May 18, 2016 5:45 pm JST

Japanese synth pioneer Isao Tomita pushed electronic music to new heights

ATSUFUMI SUZUKI

Isao Tomita performs at a concert at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, near Tokyo, in 2013.

TOKYO -- Over the years, relatively few Japanese musicians have found global fame. One might argue that this is because Japanese sensibilities toward sound and music are unique, but the ones who embrace this uniqueness and pursue their craft with a limitless curiosity can make the leap from the domestic to the world stage.

Isao Tomita, who died on May 5 at the age of 84, was one such musician. Unrivaled as a composer, synthesizer player and acoustic engineer, he spent his life as a "seeker of sound," crossing boundaries with ease.

His interest in acoustics began when he visited the echo wall, an architectural feature with unique acoustical properties, at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where he spent part of his childhood.

Tomita focused on surround sound and other 3-D audio effects from early in his professional career. This eventually evolved into "Sound Cloud" events, in which the audience was surrounded by sound from all directions.

Japanese record labels were reluctant to release Tomita's first synthesizer album, "Clair de Lune," an arrangement of Claude Debussy's piano pieces, because they had no idea which category to put it in. U.S. label RCA took notice of his work and released the album under the title "Snowflakes are Dancing" in 1974. For this album, Tomita became the first Japanese musician to be nominated in four categories at the Grammy Awards.

In his later years, Tomita returned to his roots. "Symphony Ihatov" is a musical interpretation of the world of novelist and poet Kenji Miyazawa, an early source of inspiration for Tomita. When the symphony was performed in Beijing, he revisited the echo wall, the point where his lifelong pursuit started.

At the time of his unexpected death, Tomita had finished composing the basic structure of "Dr. Coppelius." Combining music, ballet and visual effects, "Dr. Coppelius" is not only the culmination of his own life's work, it is also the realization of the dream of the late Hideo Itokawa, a pioneering Japanese rocket engineer and amateur ballet dancer whom Tomita revered. "Dr. Coppelius" will be completed by another composer, like Mozart's Requiem, and is slated to premier this autumn.

Atsufumi Suzuki is a music critic.

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