Music Armada Invades New York - Commander Tomita and His Synthesizers of Destiny

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[This article first appeared in the December 1986 issue of Keyboard magazine.]

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IN THE DAYS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, Caesar entertained his guests by staging mock naval battles in the city's Colosseum; battening off the hallways, he would have the huge structure flooded with seawater and set fleets of fighting vessels loose to beat their oars for the roaring crowd. On September 13, 1986, in New York's Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, master synthesist Isao Tomita gave Caesar a run for his money.

At 8 P.M. the venerable Japanese interpreter of such symphonic warhorses as Hoist's The Planets, suspended hundreds of feet above the water in his pyramidal control station, pushed up the faders on his mixing console to kick off an open-air extravaganza of synchronized sound, lights, and fireworks that was to envelop 80,000 listeners for the next two hours. Tomita's electro-acoustic orchestrations, issuing from speakers mounted in towers, floating on barges, and suspended by helicopters, turned the Park, the surrounding harbor, and the nearby Statue of Liberty into an environment of total sonic and visual pyrotechnics—in Tomita's words, a "sound cloud." The idea behind the sound cloud, he stated two years ago, is "to break down those walls [enclosing the traditional concert stage], with sound coming out from the earth, the sky, and the water."

While audio-visual productions of such grandiose scale are by no means common, Jean Michel Jarre's recent transformation of the Houston, Texas, skyline into a mammoth multi-dimensional video screen (see Keyboard News and cover story, March 1986) suggests that they may become the Next Big Thing in electronic music performance. Emphasis on the word "big."

The free program, entitled Back To The Earth, was an extension of a concept first realized at the Ars Electronica festival at Linz, Austria, two years ago. There, as reported in the August '84 issue of Keyboard, Tomita introduced his suspended pyramid, the water-borne performers, and the sound cloud concept. The Battery Park concert featured developments on several fronts, most noticeably in the sheer magnitude of the spectacle. This event used a more extensive floating setup (over a dozen barges in all), more floating musicians (including the choirs of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York assembled on the Staten Island Ferry), more lasers, smoke effects, and a synchronized fireworks display designed by Kase, one of Japan's premier fireworks manufacturers.

Furthermore, Tomita explained the following day in his midtown hotel room, "The overall concept of this event was different." His statements, full of reflective pauses and carefully chosen words, are delivered solely in his native tongue; his assistant and translator, Iroko Suzuki, renders his words understandable to those who don't speak Japanese. "At Linz," he elaborates, "the concept of the event was to describe musically the formation of the universe, the galactic system, the planetary system, and life itself, and humanity's evolution to the point that we actually depart for space. In other words, the Ars Electronica performance was a celebration of space and the cosmos. This New York concert was a continuation of the story of the space people—actually human beings who left the Earth centuries ago—returning and finding that the Earth still exists." Stanley Kubrick's soundtrack for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tomita says, inspired his use of Western classics to depict this space opera scenario.

"It's a celebration of what the world is," he concludes. "Without the Earth, there is no cosmos. It's changing the focus of attention from the out-boundness of the Linz concert to the in-boundness of coming home."

One of the primary undercurrents of the show's terrestrial theme was Tomita's desire to bring together talents and skills from the many nations of the world. "Mr. Tomita didn't want this to be a Japanese event in New York, or a New York event," Suzuki points out. "He wanted it to be an international event, without the political friction that usually would come from having performers of various nationalities on the same program."

To this end, the synthesist assembled a multinational crew of performers, including an English lighting designer, a Japanese shakuhachi (wood flute) master, and Chinese lutist Chen Yin in addition to the multitude of Asian and American participants—not to mention a program featuring musical masterworks from Europe, Asia, and the United States. The crowning manifestation of Tomita's vision of international cooperation was Soviet pianist Nikolai Demidenko's piano solo during the climactic "Rhapsody In Blue."

As Tomita discovered at Linz, it isn't entirely practical to hold rehearsals for an event of such proportions, particularly in a performance space the size of Battery Park. ("It was difficult to get the Park Service to agree to let us perform there at all," Suzuki reports.) This concert's international cast, however, posed difficulties of its own. There were visa problems with the Chinese and Soviet performers. Mr. Demidenko's participation, in fact, was uncertain right up to the night before the performance was to take place, when he finally gained entry into the United States. The only rehearsal with Demidenko took place two months earlier, while he was on tour in Japan.

"There were also problems with liability insurance," Suzuki continues, "especially because the helicopters were carrying so much weight, and because of the fireworks. We had to file with the Bureau of Explosives because all of the fireworks were imported from Japan." Between permits from the Fire Department, the Park Service, and other agencies, and arrangements for the audio, lights, lasers, and fireworks, not to mention turning the 20,000 screws it took to assemble Tomita's Plexiglas pyramid, it's a wonder that the performance went off without a hitch.

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And what was Tomita doing up there, like Ezekiel's wheel, in the middle of the air? "I controlled the sound," he answers simply. "I stood in front of the mixer, because it's impossible to play the keyboard toward an area that's 400 meters on either side." In tackling the task of real-time mixdown, Tomita fuses his ongoing fascination with orchestral conducting and his conviction that modern music must abandon the bi-directional stereo field in favor of more dimensions. "One thing I'd like to stress," he explains, "is that this event was not a concert. A concert is something that you would normally hear confined to an indoor space with perfect technical balance, perfect sound quality.

"In the enclosed, confined space of a traditional concert hall, there's some sound coming from in front of you, one-directional movement. I tried to create a huge sound space, a three-dimensional space, in which the sound could be experienced. It's not for listening to music, but for experiencing an experience. In other words, I tried to express not only different sounds—for example the sound of waves or the sounds of a NASA launching pad—but all of those sounds in that [multi-dimensional] space."

To say the least, the sound cloud concept is not without its technical problems. Had all of the music been pre-recorded, the amplification, lights, fireworks, and general coordination alone would have been a bear. Add Goro Yamaguchi's shakuhachi, Yin's Chinese lute, Demidenko's piano, violinist Mariko Senju, and the 150-member chorus—all performing in sync with Tomita's sequenced synthesizers while floating on separate barges—and, well, that makes things a little more complicated. Tomita elaborates: "Since they were performing at the midpoint of a 300-meter length between Battery Park and the sound barges, there was at least a one-second sound delay from the speakers," which is not to mention the differences between the delays heard by Tomita, the various barges, and the audience, nor the potential for the participants to shift in relation to one another. "In order to compensate for that," he continues, “I gave them the metronome signals via FM transmitters. I also sent them [monitor mixes of] the background music. We used over 100 FM channels to communicate among all of the musicians and the technicians—the amplifiers, the fireworks, and the lasers."

Given this degree of technological complexity, one seems justified in asking why Tomita would bother to use live musicians at all. The answer is as simple as it is surprising: "The classical musicians have a very definite idea of what is considered a classical performance and what is not. If it were to be recorded, there would have been a very strong resistance in some cases.

"I have no objection, personally," he adds, "to the idea of using pre-recorded music for such an event."

Those watching Tomita's career have been interested to see that older modular synthesizers continue to play a large role in his recorded works. For live performances, though, he has come to rely on systems designed, under his guidance, by Casio. His description of the instrument he has been using provides an enticing glimpse of what we may see from that up-and-coming Japanese keyboard manufacturer in the near future. "Are you familiar with the [New England Digital] Synclavier?" Tomita asks. "It's similar to that. It's a lot more advanced [than Casio's CZ series], in that it has all three functions: synthesis, sampling, and the means to control them, all in one system. Please understand that it's still in the testing stages. It is not a finished product."

Over the course of the show, Tomita's synthesizers pumped out a rounded program of orchestral favorites, including excerpts from Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel, "Mars" and "Jupiter" from The Planets by Holst, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, and John Williams' Close Encounters theme. Along the way, Tomita also treated the audience to electronic realizations of some less familiar music, among them the traditional Japanese piece that served as Keyboard's August '85 Sound page, “Cranes In Their Nests," and a traditional Chinese tune, "A King Taking Off His Armor." Two hours and $2.5 million later, Battery Park emptied slowly amidst murmurs of wonder at the quality of the sound, the breadth of the music, and the overwhelming nature of the performance. Having propelled us from the formation of the cosmos to the age of interplanetary travel and back to the Earth, Tomita rendered it impossible to imagine where his synthesizers might take us next.

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