Born in Tokyo in April 1932, Isao Tomita – whose influence was such that he became simply known as ‘Tomita’ - became one of the foremost proponents and innovators in the field of electronic music. As an interpreter of Classical music themes, he enjoyed much success and critical acclaim; as a composer of original music, his work was heard in such diverse milieu as the Japanese Olympic gymnastics team in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia, as well as for NHK, the Japanese TV network, film soundtracks and theatrical productions.
As a budding music student, Tomita took private lessons in composition, orchestration and theory, while reading art history at Keio University in Tokyo. He perfected his skills by supporting himself composing music for local orchestras. Upon graduating in 1955, he embarked on a full-time career as a composer for film, television and theatre. Over the next fifteen years Tomita consolidated his reputation in Japan with major commissions for NHK, the national Japanese television network, including regular soundtracks for long-running historical dramas, and a tone poem based on his score for a popular TV show called White Lion, which was performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic.
By the late 1960s, and with the impetus of Wendy Carlos' and Robert Moog's work with synthesisers, he had turned his interest to electronic music. Upon acquiring a customised Moog III synthesiser, he began building his home studio. Over the next fourteen months, Snowflakes are Dancing was crafted. Worldwide reaction on its 1974 release was immediate and massively favourable, and made him the first Japanese artist to be nominated in four categories for the prestigious Grammy awards in 1974. It also received the NARM award for Best Classical Record in that year. It was popular with classical and pop audiences alike and was released in both conventional stereo and in the doomed format of quadraphonic, or four-channel sound.
Firebird, the May 1975 follow-up was just as successful, selling over 100,000 copies in three months, getting to the top of the classical and pop charts, and even appearing on the jazz charts as well. Electronic interpretations of popular classical works continued, each with impeccable sonic credentials and craftsmanship.
In 1984, Tomita released Canon of the Three Stars, which featured classical pieces renamed for astronomical objects. For example, the title piece is his version of Pachelbel's Canon in D Major. He credits himself with The Plasma Symphony Orchestra, which was a computer synthesiser process using the wave forms of electromagnetic emanations from various stars and constellations for the sonic textures of this album.
Tomita performed a number of outdoor "SoundCloud" concerts, with speakers surrounding the audience in a "cloud of sound". He gave a big concert in 1984 at the annual contemporary music Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria called Mind of the Universe, mixing tracks live in a glass pyramid suspended over an audience of 80,000 people. He performed another concert in New York two years later to celebrate the Statue of Liberty centennial (Back to the Earth) as well as one in Sydney in 1988 for Australia's bicentennial, which included the largest fireworks display up to that time: six fixed sound and lighting systems — one of those on a moored barge in the centre of a bay, the other flown in by Chinook helicopter — for the relevant parts of the show. His last SoundCloud event was in Nagoya, Japan in 1997, featuring guest performances by The Manhattan Transfer, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick and Rick Wakeman.
In the late 1990s, he composed a symphonic fantasy for orchestra and synthesiser titled The Tale of Genji inspired by the old Japanese story of that name. It was performed by symphony orchestras in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and London. And in 2001, Tomita collaborated with The Walt Disney Company to compose the background atmosphere music for the AquaSphere entrance at the Tokyo DisneySea theme park outside Tokyo. Tomita followed this with a synthesiser score featuring acoustic soloists for the 2002 film The Twilight Samurai which won the 2003 Japanese Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music.
The advent of the DVD-Audio format allowed Tomita to further pursue his interests in multichannel audio with reworked releases of The Tale of Genji Symphonic Fantasy and The Tomita Planets 2003. He also performed a version of Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune for the soundtrack of Ocean’s 13 in 2007. Then in 2012 Tomita performed Symphony Ihatov in Tokyo, directing the Japan Philharmonic, an accompanying choir, and featuring cyber-celebrity/diva, Hatsune Miku, a digital avatar created by the Japanese company Crypton Future Media.
In 2015, a number of tracks from Snowflakes are Dancing were featured on the soundtrack to Heaven Knows What, an American film directed by the Safdie brothers. The same year, in recognition of his long career and global influence on electronic music, Tomita won the Japan Foundation Award, an award launched "to honour individuals or organizations who have made a significant contribution to promoting understanding and friendship between Japan and the rest of the world through academic, artistic and other cultural pursuits".
At the time of his death in May 2016, Tomita had achieved legendary status in his native country and abroad. The high regard with which his music was held in Japan saw that some of his music was featured in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games – Rise of the Planet 9 from Dr. Copellius was played during the cauldron lighting in the Opening Ceremony, while the Debussy piece Moonlight arranged by Tomita was played during the extinguishing of the torch in the closing ceremony. Stevie Wonder, no less, cited Tomita as one of the artists he respected most, and a major influence exploring Romantic composers like Mussorgsky and Debussy.With thanks to Alan Robinson