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Back in the 1970s when I was a teenager just getting into music I remember hearing some recordings by Japanese synthesizer wizard, composer and arranger Isao Tomita and being simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. The latter I attribute to my having been getting deeply into progressive rock and Frank Zappa in particular. I was already dipping my toes into the classical universe of artists who influenced Zappa such as Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky
The first Tomita album I eventually picked up out of curiosity — this was before the days of being able to preview an album streamed on the Interwebs, folks… and this music wasn’t played on any radio stations I listened to — was indeed his interpretation of one of Stravinsky’s masterworks, The Firebird Suite.
I love that piece of music and while it was on the surface impressive that he was able to perform the work, Tomita’s version left me kind of cold for some reason and I was never sure why. Wendy Carlos had already done some magical things combining classical music with synthesizers (her legendary Switched On Bach recordings). And groups like Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer (ELP) were taking synthesizers to wild extremes for the times, both incorporating touchstones of classical in their work. Yes legendarily opened its concerts with an excerpt from The Firebird and ELP even had even recorded an entire live album of a rock interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. Renaissance brilliantly reinterpreted Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade for a new generation to discover.
So, while classical music was in the air for many of us back around this time, perhaps my expectations for a sizzling listening experience went beyond the scope of my teenage stereo system…
Fast forward and today I’m listening to a wonderful SACD from the Dutton-Vocalion label which contains the original 1970s quadrophonic mixes of Tomita’s Firebird and all I can think about are the phrases: “missed opportunity” and “ahead of his time.”
The missed opportunity is that Tomita should have been touring with bands like Yes and ELP. Apparently, Tomita performed live with a quadrophonic sound system which must have been a wonder to see and hear! Groups like Pink Floyd had performed in quad even in the early 1970s. Note, there are recordings from Tomita’s live quad shows (click here and here for a BBC transcription in Stereo which was apparently broadcast in quadrophonic sound back in the day, his first performance in England according to the website).
The ahead of his time part is that quadrophonic sound as a commercial medium back in the 70s simply wasn’t ready for prime time. Quad LPs and tapes were often available but getting those systems to work properly was apparently easier said than done. There were Quad broadcasts but you had to have one of the then new Quadrophonic receivers to be able to hear them. Not many had them yet, alas.
So, hearing Tomita’s original quad mixes of The Firebird today has been a revelation. This music which once left me cold now engages and excites me!
As an arranger, clearly he was in his sweet spot mixing for multi-channel, creating a wonderfully immersive mix which is not hung up on — and doesn’t pretend to try to — re-create a live soundstage. All his work was painstakingly programmed and performed. And here on The Firebird Suite he takes advantages of the otherworldly peaks and valleys in Stravinsky’s score and applies it to the design of the mix. The impact is wonderful.
It’s a little hard to describe this, especially if you don’t know this particular piece of music. Try to imagine in general a dramatic classical work or a movie soundtrack where the violins and cellos, horns and woodwinds that were percolating and soaring in those big epic sequences in monaural or stereo now swirled around, over and through you. That may give you an idea of what parts of this fine quadrophonic mix is like (especially when you sit in the “sweet spot” of your home theater or surround sound system listening area — that perfect zone for the listener to be seated in order to best appreciate a surround mix).
The other interesting thing about this fine version of Tomita’s Firebird is that when I compared the two channel Stereo mix on the hybrid SACD to a pristine conventional Stereo LP, they sound very much the same. This is a good thing and it seems to be a conscious effort on the part of the SACD’s producers as I have noticed this on several others of their releases which I have reviewed recently. They don’t try to modernize or brighten the recordings, so it feels true to the original.
Now if only there was some way to bring out more of these fun Tomita Quadrophonic mixes to broader audience (ie. less expensive and more easily accessible, especially here in the United States), that would be a useful and wonderful occurrence.
Perhaps with more impactful packaging (the liner notes here reproduce those from 1976 release and reveal nothing really about the four channel mixes) and a new push from domestic United States labels (Sony Classical owns this particular work apparently, even though it was originally on the RCA Records label), then there might be some stronger hope of bringing Tomita’s music to life again for new audiences to discover.
Tomita’s music is ripe for rediscovery.