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Sounding Out a Novel Concept

Composer Isao Tomita, known for updating Western classics, brings a high-tech retelling of 'Tale of the Genji' to the U.S.

May 09, 1999|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

TOKYO — A thousand years after its creation, "The Tale of the Genji," acclaimed as the world's first novel, comes to us via late 20th century technology--a full orchestra of Western and Japanese instruments augmented by synthesizer, plus super-sharp images delivered through a wall of high-definition video monitors, the standard for the start of the next millennium. On Tuesday, Japanese composer Isao Tomita, known for his Space Age adaptations of Western classical hits, will conduct his musical interpretation of "Genji" using the 88-piece Pasadena Symphony and four traditional musicians from Japan. The visual backdrop will be footage of cherry blossoms, ancient Noh masks and Kyoto palaces, and a few computer-generated effects.

East meets West, past meets present, brought to us by a man who was born and raised in Japan but became enamored of music through Western jazz and classical traditions. The albums that made him famous, the synthesizer hits such as "Snowflakes Are Dancing" (1974) and "Pictures at an Exhibition" (1975) borrowed freely from his favorite composers: Debussy, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Stravinsky and Holst.

In his Tokyo penthouse overlooking the city smog, Tomita's living room reflects his eclecticism--the furniture is modern, the tones an overall battleship gray; a Miro print hangs prominently on the wall over two Erte-style statuettes on the credenza. But before entering the apartment, we have taken off our shoes and put on slippers, and a few feet away is a tatami room with a tokono-ma, the niche in which art objects are displayed in traditional Japanese rooms.

"I built the room for my mother," Tomita, 67, says, looking at it absently through his oversized aviator glasses, "but now she's passed away." It's as if he's not quite sure what he's supposed to do with it now, except use it to store items that don't fit in the living room. A stack of posters from his concerts stands in one corner.

Even as a child, Tomita was always intrigued by sounds, and he credits Western music as the inspiration for his musical career. In fact, he didn't discover it until the postwar period, when an American armed forces radio station was set up in Japan during the occupation. Sometimes he would skip his high school classes to listen to the classical music programming. Then he realized the station broadcasted the same program late at night, so in the evenings he would take a nap and wake up just to listen to it.

"I was startled to discover such composers as Ravel and Debussy," he says, "and how they could create these vivid and brighter worlds of music using the same instruments as people of the past."

Around this time he took up the piano and attended a class in music theory and composition at the local YMCA. In college, he found a private tutor for studies in music appreciation and orchestration. Then he composed a choral work that won a prize sponsored by NHK, the Japanese broadcasting company. In the '50s, NHK began asking him to write music for their programs--and a career was launched.

But Tomita was not content to do the expected. "For the first 20 years of my career, I was looking for some new instrument--there have been no new instruments since Wagner," he says. "Then I discovered the synthesizer, and with that I could create by myself the sounds I wanted to have."

In 1971, he got a Moog III and a sequencer. Then, as now, he was making a living by writing musical scores for film and television, but he had heard Wendy Carlos' album "Switched on Bach" and wanted to do his own take on the classics. Over a period of 14 months, stumbling forward largely through trial and error, he borrowed themes from such pieces as Debussy's "Clair de Lune," transforming them into something of his own.

The result was so new, so different that Japanese music publishers turned it down. Tomita had to fly to New York before he could find receptive ears. RCA Records listened to his demo tape and signed him. When "Snowflakes Are Dancing" was released, it shot to the top of Billboard's classical chart. It was nominated for a Grammy in four categories, a first for a Japanese musician. His next album, "Pictures at an Exhibition," also hit No. 1, selling 100,000 copies in three months.

Over the years, Tomita has produced other albums and staged musical events--he calls the biggest ones "sound clouds" in which music and sonic effects are projected from helicopters, boats and land speakers to open-air audiences. The "Tomita Sound Cloud" was first launched in 1984 at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, and has subsequently blasted over New York, Sydney and various Japanese cities.

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