Now 80 years old, Isao Tomita and Hideki Matsutake—Tomita's pupil and, at one time, a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra—spoke to us about the dawn of electronic music, and where it is headed.
You started out as a composer and an arranger of classical music, right?
Isao Tomita: In the 1950s, when I was in college, I arranged orchestrated versions of popular music and children's songs for use in schools, TV commercials and radio shows. During that time, I arrived to the conclusion that everything that could be achieved in orchestration has already been done in Wagner's time and, eventually, I realized that I wanted to make my own music using my own sounds.
I started experimenting with effects units like Vox's Fuzz-Tone. In the '70s, I discovered the Moog synthesizer, and came across Walter Carlos' album Switched-On Bach. Rock bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd and Yes would also use Minimoog in their music later on, but while they merely incorporated the Moog sound into their rock music, Walter Carlos built an entire album around the synthesizer. That idea totally blew my mind. But the thing is, Bach's music can be replayed on any instrument as long as it's in tune, and I felt that Switched-On Bach's sound could have been better. If you're gonna use something like a Moog synthesizer, you have to tweak the tone and put out something incredible.
intricate machinery in a place like this!?'"
How did you come to buy one?
Isao Tomita: At first, I had no idea where to buy it. Back in 1970, when we didn't even have a fax machine, I used a telex machine to contact people in Hong Kong. I found out that the Moog company was located in Buffalo, New York. I flew over there, and was shocked to see that the main office of a cutting-edge company like Moog was located in a simple, storage-shed-type building, in the middle of nowhere. I said to myself, "They make intricate machinery in a place like this!?"
So you went there and asked to buy the Moog III P directly. How much did it cost?
Isao Tomita: Back then, one dollar was 360 yen, and the Moog synthesizer was considered a luxury item, such as a foreign car, so the tariff rate was over 200%. It cost somewhere around 10 million yen (roughly $125,000) in today's value. Also, in those days we didn't have customs brokers like we do now, and if goods had problems clearing customs, the person importing the goods had to actually be there. So at customs, they asked me what this machine was. I told them that it was an instrument, and they didn't believe me. They said, "Then, play it." [laughs]
I wish it was that easy, but it takes a while to even generate something that's not just noise, so I couldn't play it in front of them. I pulled out an LP of Switched-On Bach which has a Moog on the cover, and they still didn't buy it. Eventually, I had to ask Moog to send over a photo that shows somebody using a Moog synthesizer on stage, and it took about a month to get my synth finally cleared. And then, even though I'd told them from the beginning that it was just an instrument, they told me I had to pay extra for storage fees. I was tired of dealing with them so I just paid.
Did you master it quickly?
Isao Tomita: It was hell. Prior to purchasing it, I had thought it was like an electric organ, but when it came, I realised it was not that simple. I had to change my perception of what instruments are supposed to be like, because it was something totally different. All it made was noise at first. And the instructions didn't help much since it was only about 15 pages, talking about the functions of the machine, but not shedding light on how to create certain sounds.
You paid ten million yen, and you had no idea how to use it.
Isao Tomita: So I felt like I just paid loads of money for a big chunk of metal. If I can't make proper sounds, it's just junk! Also, since Moog was a new kind of instrument, I didn't have a clue how it was supposed to sound because there wasn't anything to compare it to. So I started emulating existing sounds, such as a bell or a whistle, and went from there.
And around that time you met Hideki Matsutake?
Isao Tomita: Yes. I was becoming increasingly busy around then, so I had Matsutake manage me at a music production company he was working for back then. When I started to understand which cords to connect to create the right sounds I decided I'd let some younger guys try it, so I invited Matsutake. With Moog, you have to keep the power on all day for it to work properly, so when I wasn't using it, I'd let others use it. I would use it from 8 PM to 4 AM, and then there would be a group using it from 4 AM to noon, and then another group would come in and play around with it until 8 PM.
Hideki Matsutake: I worked during the day, so I would come in and play the Moog at night, and I remember falling asleep under it. Tomita never taught us how to use the thing, so I had to learn it on my own. I've always liked playing with machines since I was a kid, so I understood the functions of the device fairly quickly, but knowing where to connect the cords to render sounds that are listenable was a completely different story.
Isao Tomita: The reason I didn't teach him how to use it is because it would be pointless if he imitated what I did, and created the same sound. Because I didn't interfere with what he was doing, the Yellow Magic Orchestra project that Matsutake was involved in developed their own sound different from mine, and eventually, they gained much more success than I did. [laughs]
Hideki Matsutake: I wouldn't say that. In the studio YMO used to spend time analyzing how Tomita created the sounds. (Ryuichi) Sakamoto had all of Tomita's records, and he would bring a record to the studio and say, "Today, let's listen to this and study." YMO's sound is definitely rooted in Tomita's music.
Isao Tomita: The thing is, if you're going to make music using a synthesizer, you have to know the basic structure of music to be able to craft the sounds you want to create. The same could be said for art. Picasso is famous for Cubism and Surrealism, but he understood the fundamental aspects of things and he could paint realistically if he wanted to. If one doesn't start by mimicking others' compositions and goes right into creating abstract music, often times, it turns out to be self-absorbed and not listener-friendly. I believed that, even if you're using a machine like Moog, the music has to be something the whole family can enjoy.
You mentioned art, which is a two-dimensional medium. You've had a deep interest in three-dimensional sound reproduction, a stereophonic sound, for a long time, correct?
Isao Tomita: Yes. Even if it's a monophonic recording you could hear and feel the person playing the violin or trumpet, but the electronic music that was being produced in the time when I first got the Moog, it was often criticized for lacking depth. So, I decided to go with a 4 channel stereo sound (Quadraphonic Sound), which is today's surround sound. But it was nothing like the SACD surround sound we have now. That's why I decided to remake my 1974 album Snowflakes Are Dancing and release it as Clair de Lune Ultimate Edition on SACD format in June. These days, you can buy pretty high quality surround sound systems for cheap, so I hope listening to music in surround sound becomes more common.
What was the concept behind Snowflakes Are Dancing?
Isao Tomita: Through recreating Debussy's "Clair de Lune," I wanted to add a different color to his composition by focusing on the tone of the sound more than the melody itself. So at first, I started recording with an 8 channel recorder but decided to switch to AMPEX's 16 channel recorder because I wanted to make the whole thing more intricate. On top of Moog costing around ten million yen, I paid about 30 million yen for other equipment—including the recorder and mixer. But it was still cheaper than making a studio. I used a 30-inch analog tape that didn't need noise reduction, but a reel of that tape was very expensive, plus it could only record up to 15 minutes. So, that's the recording environment I was working in. I brought in a sleeping bag in the studio, and just worked and worked on that album for 16 months.
So, after all that time, you completed this critically acclaimed album that got nominated for four Grammys in 1974. But initially it didn't get released in Japan.
Isao Tomita: I had a few record producers and directors hear what I was working on, and they liked what they were hearing. So, I thought getting a release from somewhere wouldn't be too difficult. But when it was finished, all these record companies were saying, "Now, where are we supposed to put an album like this in the record store?" They didn't know what to do with my music. Switched-On Bach was sold in the sound effects section, and I didn't want that. It was hard for me to find out about America back when we didn't have the internet, but I got a hold of the producer of Switched-On Bach and I flew to the States to meet him, carrying my heavy master tape. Upon listening, he liked my album right away, and a month later I was in a press conference announcing its release.
Hideki Matsutake: When you were working on the album, it must have been a pain dealing with all the hiss noises that result from overdubbing.
Isao Tomita: Actually, I felt that when you try to create strings digitally it sounds too clean. It's too clear. If you listen to the sound of a violin really carefully you can hear the rosin that's applied on the bow. I realized that by not reducing the analog tape noise, I could get a feel in the sound that's almost like rosin. So basically, I tried to use noise to my advantage.
Hideki Matsutake: You had a very experimental mentality. You even tried doppler effect and phase shifting before anybody was doing things like that.
Isao Tomita: Leslie speakers were too expensive for me, so I put two speakers on top of turntables surrounded by folding screens, and made it rotate to create a Leslie speaker-like effect. The effect was incredible, but the problem was, I had cables hanging from the ceiling connected to the speakers, and since the speakers are rotating the cables get tangled up in about three minutes. [laughs] So I had to record within that three minutes.
Hideki Matsutake: Creating sounds that nobody has heard, in ways that nobody has done, is something I learned from Tomita.
What does Moog offer that other acoustic instruments don't?
Isao Tomita: Well, I've worked with orchestras for a long time, and I don't really categorize music as electronic music or traditional acoustic music. I only decided to try the Moog because I felt limited by existing instruments at the time, so I view it as part of my continuous experiment in music. Back then, I was often criticized for using an electronic instrument, but the sound of thunder has been around since the dawn of time, and that's electricity. The human heart has pulse. In fact, the right and left sides of the heart don't pump blood on the same exact beat, there's a slight delay effect.
Matsutake, after leaving Tomita's side, you ventured out on your own projects, like becoming the fourth member of YMO and also Logic Systems. When you look back, what did you learn from Tomita?
Hideki Matsutake: Tomita taught me to create my own palette. Sound has color; not just 8 colors or 16 colors. It's important to be able to express millions of colors.
Isao Tomita: Yes. Moog can express sounds in ways other instruments can't. Even the pitch changes depending on the voltage. But, I only told Matsutake how to connect cords. Everything else he mastered himself.
Hideki Matsutake: The Moog didn't have a memory bank so it couldn't recreate the same sound, but it can generate an almost limitless number of sounds. And synthesizers are something that are still evolving. It went through a transition from analog to digital, but newer generations of Moog synthesizers still carry the same analog DNA inherited from the original Moogs.
Isao Tomita: So, I hope young musicians would try analog synthesizers more. There are synths now that are way easier to handle than the Moog III-C.
Hideki Matsutake: And they look cool.
Isao Tomita: And they have memory banks.