Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of Tomita's "Snowflakes Are Dancing"

I posted this review about an hour ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: For many 1970s fans of band's like Pink Floyd, Yes and ELP, this semi-classical album seemed like just another logical step in the expanding development of their musical tastes and appetites.

It's hard for music lovers today to picture the smorgasbord of genres that were played on 1970s FM radio in America. Yes, there are more different types of music available today on the Internet, but it's pretty diffuse -- you have to know how to go out and find it. Modern college radio is a little more comparable, but for the most part, while those stations play many different styles of music, genres are often segregated into little two- or three-hour blocks, depending on the interests of the host. Seventies FM radio was a different animal. Yes, there was a ton of what is now referred to as "classic" rock, but it was mixed in with everything from R&B to Sinatra to folk and light jazz. And one artist who benefited from this open format was the Japanese synthesist Isao Tomita (known at the time simply as "Tomita"). 

Tomita was a composer and a classical-music student who became fascinated with the efforts of Walter (now Wendy) Carlos in translating the work of classical composers such as Bach for the Moog synthesizer. Beginning in 1974, Tomita released a series of albums, each of which focused on the work of one or more classical composers as played on the Moog. The first, and perhaps best, of these was Snowflakes Are Dancing, which focused on the work of French composer Claude Debussy. This album became a worldwide success. I can't speak as to how it grew prominent in the rest of the world. In the U.S., however, it became known not only in classical music circles, but in rock and popular music circles as well, thanks to the airplay it received on FM radio. North American fans, having been prepared for this kind of music by the psychedelic and electronic experiments of bands like Pink Floyd, as well as the classical music/progressive rock crossovers of artists like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, accepted Snowflakes Are Dancing as simply another step in the progression of the music they were already listening to. Consequently, the album charted in both the U.S. and Canada. It also received four American Grammy Awards in 1975 (including Best Classical Album of the year).

While some of Tomita's other albums sold quite well, especially his 1975 release of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, I would argue that Snowflakes Are Dancing was his best LP. This is because the musical tone poems of Debussy were particularly well-suited both to Tomita's electronic explorations, and to the lightheartedness of his work. Debussy's music is often delicate and airy, and the compositions recorded on Snowflakes (all of which were originally composed for the piano) work well with Tomita's buoyant approach. Where Mussorgsky's tone was grand and majestic, and consequently much better suited to the head-on style used by Keith Emerson in ELP's excellent version of Pictures, Tomita's lighter touch proved perhaps too flimsy for much of Mussorgsky's music. It was, however, perfect for the gentle, more fragile compositions of Debussy.

There were ten tracks on the original release of Snowflakes, all programmed and played on a variety of Moog synthesizers and a mellotron. There are no human vocals on the LP, but part of the joy of the work is that in various places, Tomita uses his synthesizers to approximate human voices, both solo and in choruses. He also gets playful at times, and makes his synths sound like a person (or persons) whistling, as evidenced on tracks such as "Arabesque No. 1" and "Golliwog's Cakewalk". 

On the LP's best numbers, though, the combination of Debussy's music and Tomita's treatment of it are exquisitely beautiful. "Claire de Lune" is such a piece. Here, the music is so airy that it practically floats away. In fact, at the end of the piece, this is almost exactly what happens, as the notes get higher and higher until it all seems to just dissolve into a soft, wonderful cloud. Other tracks that will transport you to another world include "The Engulfed Cathedral", where Tomita creates various bell and church-organ sounds, as well as his own angelic electronic chorus, and "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair", a slow and wistful number that somehow actually creates the visual image in your mind of the damsel from the song's title lazily brushing her long, blonde locks.

Sadly, Isao Tomita passed away in May of 2016 from a longstanding heart problem. He left behind a legacy of original and adapted music, soundtrack albums, and innovations in electronic music. For my money, though, if you want to experience Tomita's artistry, Snowflakes Are Dancing is the place to start. It will not only give you fine taste of Tomita, but it might also give you an interest in a deeper exploration of the music of Debussy.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars