It snowed in northern Wisconsin recently. A bit unusual for mid-May, but not entirely unheard of. I couldn’t help thinking those snowflakes, swirling in the chilly air, were dancing in tribute to yet another fallen artist. Isao Tomita was a Moog synthesizer virtuoso who died at the age of 84 on May 11, 2016. Forty-two years ago I was introduced to what became his most famous work.
Snowflakes Are Dancing was an album of Claude Debussy’s “tone paintings” as interpreted by Tomita on the Moog. It wasn’t the first album of electronic music I’d heard. Just before graduating high school, I was flipping through the “Psychedelic” bin in the record section of a local department store one day, searching for some unconventional music. (I was already a fan of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.) A shiny, silver cover bearing the title Silver Apples grabbed my attention. It was recorded by a duo bearing that name and has since been cited as the first collection of experimental electronic music.
I plunked down a couple of bucks and brought it home for a trial listen. At first I didn’t care much for the pulsating, sometimes discordant, driving beat of synthesized sounds. Nonetheless, I continued to play it occasionally just to hear something different. Until my freshman year in college. It was then the album was sold along with some others in what would be the first of several record purges over the next few years. How I regretted purging some of those albums is a story for another time.
Most of my college listening (and occasional performing) involved serious folk-rock music, much of which carried with it a message of protest. But a spark of interest in the strange and exotic sound of electronica was rekindled after college, fueled in part by movie soundtracks like A Clockwork Orange. The film featured works performed on the Moog synthesizer by Walter Carlos. (Later he became Wendy Carlos.) Carlos had already gained notoriety with his 1968 Grammy-winning album, Switched On Bach, a collection of music by Johann Sebastian Bach played on the Moog. He composed the electronic music for A Clockwork Orange three years later.
I picked up both albums and shortly after that acquisition, purloined one track from Switched On Bach to use as background music for a National Library Week promotional film I co-produced in the mid-seventies. It featured card catalog drawers opening and closing on their own, created with stop-action animation effects. The spot aired for a brief time on local cable television. I wish I knew whatever became of it.
In the meantime, on November 2, 1973, I attended my first Moog synthesizer concert, promoted as a “multimedia performance of light, film and synthesized music.” The soloist was Morton Subotnick, whose press kit highlighted his contribution of electronic effects for the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It turns out my expectations were fulfilled neither in sight nor sound. 2001: A Space Odyssey it definitely was not.
A few months after that concert, undaunted by my disappointment with Subotnick’s performance, I acquired Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing album. The atmospheric interpretations of Debussy’s works blew me away. I played that record until it wore out. For years I would be reminded of Tomita whenever I’d hear a Moog synth in progressive rock music. Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for example.
Only recently did Snowflakes Are Dancing rejoin my playlist after noticing the recording among a listing of digital titles available online. Who would have thought the electronic music produced forty-two years ago is now downloaded electronically and paid for electronically as well? Far out! Those May snowflakes in northern Wisconsin were dancing for Isao Tomita, who forever left his footprints in the snow and his fingerprints on the Moog.