After graduating from Keio University in 1955, Japanese composer Isao Tomita pursued musical endeavours which lead to a variety of Television and Film soundtracks (particularly TV). Caught by the electronic fire that spread after Walter (now Wendy) Carlos showcased the Moog modular synthesizer on Switched-On Bach (1968), Tomita started his own moogy experiments. Using the handle Electric Samurai, his first effort was Switched-On Rock (1972). Tomita fed The Beatles, Elvis and Simon and Garfunkel through the envelopes and oscillators, producing an appealing take on all those ‘Switched On’ albums consisting of modern standards rendered on the Moog. He uses those bulbous cartoon-duck sounds to cool effect, layering rich yet light sonic elements, which suit his arrangements of these (now) classic rock songs.
The problem with those ‘Switched On’/Moog albums is they become a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s kind of a joke in a way. And even though some of the versions and arrangements that were produced (not only by Tomita but various artists) were, in and of themselves, quite cool and listenable, they tend to age quite quickly. They become a dated curio of sorts, collectable to certain types of music fans but sonically chained to a particular technology and locked in a retro time warp.
It’s also the nature of the songs chosen to re-render. Songs by The Beatles or Elvis tend to weaken the electronic compositions purely by virtue of the strength and popularity of the original. A paradox occurs: it seems obvious why to choose a popular song, (the instant recognition helps an audience identify with the track, providing an entry point into a sound-world that might be ‘different’ from their usual tastes [Moogs were a wild new sound in the late 60s, early 70s]) yet the weight of the original works against you, making the new version automatically inferior (or at least shortening its shelf-life). How often does a cover version (no matter how good it is) make you just want to hear the original?
Classical music is a bit different. I’m sure among aficionados there are definitive recordings by particular orchestras and conductors, but its music firmly rooted in interpretation and presentation. When Tomita turned his sights on Claude Debussy he picked a perfect target for his synthetic vision. Debussy’s “Clair De Lune (Bergamasque 3)” and “Arabesque No. 1” become ethereal cybernetic pieces from some past future ideal. Shifting and panning across the stereo spectrum, they sound full of hope, believing in the utopic notion of technology as a democratic agent of social progress and equity. Perhaps Moog would become the first machine ‘of loving grace’. Part of the beauty is the sweetness and innocence that radiates out of this forward-reaching album. They sound superbly crafted and naïve at the same time. In their attempt to showcase the Moog and turn ears on to the new sound possibilities, they exude a touching positivity.
It is fitting that it’s apparently still used as background music at the Epcot Centre. Beside the fact he had composed music for the Japanese Pavilion at Expo ’70, the Epcot’s focus is scientific achievement and technological innovation. Its full title sounds like cool ad-copy for this album: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. But I suppose the cover says it all: The Newest Sound of Debussy…Virtuoso Electronic Performances of Debussy’s Beautiful Tone Paintings.
~ DECOY SPOON