Isao Tomita – Bolero

Though his passing will not trigger remembrances of the kind we saw with Prince or Bowie, the electronic music world lost a titan in Isao Tomita when he passed last Thursday (May 5th) at the age of 84. He was a pioneer working in the early days of synthesizers along with Robert Moog and Wendy Carlos and released 37 studio albums over a career spanning from the late 1960s all the way up to 2016. Many of his releases comprised original arrangements of classical pieces in the vein of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, though many of his arrangements often focused on 20th century music. He produced arrangements of other Ravel pieces, Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, Holst’s The Planets, and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Perhaps his best known release is a set of Debussy songs he recorded called Snowflakes Are Dancing. I was torn between choosing Bolero or his opening of the Grand Canyon suite (linked above) but all of his arrangements demonstrate just what a master he was of the modular synthesizer even in the instrument’s infancy.

If you have a chance to scoop up one of his albums I’d recommend it, and for the most part they have been relatively cheap where I have found them, typically new age or miscellaneous bins. They provide a pretty fascinating glimpse into the early days of commercially released electronic music because he would often list which instruments/tools he used on what tracks. Here’s an example of one such listing:

Notice the listing of filters, tape recorders, and other gadgets to his right. Image Credit: Tiny Mix Tapes

In addition to his studio work, his live shows often featured stunning theatrics, like the performance of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra which he mixed from a suspended glass pyramid. He was a giant in the world of electronic music both in his native Japan and around the world, and he expanded the vocabulary of the modular synth immensely over the course of his lifetime. Though he may not be as well known as some of the other luminaries lost this year, his contributions to the music of the last century are something to behold. RIP.

Craig Leon – She Wears a Hemispherical Skullcap

Craig Leon got his start in music in the mid-1970s working as an assistant producer at Sire Records where he was involved in the discovery and development of New York groups like The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads. Nommos is his first release and it represents one of the more unique entries in the catalog of John Fahey’s Takoma Records, which is perhaps better known for releasing blues and fingerstyle guitar records more in the style of its founder. Though he was more involved with pop, electronic, and experimental work during the 1980s and 1990s, his material in recent years has been decidedly classical, working with the likes of Pavarotti. He talks about the difference in working in these two worlds in an interview with Moog:

The pop people picked up on synths a lot earlier–I was doing pop at the time–and what fascinated me was the way the so-called pop artists were doing with synths at the time were using synthesizers in their work which was close to what I wanted to do in classical. You would hear something new on a Beatles or Beach Boys album … where yes there would be one or two obvious synth sounds on a given song but theres ton of these little things that shape the sound.

He is still active as a producer, composer, and arranger of classical pieces living in England. Nommos was recently reissued by Harmonia Mundia along with his other early electronic work Visiting. Check out that Moog interview because he talks through arranging Bach for the Moog modular synth and talks more at length about using electronics in classical composition.