CD Comments – Kosmos



(Image from amazon.com, used for review purposes only.)

I’d seen Isao Tomita’s (1932-) album covers in the record stores before, primarily the golden mask and pyramids design for Kosmos and the deconstructed humanoid robot face on Greatest Hits, but the artwork didn’t really appeal to me at that time, and I wasn’t that interested in Japanese electronica-classical music, so I kept moving past those bins to get stuff like Alice Cooper and They Might Be Giants. Over the last 5 years or so, though, I’ve been seeing Tomita’s name mentioned in the Gakken Adult Science kit magazines (for the SX-150, SX-150 Mark II and Pocket Miku kits) as being one of the giants in the Japanese music world. In fact, Tomita was picked up in the Pocket Miku mook for his vocaloid collaboration album, entitled Tomita¬† / Isao Tomita / Symphony Ihatov. So, when the time came to ask for present suggestions, I added Tomita to the list of CDs.


(The Tomita vocaloid album. Image from amazon.com.)

From the wiki article: Tomita was born in Tokyo in 1932 and spent some time in China. He returned to Japan, where he attended Keio University as an art student. He graduated in 1955 and became a full-time TV, film and theater composer. He wrote the theme music for the Japanese Olympics gymnastics team for the 1955 Games in Melbourne, Australia. He also created the theme song and incidental music for Tezuka’s “Jungle Taitei” (Kimba, the White Lion, 1965) TV anime. In the late 60’s Walter Carlos (now Wendy) was doing work on the Moog, which influenced Tomita’s decision to buy a Moog III and put together his own studio.

In kind of the opposite approach to what I’ve described regarding how synth music evolved, Tomita saw synthesizers primarily as a way of recreating existing instruments (pianos, flutes, etc.) In fact, this was often what happened when established musicians started adopting electronic keyboards and was a common complaint among synth manufacturers, that “everyone buys these machines and then just uses them as pianos”. Eventually, though, Tomita discovered that the Moog could create all-new sounds, and that’s when he began incorporating them in his own work. Electric Samurai: Switched on Rock came out in 1972 in Japan, and 1974 in the U.S., as a reworking of contemporary rock songs. He applied the synth to Debussy, and released Snowflakes are Dancing in 1974. He continued producing classical music albums, but ran into problems when he came out with an SF-themed version of Holst’s The Planets, and Holst’s daughter refused to give him permission to use it, causing the album to be pulled from the shelves.

I think you can call Kosmos (1977) a cover album. In most cases, classic music IS cover music, because the conductor and/or orchestra is playing something that someone else wrote and made popular. But, Kosmos has a mix of modern and classical songs that have been given the synth treatment, starting with the opening theme for Star Wars (there are more beeps and boops, and note glides, plus the song ends with C3PO trying to teach “Fer Elise” to another droid, and messing it up). This is followed by “Space Fantasy on Themes by Wagner and R. Strauss for electronic sound”,”Pacific 231, Mouvement Symphonique”, “The Unanswered Question (I&II)”, “Aranjuez-Adagio”, “Solvieg’s Song”, “Hora Staccato for violin and piano”, and “The Sea Named “Solaris” (J.S. Bach)”.

If we look at “traditional electronica”, musicians make full use of all components of the synthesizer – oscillator pitch and waveform, envelope generation, filtering, noise and LFO-ing – DURING the song. They’re constantly adjusting the controls during the performance. With Tomita, what we’re seeing is more a matter of setting the patch before the song starts, and then playing the keyboard with the patches fixed. That is, it’s not so much what the synthesizer can do, as it is what fixed sounds it can contribute to the song as a whole. But, with Kosmos, he’s still inbetween stages 3 and 4; he wants the synth effects to stand out and be noticed, since that’s what differentiates him from competition that hasn’t embraced electronic instruments to produce “classic music”. This makes Kosmos a cover album with a bunch of computer-generated whistles and pitch sweeps.

While I do like classical music, and what Carlos did with Switched on Bach, I find most classical to be “too pretty”. That is, it’s sleep-inducing. I like “ugly” music, like “Night on Bald Mountain”, “Peer Gynt”, and “Carmina Burana”. Kosmos is interesting from a technical aspect, but if I’m going to listen to synths, I’d rather it be by Kraftwerk, or even Jean Michel Jarre.

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