Composer Isao Tomita will turn 84 this year, but that won’t stop him creating a synth soundtrack for a dancing hologram, to realize the dream of his ballet dancer (and rocket scientist) friend who passed away in 1999.
Tomita, a pioneering synthesizer musician, wrapped up the finale of his latest project — a series of symphonic performances that premiered in 2012 called “Symphony Ihatov” — in November 2015. And now (though he is unable to give away too many details), he says he is almost ready to reveal his newest composition, “Dr. Coppelius.”
“I was once told by Dr. Hideo Itokawa that his dream was to dance in a duet with a hologram, so I’ve decided to make his wish come true,” Tomita tells The Japan Times. “Actually, two thirds of (the composition) is finished, and it’s set to be performed around March,” he says, as he brings out the booklet for the 2011 reissue of his album “Planets.” He flips through the pages until he finds a photograph of Itokawa on stage during a 1977 performance by his group Kaitani Ballet, a show that was accompanied by Tomita’s music.
Itokawa is known for advancing Japanese rocket technology, and he worked as a designer on the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa — a single-engine fighter plane used during World War II. But after joining the Kaitani Ballet group when he was 60, Itokawa also became known for his interest in the arts. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has an asteroid named after him: 25143 Itokawa.
Though the possibility of dancing with a hologram may have seemed an impossibility while Itokawa was alive, it was music software maker Crypton Future Media’s computer-generated diva Hatsune Miku that made Tomita believe Itokawa’s dream could come true. Hatsune Miku is a virtual idol singer — a programmable synthesized voice accompanied by its visual representation: a female anime character with long turquoise hair. She has risen to global fame through a series of live performances featuring a 3-D projection of the idol held at venues across the world — most recently, to a crowd of 20,000 at the Nippon Budokan in September. Tomita plans to have 3-D projections dancing to his new composition.
Tomita first used the virtual idol for “Symphony Ihatov” in 2012. The symphonies were inspired by writer Kenji Miyazawa’s novels, and featured Miku singing along with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance once again cemented Tomita’s status as Japan’s pioneering synthesizer composer.
“Miku is a contemporary version of a traditional jōruri or bunraku puppet show. She is a great tool that lets performers expand the ways they can express themselves,” Tomita says. “People may say that what she can do is limited, but (her abilities) could progress. Like with a bunraku show, you just need the right person to control the puppet.”
Tomita, who turns 84 in April, was one of the first domestic musicians to establish a reputation outside Japan. He started his career as a classical music composer, writing music for TV programs such as Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka’s popular “Kimba the White Lion” series (1965-1967). In 1971, looking for new ways to experiment with electronic sounds, Tomita purchased a modular synthesizer, the Moog III, which was incredible costly at the time. The box-like shape of the synthesizer earned it the nickname “tansu” (wardrobe).
“Please don’t call it that,” Tomita says with a laugh. ” ‘Tansu’ makes it sound like an object without any creativity. It is still giving me possibilities and opportunities through the infinite variety of sounds it can produce.”
Though he initially struggled to get any sounds out of the Moog III, the first record he produced with the synthesizer, “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s classical music chart in 1974 and was nominated for four Grammy awards. The album is a collection of Tomita’s synthesizer versions of music by French composer Claude Debussy, including “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” “Reverie” and “Gardens in the Rain.” All tracks were created by Tomita himself in grueling recording sessions where he would overdub each sound up to 100 times to get the desired effect.
“I couldn’t sleep for weeks, since there was way too much to do,” Tomita says, “but I’ve never even once thought I should quit. Music was always something that I wanted to work on.”
The album remains influential 40 years on. Four tracks — “Clair de Lune,” “Gardens In The Rain,” “The Engulfed Cathedral” and “Snowflakes Are Dancing” — were featured in the 2014 film “Heaven Knows What” (released locally as “Kamisama Nanka Kusokurae”). The movie portrays the troubled relationship between a young couple addicted to drugs, and the innocent, romantic sound of Tomita’s synthesizer lends a sense of irony to the drama.
“The film reminded me of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ and similarly sophisticated films like the Miyazawa novels that inspired me to write ‘Ihatov,’ ” he says, smiling. “I don’t write music intending for it to be used in films, but since my focus on music is to record in surround sound, I’d say my songs would be perfect for films and cinemas.”
In recognition of his long career and global influence on electronic music, Tomita won the Japan Foundation Award in 2015. The award was launched by the Foundation to honor individuals or organizations who have made a significant contribution to promoting understanding and friendship between Japan and the rest of the world through academic, artistic and other cultural pursuits.
“I never believed my art would have contributed to promoting the country,” he says. “But music, even if it’s something new using synthesizers, is always something that can be appreciated by anyone, no matter how old they are or where they’re from. That’s the whole concept behind all of my projects.”
But in 2016, despite his age and less-than-perfect health, Tomita is committed to finishing his new project, “Dr. Coppelius.”
“My priority right now is staying healthy, but I’d like to finish ‘Dr. Coppelius’ as much as possible so that, even if something happens to me, others could finish it, ,” he says. “Itokawa was a serious researcher who never gave up. That’s why I have to make his dream come true in some way.”