An exclusive interview with this world famous synthesist of classical music and an exploration of his science fiction fantasy, The Bermuda Triangle
An exclusive interview with the world famous synthesist of classical music and an exploration of his science fiction fantasy, The Bermuda Triangle
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 year's 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 kimono 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 not 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, and 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 L'Oye' Suite, Moussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', J.S. Bach's 3-Part Inventions, Holst's '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 the 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 and 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, all 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 has 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 and 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 and, 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 of 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 all 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, and 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 I don't have the reward and satisfaction of playing live to an audience, I can strive to build a creative entity that displays my musical personality."
Recorded on RCA Red Seal RL 12885 and based on the music of Prokofiev, Sibelius and John Williams.
Tomita: The arrival of a UFO. A storm rages in the ocean near Bermuda — the area of mysterious disappearances of many ships and aircraft, the dreaded Devil's Triangle. In the midst of the storm a UFO approaches from the sky guided by an eerie signal below the water. Sea waves and wind of white noise announce a deep note and moving wind resonances, followed by sounds inside the nearing UFO — a computer message is briefly transmitted over the spaceship's buzz and gentle oscillator ripples. Strange voices talk in filtered snatches, and then the seascape returns.
Prokofiev's 'Romeo & Juliet' Suite No. 2. The silvery twinkling lights of the UFO move closer and the vessel descends through a falling polyphonic cluster across the stereo field. Panned bubbling notes over sustained vibrations float into the sea's roar, and intensified organistic sounds create one of Tomita's stunning momentary silences.
We gently fade into Sibelius' 'Valse Triste' with sustained string chords and layered Novatron voices with quasi-tape reversal effect bringing a rich reverberating organ chord that turns into a dry tremolo fade. Stereo strings wash the sound away and the melody takes on a voice-like quality at centre, whilst high-pitched oscillations sweep gently upwards left and right. A new sound floats in and fades out with the other sounds.
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite — The Adoration of Veles and Ala. At the bottom of the ocean, strange swimming creatures emit eerie cackles round a huge pyramid structure. [From this Tomita takes his idea of a sound system that is four dimensional.] A super-civilised race of ancient people entombed inside have made contact with the UFO from outer space. Bells and high-pitched glockenspiel notes jump onto Prokofiev's music, and brass interjections lead to a swirling ritualistic theme with its electronic adulation and grandeur increased by synthesised timpani and strings. The organ takes over amidst the slow bubbling and continued noise swirls to repeat ring modulated chords that sink into the Deep.
The typical filtered Moog sound used by Tomita calls out over slow moving parallel augmented 4ths and a happy conversation begins between visitors and pyramid people. Strings bounce their ideas about and the music takes on a more concerned tone, with moving bass notes and a repeating 4-note motive using triangle wave with portamento.
The 'Adoration' theme is reflected on briefly and as sequences gently flow, two rich brass notes close the conversations on interesting ring modulated falling harmonies. A peaceful calm is felt as we wait for the space creatures to enter the pyramid.
John Williams: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A fantastic sustained crescendo transmits the visitors through a huge beam of fluorescent light to the pyramid entrance. Vibrations surround them and suddenly John Williams' recognisable theme: C'-D'-Bb'-Bb-F communicates, first by a filtered 'wah' piano sound, echoed by snorts from the UFO, and then the space creatures tiny vocoded snatches.
The pitch moves to A-B-G-G-D and the snorts jokingly pick Debussy's 'Golliwogs Cake-Walk' amidst laughs, before dropping pitch back to key Bb.
Greetings over, polyglides upwards create a sensuous start for a portamento-treated whistling triangle wave melody, bringing Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 (Second Movement). Organ chords establish a climax and tremolo fade again that's exchanged for choral sounds. Three percussive chords announce a bright lively theme as the space children step into the underground pyramid — the kingdom of Agharta. Use of slow 'Leslie' rotation gives a nice movement to the counterpoint, and oboe, brass and strings are synthesised imaginatively. Percussion and brass punch at the rhythmic ideas and voices echo in friendly discussion.
Great depth is effected by careful choice of individual dry and increasingly reverberated melodic lines, as well as exciting dynamic changes.
Back come the percussive chord taps and a slowing of tempo for a grand organ theme played ff. Fast computerised note runs swirl left and right as a brass melody is heard. Strings take their turn and as the music literally bounces quickly along, a tight, reedy solo with tambourine accompaniment leads to more involved counterpoint and a bell/voice sounds fade on each side in stereo.
Tomita provides his own impressionistic music (entitled 'Dororo') that recapitulates the 'Encounters' theme, with whistling sounds and sustained bass following. A beautiful brass fanfare (with pitch fall during EG release) echoes at different positions over a slow phased string note cluster, deep bass, and twinkling 'lights' of the spaceship as it takes both visitors and pyramid people on a grand tour of the Earth. Out of the depths it rises, hovering above the blue green, ice cold waves.
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 (First Movement — Andantino). The atmosphere of the sea sets the background for a favourite Tomita sound, the filtered triangle wave with a touch of portamento, and high harmonic arpeggios bubble downwards. Other sounds join in to create a superbly graceful image of the UFO flying over the ocean, climbing higher and higher towards the upper regions.
An interesting melody with trills takes us to the clouds as dawn breaks over the Triangle. Strings and chorus float us through the stratosphere as a horn plays Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6 (First Movement) theme.
The space visitors view the distant earth with captivation and wonder, and flute-like melodies echo mysterious electric waves in anticipation of a computer communication. [Here is the second coded output that is a message programmed with a Tarbel System computer.] Falling flute sounds herald a deep modulated bell timbre. Strings immediately lift the music along as the cylinder containing the coded data is ejected into the earth's atmosphere and spins downwards, dazzling in the Sun's rays, until it finally impacts itself in Tunguska, Siberia.
A rallentando has whistling, bubbling strings and a strong bass tuba melody. Arpeggios lead into a swirling panned high-pitched accompaniment for bass tuba and whistle in counterpoint. Voices and piano chords call out from different parts of the globe (across the stereo field) while phased sounds predominate. A rich melodic line on strings and voices leads to a sudden explosion as the cylinder crashes into the Siberian tundra. A second explosion follows as it sends up a fantastic display of flares to signal its position. Phased music sweeps the UFO on its journey around the Earth, gathering information for both visitors and pyramid people.
Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 (Third Movement) takes us inside the spaceship where celebrations at the cylinder's landing have taken place, and a plaintiff horn melody has pizzicato bass and distant sounds that eventually become choral. Tomita contributes some composing again, with echoed transpozer/harmoniser short notes that bring a UFO 'horn' melody reverberating heavily, then a whistling synth represents the space childrens voices accompanied by the harps of the ancient people.
The soundscape provides another of Tomita's enchanting musical images that dances with the movements of the spaceship. A central synthesiser melody passes to strident organ tones and back. Fast microcomposer runs bring in the voice/whistle, whilst strings enter to accompany as well. The music reaches a peak and soon it will be time for the space visitors to leave. The UFO 'horn' blasts its farewell notes again, making its strong counterpoint with strings and glockenspiel.
Tomita: Departure of the UFO/Prokofiev: Scythian Suite. Amidst central whistling synth melody and stereo arpeggio transpositions, a slow sine modulated note and string passages take the ancient people back safely to their pyramid kingdom.
The surging of the sea below the UFO is gradually diminished by the growing power of the spacecraft, as it finally soars upwards. A huge whirling, bubbling cluster of notes is rotated inside the craft, rising higher and higher into space — towards the 1448 Nebular Group of the Bootes. From deep in the ocean comes strange transmitted cackles of farewell. Floating in hyperspace, the gentle vocal/orchestral fantasy diminuendos to a last whispered message as Yamamoto's vocoder treated noise slowly echoes its ciphers away...