Isao Tomita – Tokyo, August 1977.

This exclusive interview was conducted in Tokyo during August 1977 by Max von Kunstdorf and published in the Synapse magazine, november 1977. Please note that the (c) are with the Synapse magazine and the author. The original scans of the article are included below the text.

lsao Tomita was asked about his motivation for realising existing scores on synthesizer. His answer does not reveal the crass personality imagined by those who see his records as a misuse of the synthesizer or as a mistreatment of “Great” music. Instead, it shows a conceptual relationship to his background in visual art and his self-envisioned position as a “creative filter” for musical tradition. Also among the topics in this interview are the technical means by which Tomita realises his string ensemble sound as well as effective dynamic changes.

Well, you are now one of the best known artists of the electronic synthesizer in the world. I understand that you composed many works for conventional orchestra before you came to electronic music. What at first attracted you to using synthesizers?

lsao Tomita: I studied music not at a regular music academy, but took private lessons and training in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. I was majoring in aesthetics and the history of art at the University as a regular student. 1 have had, however, an unsolved question and doubt about music from those days. If I may compare with painting-in painting the artist is free to use whatever color or material he may choose. ln other words the medium for his expression on the canvas is free and unlimited. There are plenty and abundant mediums, whereas in music we have had to use very limited means: the musical instruments. In painting one could use unlimited variety in color, but in music only certain numbers of timbres were available to express composers’ ideas and feelings. We see two paintings: for instance one by Paul Cezanne, the other work by Van Gogh. There may be some similar points, but the colors and the expression are quite different. But in music, for instance we compare a symphony of Beethoven’s and a symphony of Debussy’s and the main sources of the sounds are the same. Both composers have used flute, oboe, clarinet, faggot, trumpet, horn, trombone and then comes the group of stringed instruments. The two composers’ symphonies are quite different but the musical instruments they used were the same or almost the same. I’m sure composers were not satisfied. They wanted to have their own original medium with which to express their feelings through 1m1sic but they were forced to use the standard sources of sounds. My doubt was, should music be always like this? Couldn’t it get some new source of sound beyond existing musical instruments? That was my doubt and at the same time my drt’am. After my study of music I started my career as a musician/ composer and I have composed several works for movies, numerous pieces for TV-shows, dramas, and music for the theaters but never was I satisfied. I had to fight with myself as my musical ideas leaped far away; far beyond the given sources of music that are the instruments in the orchestra, but I had to compromise and so I was waiting for happiness. I was waiting for some instrument which could break this limitation. In 1969 I happened to listen to a record titled “Switched On Bach” which opened a new world to me and triggered a revolution in my musical life. At that time I saw on the jacket of the record, behind Bach, a synthesizer, which is to say the palette of sound. For the first time I discovered that the synthesizer is not an instrument to compose music by using the sounds of existing instrument·s, but is a new instrument or a new machine which creates unlimited sound sources.

You have long experience composing for conventional instruments. How many years have you been composing these kinds of works?

Well it was I guess in 1951 I began to compose to make a living and I did pretty well. I had graduated from the University in 1955-that means for four years prior I had been composing as a professional composer. After graduation 1 just continued my career as a composer, so from 1951 until 19691 was composing for conventional orchestras. 1 then discovered the synthesizer and changed from conventional instruments to electronic music, so literally my history of synthesizer is from 1970 till 1977, just eight years.

What was your expectation wlien “Snowflakes Are Dancing” was released? Was it expected to be as popular as it was?

Of course I never expected that so many records would be sold, but to tell the truth I was expecting something different and I had, if I may say, some revolutionary intention or theory when making this music. The reason why I chose Debussy as my first piece is of course that I liked his work but there are other reasons, too. So, theoretically, the synthesizer can create any kind of sound-that means a free source of sound with which to expr<:ssB, ut to be honest with you, before I compose some new piece denying all of the rules and aesthetic regulations of existing musical instruments just to build up new worlds, 1 thought I’d better go along with the historical development of music and musical instruments and then from there gradually evolve the timbre of the sound or the organization of the sounds. In “Snowflakes Are Dancing” I don’t deny the sounds of Debussy’s music, rather I agreed with them -but from there on I tried to create my own sound source and so my intention was to let the audience compare Debussy’s or other people’s sound using conventional instruments to my sound using electronic synthesizer. As you know, Walter Carlos’ emphasis when realizing Debussy was on the level of mere description and depicting, but my intention was to make a contrast to the work of Walter Carlos. My emphasis was more on the timbre or color of the music. That was my first step: to break the limitations of the source for music using Debussy’s composition-and I’m sure I broke that: the limitation of the timbre, Of course, seen from today, it’s not quite satisfactory to me but at that time I’m sure I created something new. As you see now. it was kind of an experiment for me. I experimented with my theory to create first the color of the sound which the conventional instruments never could bring out. and so 1 don’t think that I failed. However, I don’t want to be misunderstood concerning the acoustic instruments existing today in Europe, in Asia or anywhere in the world that are used to create artistic music. The instruments which exist today are the most refined and 1 don’t deny, I can’t deny, the beauty of the 18 November/December 1977 sounds that come from those instruments and I don’t think electric music ever should deny these; so you create with the synthesizer the sound of violin or the sound of piano or the sound of harp-why not 1 They are not bad sounds at all; they are beautiful sounds so I don’t deny them at all. The intention of my playing was that with a synthesizer I could break the limitations of such instruments and go into the unlimited world, and I started with the color of the sound, and the result was this piece. But we are going beyond even the color; we are going to the form of music composition and finding new aesthetic rules and creating a new world of music. I composed Debussy’s “Snowflakes Are Dancing” about one and one half years after I started to use synthesizer for composition, so of course seen from today there are points lacking technically. But as a whole, my intention, my direction … I think I was right and my work deserves the popularity and the plaudits of the music lovers.

Why do you think you have become popular while others pursuing similar ideas are obscure?

It is difficult or impossible to answer this question because I cannot explain about other artists. I really don’t know very much. All that I can do is explain about myself and about my own work to an extent, not about the other composers’ work, but there is one thing 1 can tell you: that music is not philosophy-music must have philosophy at its base. Any composer has his or her own philosophy but music is art-music is not philosophy itself. I think this is a very important point.

Are you referring lo the music which one cannot enjoy without explanation?

Oh yes. something like that. Often we hear through radios some kind of modern music which represents the composer’s design or ideas but not the composer’s music itself. The composer’s philosophy may be orally explained together with the pieces so that the listener can use a little bit of his imagination. but still I do not think that it’s music. That is something else before it becomes music so it’s not music to my thinking. It may be important for research and for the development of music. We have to go through such stages. I don’t deny this either. I respect those composers who research, scientifically and philosophically; they are part of music. 1 really sincerely respect them very much but as long as they don’t become music, people will not be able to enjoy them; if people do not enjoy them they will not be popular. As far as I am concerned, music is of course an art and art must be something deeply related to the human being. It means that in addition to the kind of machine or materials we may use to make art there must be the human being, and the instrument is nothing but the means to express or to convey the feeling of the human being. … Of course the music shouldn’t be influenced by commercialism and the commercial music shouldn’t be the center of music-but the so-called advanced electronic musicians say if the audience is not satisfied, or if they leave, or if they don’t come, “well, you are wrong, you don’t understand my advanced music so l don’t care about you, and you may !eave ;ind I am going to do my work alone,” so it’s very subjective. They even deny the audience. On the other hand, some popular composers are even afraid of the audience leaving. They are very much concerned with the reaction of the audience, which is the best criticism by which to analyze their work again and to make corrections so that thal will serve their progress in the next work. I suppose that in a concert of popular work, if the audience all leaves, the composer will be very unhappy and he will never think that his work was successful. So the audience is the barometer of success. I don’t mean material success, but artistic success-and I do not believe that art exists without the audience. Art is art when it is appreciated by someone. It is not something that is absolute.

If we may go into the details of your work, I would like to ask if the looseness with which you interpret pre-existing scores is designed lo a/tract a popular attdience or if there is some other reason?

As I said before, ii was my creative attempt; I had to try to create more color for the audience. My artistic desire forced me to do so. So you see that I did not interpret the pre-existing scores in order to make it popular, but I tried to create my own tone color for them. Maybe unconsciously the mass were dreaming the same sound-color as I was, so it matched. That can be the only explanation why my synthesizer music, electric music, made them happy and then it became popular. So the main purpose was my inner desire, my artistic desire; ii didn’t come from any commercial or business reason. I chose Debussy’s work because I love Debussy’s work and with a new instrument like the synthesizer, I could create any kind of timbre that I wanted, and I recreated my own work with Debussy’s worJ… As you know, Debussy’s original score was for piano. and as I was listening to this piano piece I was hearing it with my own timbre or sound color, so with my dream I realized it and the synthesizer gave me the possibility of this realization. So anyway, RCA was interested in this piece and gave me a contract to write more music and it became a series. I have often been asked why I arrange existing scores with synthesizers and why I do not compose my original compositions. I have a contract with RCA so I write electric music on existing scores. Although I am very much interested in working this way, and I am happy with this contract and will gladly continue it. this is not the whole of my artthis is a part of my art. Of course. I can and I will compose my own compositions, but since the synthesizer came I have brought my dream and my imagination to existing music. For instance my new work. ‘The Unanswered Question.” People say that this piece is monotonous and how could you love this piece, but since I once listened to it on the radio some years back, the piece fascinated me. I didn’t listen as the radio sounded, but l added my timbre to it. l added my sounds to this and I was very happy and I enjoyed it immensely. So the more monotony there is, the more room for me to add and to create my own work! The original music has, for instance, trumpet sounds and violin sounds, but to my ears it’s somet~.:ng different. I always hear the music simultaneously interpreted by adding my own imagination and it’s quite different: a new kind of sound which none of the traditional instruments could produce.

We know that your latest work, ‘The Planets” by Holst is another hit and also one of your more popular pieces. But /ras tlie publishing controversy with the Gustolf Holst eMate over “The Planets” altered your thinking on this point at all?

My answer is there is no influence -it will not influence my creation at all. I was aware of it, so before I began I told RCA in New York that I could only start my work when they had legally solved this problem. Then I received an answer from RCA that “everything is okay and you may just go on.” The trouble was not between the Holtz estate and me, but between my publisher, RCA, and the Holtz estate, so I really don’t know the details very much. l only !<now ~here w;1s some trouble but I don’t know what the trouble was. In this kind of situation, music and, for instance, painting are different. There is one painting, one masterpiece, say. lf another painter adds color or a line to this original painting, it is destroyed. But it is quite different with music. In music there may be one original score, but there may be thousands of scores of the same composition. and there will be hundreds and thousands of other composers and arrangers who may rearrange the original music; who may add something to the original, who may extract something from it. Whatever changes the other people may make, still the original score exists without being changed, and the greater the original score, the more perfectly it will be preserved, and everyone will recognize the original one against th~ augmented or arranged ones. I don’t think it’s a problem which endangers or destroys the original score. So this is my general idea about the composition and the right of arranging or performing. If one plays a score, each player will interpret it differently and each conductor performs it differently. and you cannot limit or tell the conductor exactly how the original composer imagined it. The music score itself is loose. It just indicates roughly how the music is. but all the delicate things will not be the same as the original composer had in mind because even he cannot write it down. In general, I do not believe that a music score cannot be touched or rearranged.

You have already released several records which have sold all over tire world. and I’m sure you get many letters and hear many comments and many responses about them. Do you feel there are any 11Spectso f your work that are insufficiently appreciated?

Well, there has not been anything to specify about the appreciation of my works. They generally appreciate even some detailed point that I wanted to be appreciated, so I may say they properly appreciated my work. But there is a very interesting story. As I published the first and second works, the criticism came from professionals, mostly in Japan. I cannot mention them by name here. but they are some very prominent modernists who have even had the experience to work with electronic music. Their criticism was “Tomita’s records are not human and all the sounds he composes sound like a machine; it is machine music but not human music.” I was shocked to get this criticism. I couldn’t understand why they received my work as sounds from a machine. Of course it was sound from a machine but on the contrary, my intention was to create as much as possible sounds related to human beings. But I don’t think these public criticisms have influenced the proper and honest appreciation of the music lovers. lf they had said that I needed more improvement in the technique and handling of the instrument, or we need more improvement in the synthesizer itself, I am sure I would agree with them. But their point was quite wrong. Whether we use electricity or not doesn’t matter. It’s an expression of the human being and my music is as human as other music performed by conventional instruments. Why is music produced through electricity unnatural7 I believe it is as natural as other sounds. As you know. electricity is an energy which flows quite naturally just like wind blows in the air and water runs in the stream. These phenomena are natural and so is electricity. So an art which uses electricity is as natural as other kinds of music. From the first day of the earth we have had thunder and lightning in the sky. When I hear thunder in the sky, I think it is a sound of electronics; so it is a source of material to compose electric music which has existed since the first day of the earth. Fire had been taken into mankind’s life very early. It has a long history, but electricity existed from the early days just like fire, only the history of using this energy is much shorter. Today in our environment we cannot live without electricity; electricity is in our life. Light, air conditioning. stoves, refrigerators, radio, TV … well, you name it. Our environment is full of electricity. In a way maybe it replaces other kinds of natural energy. There are people who criticized “The Planets” because there were sounds with which they were not familiar, never having been used in classical or conventional music, and they sounded like machine noise. Those people’s criticism is that these sounds are not music-not musical sounds. Accordingly, my work ‘The Planets” was not pure music. But as you know, the main part of the violin, the body, is for resonance, the sound comes from the string, and the resonant cavity or body will amplify the sound, which is sent to the ear with the vibration of the air. The same thing can be said of the piano; the hammer will strike the string and the vibration of the string will be resonated and amplified by the piano body, and will go into the ear and then to the human being. With synthesizers it is the speaker which sends the sound to the ear, so the speaker is a very important part of the musical instrument, and any sounds-all soundswhich come from speakers, as far as I am concerned, are the sound material for music. How can you say that from here to there is musical sound and from there to there is not 7 As long as they all come from the same speaker they are all musical sounds. The capability of a speaker for musical expression is very powerful and highly developed.

Generally, words of praise rarely reach your ears, but negative criticism reach your ears very quickly. I still want to know if there was any particular work of yours which W/15 unduly praised or unduly criticized.

Well, yes. If I may say, Stravinsky”s “Firebird,” as far as I am concerned, was a pretty good work. Anyway I was satisfied to write that piece. I mean, not to write but to compose that piece. I liked it. but the statistics from my publisher said it did not sell very well, especially in the United States. That was something different from my expectations.

Oh, that’s strange. In Gemany ”The Firebird” was very popular and people liked it very much, and I thought it also sold well in the United States.

Unfortunately this was not the case. I still believe ‘”Firebird” was done pretty well.

What are your future plans? Might they include any live perfonmances or original compositions?

Yes, of course, I am going to compose my original music, for which I have several ideas and plans already. Among them, the first few that I want to compose are based on Japanese stories and fairy tales.  I am still, of course, preparing for this. My first original composition-I don’t know when I can start it-is based on the old Japanese story, “Miminashi Hoichi” or “Hoichi the Earless.” If I may translate into English, Hoichi is the name of a musician who played Bewah (a Japanese stringed instrument) and Miminashi means “Earless.” Hoichi was blind but was a skillful Bewah player. The story is related by a ghost. I am going to compose this in four channels. I like to compose for four channels. I have always done this and I believe that electronic music must be heard on a four channel system because you can move your sound image in space. I believe the future music must be at least in four channels. The story “Miminashi Hoichi” involves the musician Hoichi in real life, and every night he’s invited to the Heike family military division to play for the officers. This was in fact not the real world but was a group of ghosts in the graveyard. So he commutes between the real world and the world of the ghost. So I’m going to use the actual space to move the sound image from one point to a.nother point. which I’m sure will be very interesting. As far as live performance is concerned, I used to do some concerts in European countries and in Japan, but not in the United States. But I don’t think I shall do it again in the future because I believe the synthesizer basically is not an instrument for Ii ve performance, because to create a sound you take time. If we do it quickly we cannot make good music. I say this of the electronic synthesizers of today. The hardware is const.antly making improvements and who knows, in the future they may offer the possibility for the performer to instantly create the sound that he wishes. Then live performance may be possible, but as far as today’s instrument is concernoo, it is not very effective and not very interesting. That’s the reason why I’m not planning to give any live performances in the near future.

Where do present day synthesizers need improvement?

It is hard for me to point out all the details which should be improved in today’s synthesizers. The first thing is, you see, I can handle synthesizers pretty well, but there are still many things that I have not mastered. 1 have to improve my technique first so that I am in a position to control the synthesizer perfectly. So my answer is, it is me to be improved, not the synthesizer. Of course, there are things which I often wish were a little bit different.

What are they? What modules, and what points should be improved?

You see, I wish that I could patch the different modules in a short time. It takes too long when I have a sound image in my brain and then I search to pull out that sound image in my brain and then I search to pull out that sound from the synthesizer. I have to patch ii this way and that way, and that way and this way. Sometimes it takes half an hour, and often during that half an hour I lose my own sound image and I don’t know what I’m looking for, so I am disappointed. I don’t know, maybe if my technique is perfect someday I will be able to create that sound or patch with all the different modules in a very short time, but at present for me it takes too much time. But please do not misunderstand me. 1 don’t mean to make a synthesizer like an organ or piano where you just switch it. Only certain given sounds are there and you can’t create any further. I don’t mean that at all. II may be convenient (or live performance on the stage but for my kind of composition, the limitations of the variety of sounds is fatal.

Will you describe for our readers tl,e technical means of producing your very good string sounds? If it is your secret, we’d like to know about it.

Well, I can tell you. It is my work, but I don’t think I should keep it a secret. It’s very time-consuming work. Until 1 invented this technique I had experimented with many things for a long period. First, I took the signal which came from the oscillator and then gave it some treatment, and then I mixed that together with other oscillators, but still the sound didn’t sound like natural strings. It was still very much like the sound of an oscillator. Suppose we hear the sound of ten violins at the same time playing the same note; say they play the note A. When we analyze, each violin plays the A, that’s true, but the musical effect is different. Each violin is different because each violin has a different resonant body and so it produces a different A. So ten different A’s will be summed up and that creates some very special, beautiful sounds. Suppose if, well it’s not possible but suppose if we span ten strings on our violin and we play A at the same time on ten strings; this A is not the same A which comes from ten violins because with the latter situation the resonance is of one kind but the first is a summary of ten kinds. It’s a problem of the resonant effect. In my work I use a filter for a resonant box, so when I play a note on one violin I use a certain filter setting and when the same note is played on the next violin l use another filter setting.

Aren’t you using a phase shifter?

Oh yes, I use a phase shifter, but before that I use various filters to treat the signal. Of course I use ,echo machines, phase shifters and delay, but using echo machines and audio delay alone will sound very mechanical. I mean, you can feel that it is not very natural. It’s mechanically changed. So the main thing is to give the effect of different violins by using different filter settings for the resonant box. So I play a violin once and then I play the same melody again with a delicate, slight change of filter and I pile them up say ten times to make one sound. The sum of this if you mix them up becomes a really beautiful violin ensemble sound. Also we have many other techniques or very delicate treatments l use. One of them is accent or how to give accent. That is also very difficult. I use some special triggers to do this and that is also not easy. Technically it’s not easy to perform this on the keyboard. As we all know, even if you play a scale there are different very delicate accents. That’s natural and you analyze on which note an accent comes. Also there are a variety of accents; some are weaker, some are stronger, but when I compose I make two or three kinds of accents and I use this for expression. If you play a scale without any accent, then it sounds like a machine. It doesn’t sound like a human being would have played it. So I have researched and I have a library I have made of all of them: the accents, and how many and where and what kind. So you see what time comsuming work it is just to create a very short, simple note or short melody. In other words, my effort is to give expression to each signal which comes out from the oscillator. Another thing which I may mention is when you change from forte to piano, changing the volume is not enough. Also the timbre changes, so you need to treat it with the VCF together with the VCA, then you can get the real effect. And that is not easy. You have to experiment and experiment and you learn through the experiments all the delicate differences and delicate techniques and how to use them. I work in this way to create, for instance, sixteen violins playing, and it sounds very natural to the listeners. But the point is that it is not quite the same as the real sixteen vioHn ensemble. Still it’s different. 1 hope the sounds created by synthesizer are better than the real violin ensemble sound. You see, we paint, we make a sketch of nature, we make a sketch of flowers or some street scenes-but it is not that the painter sketches to express on the canvas that which will look real, but in his sketch, his aesthetic creativity works and as art work it is not the same as real nature. There is the painter’s ideal and aesthetic sense in his painting, so although the sketch is of a real scene which exists, the scene is nothing but the model of his creation, So the sound that comes From the real violin ensemble is a model. The sixteen violin ensemble melody which I create with the synthesizer is something created by me to my ideal. Though I use the real ensemble as model it is not the same. People say that it is not right to imitate existing musical instruments, but I don’t agree with them. The existing musical instruments are the instruments which produce the finest sounds. Why shouldn’t we use them for our model? I don’t know whether it is proper that I compare my musical process with painting, but I hope you understand it, and I believe it iis still creation.