The Japanese godfather of synthesizers who influenced Stevie Wonder has died


Isao Tomita, one of the progenitors of synthesized music, died Thursday. He was 84.

Some EDM fans know him as one of the reasons the genre exists. He's generally regarded as a visionary for his 1970s electronic music albums.

But Tomita’s influence extends beyond what we traditionally think of as “electronic” music.

Stevie Wonder named Tomita as one of the artists he respected the most, and in a 1984 interview with the New York Times, credited Tomita for turning him on to Romantic composers like Mussorgsky and Debussy. Wonder even appeared as a space alien in one of Tomita’s concerts.

Michael Jackson famously visited Tomita at his home studio during his 1987 tour of Japan, apparently to ask him about how he created such realistic flute sounds. According to legend, Tomita, not knowing that Jackson didn’t drink alcohol, kept giving him sake. Jackson, out of respect, held the cup to his lips, but then passed the cup under the table to his translator, who would drink it for him.

There’s no video of that interaction (though there is a photo here), but there is video of Jackson playing keyboards at Tomita’s studio.

If you listen closely, the chords that Tomita plays for Michael Jackson sound very similar to the introduction of Jackson’s 1991 “Who Is It.

The music that earned Tomita a place in music history didn’t sound much like Wonder’s or Jackson’s, though. Actually, a lot of it was pretty strange.

But the weirdest thing about Tomita’s electronic music is that it almost never happened.

Tomita was only 9 years old when the U.S. declared war on Japan. He showed an early aptitude for experimenting with sound, and made his own flutes by cutting holes into bamboo stalks. But he was uninterested in the military marches that he heard on the radio as a young child.

His attitude toward music changed when the war ended and his family's radio started picking up broadcasts from the occupying American forces. Suddenly, jazz, Latin, classical and a host of other exotic genres rushed in to his living room. 

“There was all kinds of music jumbled together, like somebody had dumped a toy box into the airwaves,” he recalled later in an interview with Japanese music magazine ele-king. After graduating with a degree in art history, he began composing commercial music, ranging from songs for special events to theme music for television shows.

At this point, he was still primarily using conventional instruments, all while keeping his eye on electronic ones.

By the mid-to-late '60s, rock artists like the Beatles (“Here Comes the Sun”) and the Doors (“Strange Days”) were experimenting with electronic elements in their music, but only as an exotic addition to their usual instrumentation. So when Tomita heard Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-on Bach,” an all-electric “cover” of famous Bach tunes, he realized the possibilities of making an entire album with nothing but electronic tones.

Before he could do this himself, though, he realized he would need the machine that was used to make this new kind of music –  a machine called a synthesizer, made by a mysterious company called Moog. He quickly learned that nobody in Japan had such a device, so he flew directly to upstate New York in 1972 to ask the Moog company to sell him one.

Isao Tomita performing on a synthesizer, as patch cords dangle above the keyboard. (Getty)

It cost him 10 million yen – roughly $125,000 in today’s dollars.

But when he tried to have it shipped back, Japanese customs officers wouldn’t let him have it. They didn’t know what the contraption was, and thought it might be some kind of contraband military equipment. Tomita kept trying to tell them that it was a musical instrument, but they wouldn’t believe him. The customs officers demanded that he prove it by playing it for them – but the Moog was notoriously difficult to program, and he didn’t actually know how to play it properly, so that only made things worse.

Finally, after a month of negotiating, he got someone to send him a picture of a musician playing it on stage, and the customs officers relented. The synthesizer was his.

Despite not having any proper instruction in the device, within a year, he’d mastered it, and in 1974 released “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” his interpretation of some of classical composer Debussy’s works. International response was immediate, and the album was nominated for four Grammy awards, including classical album – making him the first Japanese nominee for a Grammy.

The album took months to create. The synthesizer he used could only play one note at a time, meaning that each chord had to be created by layering notes on top of one another, repeatedly, with a series of tape recorders. During the process, Tomita was able to not only re-create realistic string and bell sounds, but also experimented with unique textures and effects, going beyond the potential of traditional acoustic instrumentation to explore new sonic atmospheres.

Sound effects that EDM producers and DJs lean heavily on today – flangers, reverb, phase shifting  are all present in Tomita’s early 1970s work.

Another of his most famous early records is his version of “The Planets,” in which he replicated not only Gustav Holst’s original orchestral work, but the sounds of a space shuttle taking off. Listen to this one, and keep in mind that everything, from the “countdown” to the rocket blasts, are all programmed with analog synthesizers:

Even in Tomita’s home country of Japan, most people don’t know much about his influence on Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. Instead, he may be best known as the person that did countless soundtracks for popular television shows, like the theme song for the 1965 anime "Kimba the White Lion."

Tomita went on to create dozens of albums and soundtracks. Up until his death, he showed an interest in new music technology, and even wrote a symphony using Hatsune Miku, an anime-themed voice synthesis program.

In an interview with the Japan Times in January, Tomita talked about his newest project, a composition called “Dr. Coppelius,” which was planned for a November performance. After dropping hints about including a dancing hologram of some kind, he acknowledged his failing health.

“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,” he said.

According to his son, a mere hour before he collapsed, Tomita was joking around during a meeting about the upcoming performance. He recalled his father telling one optimistic joke in particular:

“[Now that we’ve had this meeting], I can’t die until November.”