Wednesday, May 23, 2012

JAM DESHO: Isao Tomita - The Planets

By Steve Jones.

Today is the 78th birthday of Robert Moog, one of the most important figures in electronic music. While he is not Japanese, the sound of his Moog synthesizers defined a significant portion of the Japanese music I've come to love (Yellow Magic Orchestra, for instance). What I'd like to do, then, is highlight one of the earliest pioneers of purely electronic music in Japan--Isao Tomita.

In a world of grand, sweeping, reductive statements, my grand, sweeping, reductive statement about Tomita would be to call him the Japanese Wendy Carlos. It's not an entirely unfounded label, as the early careers of both artists were defined by the transposition of classical compositions into the realm of Dr. Moog, and Tomita himself was directly inspired by Carlos' work with Switched-On Bach. In the mid-'70s, Tomita chose to arrange the works of Claude Debussy (Snowflakes are Dancing), Modest Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition), Igor Stravinsky (Firebird), and, the subject of today, Gustav Holst's The Planets.

There are two things that, for me, significantly distinguish Tomita from Carlos. One is the choice of composition. Carlos worked with Bach, whose Baroque style fit rather easily into the textures of early synthesizers, while Tomita fixated on much more recent composers, whose Impressionistic, late Romantic, and Modernist styles presented a completely different set of challenges (though to be fair, Tomita had the luxury of working with slightly newer synthesizers than Carlos had had access to in the late '60s). The other difference comes from their approaches to arrangement. Carlos didn't stray too far from the original pieces and intent, while I feel that Tomita was much more liberal in his interpretations, which is exquisitely apparent in his work on The Planets. Actually, the original pressing of Tomita's The Planets was pulled from shelves rather quickly, because Holst's daughter Imogen was not too fond of the way it sounded.

In a very real sense, these are indeed bastardized versions of Holst's original compositions, but they are much stronger for it. While the tracks are undoubtedly the same classic favorites that many know and love, the atmosphere of this record is one steeped in the bleeps and bloops of science fiction and Tomita's own vision. It's obvious from the first moments of the record. The listener expects "Mars: The Bringer of War" to begin with one of the most identifiable marches of percussion in history, but what is heard instead is some spacey whirring that leads into a music box playing the most gorgeous part of the "Jupiter" movement. With a burst of static, it suddenly cuts out and is replaced by what sounds like a drunken vocoder duet of the same melody. Then that cuts into a dramatic spaceship alarm. Then that cuts out...and you get the picture. Nothing of the "Mars" movement is heard until over three minutes into the piece. But those first three minutes are vital for setting up the tone of the album. Yes this is The Planets, but this is also a journey to the planets.

Tomita provides the listener with over 50 minutes of alien electronic wizardry. His arrangements are alternately whimsical, ponderous, glistening, and kind of scary. When we finally do get to "Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity," I particularly love his treatment of the aforementioned "most gorgeous part," which he treats as a chorus of hushed voices floating around your headphones. It's subdued and chilling, and completely unlike the original  piece.

I can understand the backlash in response to this album. One person's reinterpretation of another person's art is always a delicate subject, especially when the original is such a beloved work. Tomita had serious balls to remix Holst the way he did, and in the hands of a lesser musician this record could have been disastrous. But Tomita succeeded because he understood that the frontier of electronic music could be pushed into places traditional instrumentation would never go. His meticulously playful The Planets is not Holst's vision. It is all Tomita, and all the more fascinating for it.

(Steve Jones is going to get in the mood with Dr. Robert Moog. For up-to-date status on his mood, you may follow his Twitter @vestenet.)

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