An exclusive interview with the world famous synthesist of classical music
One of the most exciting musical events at the last Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria was the sound performance of Isao Tomita's 'The Bermuda Triangle' in collaboration with the film visuals of Ron Hays. For both of the celebrated artists, 'outer space' and science fiction had already become a challenge, notably for Tomita in his electronic music interpretation of John Williams 'Star Wars Theme' at a gigantic presentation in Budokan, Japan and for Ron Hays through his own 'Star Wars' concerts seen by over a hundred thousand spectators.
At last years Ars Electronica, the main concert hall of the Brucknerhaus was turned into a giant 'space' auditorium with Tomita's special pyramid sound system created for the occasion. This consisted of large speaker stacks positioned at the four lower corners of the auditorium, plus an additional fifth stack mounted above the audience. Tomita s idea was to create a four-dimensional sound-scape for the audience as they viewed the large screen video projections of Ron Hays.
Tomita did not perform the music live but sat at a large mixing desk with his engineer by the master tape deck, on the left-hand side of the stage (next to the screen).
From this position he mixed his front and back stereo images,
as well as the overhead 'flying UFO' images He was grandly dressed in his
komono [sic] and this month's specially painted cover by artist Stephan Suchomski
shows him wearing it in the 'Bermuda Triangle' which he personally visited
for ten days. This was his first performance in Austria and his first use
of the pyramid system. In earlier years, he used a quadraphonic system: in
1972 with 'Renaissance' and during an RCA promotional tour (1976) in Germany,
the Netherlands and England.
I interviewed Mr Tomita shortly before the evening concert began. Since he does not speak English, he was accompanied by his agent, Miss Taki Katoh, who kindly interpreted his replies.
How do you feel about the performance?
''I hope that the audience will experience something new with my 5-channel pyramid sound. My music is just one of the elements to enjoy, for there are many other aspects and visualisation effects - together with the audience's imagination!
Would you prefer to be playing live?
"Yes, of course, but it would be very difficult to realise and the computer controlled visualisation would also have been too costly. First, I would need everything that I have in my studio. But riot only that, I would need at least 10 technicians to help. I have already spent over 200 hours in the preparation of the tapes for this performance, which has a lot of new music as well as the Bermuda Triangle pieces. It would not be impossible to play live but it would require much more preparation and a very large amount of equipment, plus the tape recorders, arid technicians.
Do you feel that the Pyramid system is necessary?
"My records are always being heard in stereo through two channels, whereas this performance uses five channels. So, in that sense, I am giving the audience an opportunity to listen to the sound in the way I want them to hear it. it is frustrating that people always have to hear my interpretations just with stereo records.
What were your thoughts about the fifth overhead sound channel?
"As a human being in everyday life, we hear noises and sounds everywhere. Not only do we hear sounds to our left and right. our front and back, but if there is a helicopter flying, we hear some noise and sound from up there also. So that is why we need the fifth one on the top. It's supposed to put the sound into the sky. In this case it represents the UFO.
"I've always been interested in CD4 and SQ quadraphonic sound - but they only work at the centre and sides.
Is this performance of the Bermuda Triangle different from your LP version?
"The extracts from the Triangle are basically the same, although what you hear is totally different. The LP was mixed for two channels so I had to start all the mixing again to get five channels. I've also put new pieces between the Triangle pieces. These included extracts from Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 (3rd Movement), Ravel's 'Ma Mere UOye' Suite, Moussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', J.S.Bach's 3-Part inventions. Hoists 'Planets' Suite, and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.
Do you try and create pictures in your music always?
I do like to create images in sound, but music should be there for people to listen to, and in accordance with the sound that they hear, they should expand their own imaginations.
"Perhaps there is a new concept: 'Science Fiction in Sound'. Can we overcome through this the realities of everyday life, our time and physical limitations arid so contact our fantasy, our imagination? If we can, we are able to reach out into the limitless space, to touch the super-intellect, be any object or being, and cast ourselves, ail powerful, into the universe.
With your Plasma Symphony Orchestra. you are creating your own synthesised music and interpretations in one studio, in one environment?
I am like a painter with a palette. I start my day feeling my way round my palette - my instruments. Many musicians play piano, trombone, drums or guitar but there aren't too many who can do everything. In other words, a musician can write music, can arrange music, but have to hire the best pianist. best drummer, best guitarist, whoever, in order to play his conceived sound and piece. But in my environment I can create everything myself and use my computers like robots to help me do my work.
Do you still feel happy about using classical music as your starting point for compositions?
"The reason why I have achieved my place today is because ever since I was in Junior High School, I always wanted to be a 'maestro' of an orchestra. In order to do so, I studied classical music, but gradually realised that it was very difficult to find musicians to work with that would play the exact way I wanted my music to be played. This is now possible with the equipment that I have.
"However, there are always new possibilities as well. For instance, the visual lighting and pictures of Ron Hays is a new challenge. And it is always possible for me to write, to compose. So basically speaking, yes, I would be very happy to interpret classical music in my own way, but I never know what I may turn to in the future.
It is very rewarding hearing that my arrangements are accepted as truly expressive and evoke the emotions of a high musical experience. I think we must also make more effort to study electric musical instruments for the future.
Do you have a background in electronics?
"In Keio University I studied Western Art and did not go to any school to study computers, mechanics, electronics or music. I am mainly self-taught arid am very interested in all these subjects - by attending events like Ars Electronica I have watched, experienced, and then experimented myself. I did have some music lessons in Japan while at university.
How do you feel about the way music is progressing?
"Generally speaking. I'm happy with the progress in the music scene. Personally. I am always excited when some new instrument is made and like to find out about its possibilities of interpreting music - whether it will play the way I want it to play. I get great joy out of that arid, of course, I am influenced by other artists and learn a lot from them. I like to express myself through my sounds. Even though I make music with machines and computers, I have to be there to do so. So the machines are expressing and playing the sound I want, In other words, there always has to be the 'human touch' - not just the electronics.
Do you look forward to the development of performance controls?
"Just as a musician playing an acoustic instrument such as the piano or guitar explores and improves his or her performance techniques, so do the computer music composer and the electronic music instrument player develop their own particular skills. If performance controls allow more human involvement then it will create more enjoyment.
How important has the micro computer as a compositional tool become for you?
"It took me a year to learn to manipulate the computer for the Bermuda Triangle. It was a struggle because a computer is beautifully precise, and I wanted it to produce musical results. But I soon realised that its precision was totally desirable to make almost limitless specification of the characteristics of a sound: pitch, texture, attack time, duration and loudness. It can also work at an incredible speed and control the sound production of a synthesiser I therefore have to provide coded numbers for my musical images and build up layers o' sound through the computer programming. These are then recorded one by one on separate tracks of my Teac multitrack machines and finally all mixed together for the end result.
"I have used the Roland MC-8 MicroComposer in creating practically ail the pieces on the Bermuda Triangle LP, which was perhaps the best in the world with regard to memory capacity and accuracy at that time. I now also use the Roland MC-4.
"My favourite instrument is my old Moog III system and I use its twelve envelope generators together to create specific sound shapes. It's also useful for treating the computer processed sounds, arid even though working with this analogue system takes longer to set up (tuning, patching etc). It gives me plenty of freedom because I can choose all the connections independently - and that's impossible for my digital systems.
"Although don't have the reward and satisfaction of playing live to ail audience, I can strive to build a creative entity that displays my musical personality."
Mike Beecher, E&MM (Electronics and Music Maker) magazine, February 1983
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