What a Japanese Synth Pioneer's Reinvention of Debussy Can Teach You About the Joy of Discovery

Reflections on Isao Tomita's Grammy-nominated 'Snowflakes Are Dancing,' following his passing last week at the age of 84.

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May 17 2016, 3:35pm

Every summer as long as I can remember, I've visited my grandparents in Indianapolis, Indiana—a modest, but friendly city surrounded by corn and soybean fields if you drive far enough in any direction. It is not the place, as a teenager newly fascinated with the noise scene in my hometown of Tampa, Florida, that I expected to uncover a record that'd upend my understanding of electronic music history.

Digging through an abandoned collection of cassettes in a cool aunt's bedroom, I stumbled upon the opaque blue cover of Japanese synth pioneer Isao Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing. I beheld it curiously, taking in the cover's unusual promise of Claude Debussy compositions reimagined for synthesizer, and tossing it in the stack that I'd carry around with me in my grandmother's car. I popped it in the tape player later that night as I went out for a drive with no real plan in mind.

As a kid who was spending a lot of time digging into Hospital Productions' frostbitten releases, I was hoping recordings as dramatically icy as the cover and title promised. I was wrong—these strangely warped arrangements were full of far more warmth and life than any other music I was digging into at the time—but the tape never left the deck over the rest of my trip.

Tomita, who died of heart failure last week at the age of 84, understood happiness. In the early 70s, he imported his electronic gear to Japan at great cost, spending nearly $125,000 on a Moog III modular synthesizer, and triple that on other equipment. Talking to Resident Advisor in 2012 about his early sonic experiments with the Moog, he said he "didn't have a clue how it was supposed to sound," and attempted to replicate sounds he already knew instead. But he did so with the glee of a child gradually grasping a new language—stuttering and sputtering, repeating fragments and phrases while subtly stumbling upon more.

Unburdened by the expectation of what a synthesizer should do, Tomita explored what it could do instead. And while that did occasionally mean dreamily spacey explorations—like the album closing renditions of "Footprints in the Snow"—more often than not it meant a wholehearted embrace of the instrument's goofiest, most winning possibilities. With time, he found life in frigid, unwieldy machines.

Even though Snowflakes Are Dancing, a collection of rearrangements of Debussy's "tone paintings" released in 1974, was still one of his early endeavors into the world of electronic composition, Tomita went all out. Listed in the liner notes of the initial release were the full technical specs of the gear that precipitated Snowflakes. He enlisted a Moog synthesizer consisting of 36 discrete modules—including filters, oscillators, switches and controllers of every variety imaginable at the time—as well as five separate tape recorders, four mixers, and a smattering of effects for good measure. He brought a sleeping bag to the studio and would occasionally crash there over the course of the 16 months it took to make the album. This was not a kid with a cracked copy of Ableton.

Over the top of the requisite choir and string sounds—borrowed, no doubt, from his stated fascination with Wendy Carlos' similar album of classical reinventions Switched-On Bach—he'd allow his collection of hardware to burble and burp, swoon and sulk. There's moments where it croaks in rhythm like an animated frog (on "Golliwog's Cakewalk") or bleats like a malfunctioning bot from a post-millennial Star Wars sequel (on "Arabesque No. 1)—awkward, gawky, endearing issuances that lift the album beyond a mere recapitulation of Debussy's melodies.

When I first encountered these songs, I knew little of nothing of the album's Grammy nominations in 1975, the hundreds of thousands of copies sold in the US alone, or how Tomita almost single-handedly introduced the idea of analog synthesis to Japan. What excited me were the record's weirder sounds, born from Tomita's own excitement at what he was able to coax out the machines—no matter how absurd. As technology has progressed, the sounds he used have become commonplace—employed in television jingles and stored in cell phone sample packs—but there's still a spirit in Snowflakes that few have been able to replicate.

Hideki Matsutake, a former student of Tomita and an occiasional member of fellow Japanese synth pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra once said that "creating sounds that nobody has heard, in ways that nobody has done" is the biggest lesson he learned from Tomita. That sense of newness was central to Snowflakes, but the glee that he took in these boundless possibilities is what made it stick for me. Tomita went beyond the horizon not just to see what was there, but to celebrate it in all its wonder.