friendship between Japan and the rest of the world", an honorary title that completes a respectable list of awards and distinctions. His music produced a major influence on Ryuichi Sakamoto, the leader of the Yellow Magic Orchestra and composer of soundtracks for movies like Little Buddha and The Last Emperor. In an interview with Resident Advisor magazine, Hideki Matsutake, the sound programmer of the group, said: "In the studio, YMO used to spend time analyzing how Tomita created the sounds. Sakamoto had all of Tomita's records, and he would bring a record to the studio and say, 'Today, let's listen to this and study.' YMO's sound is definitely rooted in Tomita's music."

Tomita left deep traces in the history of electronic music as one of its early heroes. We remember Isao Tomita at "Journeys to the Infinite" in a special half-hour mix, a celebration of his genius and unique way of expressing the little infinity of human experience embedded in the big infinite life of the universe. Domo arigato gozaimasu, Tomita!


bottom of page