Musical Influences

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Tomita also uses sound in a number of other unusual ways. He’s familiar with the concept of synesthesia, which is, put simply, the experience of sensory information through the “wrong” sensory center in the brain. If this happens consciously, as it does for some people, you might experience sounds as blobs of light, or colors that you see might cause you to “hear” specific audio pitches.

This is a very complex subject which I talk about in my songwriting workshops, and I don’t want to explain it in detail here. Suffice it to say that it’s possible to use sound to convey visual or tactile information in a very direct manner, and Tomita does this quite effectively when he chooses to.

Tomita also sometimes uses sound to convey visual information in a more traditional, indirect way, by making the notes of a piece of music resemble familiar sounds. Thus, his version of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, becomes a cat chasing a bird and a chicken around the room! (If you’d like to sample Tomita’s work, avoid the “greatest hits” collections; instead, try Pictures at an Exhibition, The Planets, or Grand Canyon.)

Tomita’s music is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it had a profound effect on me because it changed my entire conception of what music is and what music is capable of. The best analogy I can think of is Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, vs. Albert Einstein’s. There’s nothing wrong with Newton’s physics, but his rules only apply within the framework of ordinary, day-to-day experiences. Once you go beyond that framework, into enormous distances, sizes or speeds, you need Einstein’s physics to comprehend what happens. And once you grasp what Einstein was saying—and what makes his physics so different from Newton’s—you realize that the world is fundamentally different from the way it appears on a day-to-day basis. You can’t see the world the way you did before.

This is what Tomita did for my understanding of music, and I’m forever in his debt for taking me over that threshold.

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