Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of the Japanese music company Roland, died yesterday at the age of 87. The news was confirmed by the company in a statement.
Decades of hits performed by everyone from Marvin Gaye to Madonna used Roland's iconic inventions. Kakehashi was also one of the original architects of MIDI, a method introduced in 1983 of getting different musical machines to "talk" to each other and which is still in used regularly around the world.
When we think of the people who shaped popular music, we tend to think of the big stars on stage — but a dazzling array of new instruments and new sounds were unleashed in the 20th century that expanded the palettes of these artists. Inventors drove this sonic revolution, playing a role behind the scenes as important to musical history as those in the spotlight; the invention of the synthesizer was as vital as the invention of the electric guitar, while drum machines formed the bedrock for entire genres like hip-hop and techno.
Kakehashi began dreaming of electronic instruments early, in the 1950s. Back then, synthesizers as we know them now didn't exist; there were a few lumbering behemoths lurking in laboratories and university corridors, such as the RCA Mark II synthesizer, installed in 1957 at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. The theremin existed, but it only made one kind of sound — a fantastic sound, to be sure, but its uses were limited. Composers devised ways of making electronic music using tape machines, in a practice known as musique concrète. Others, such as Louis and Bebe Barron, experimented with homemade circuits. Independent inventors, like Raymond Scott in New York and Oskar Sala in Germany, were building intriguing prototypes of proto-synthesizers, but these devices weren't accessible to the general public.
Then, the inventors Robert Moog and Don Buchla started having big ideas and, in the early 1960s, they designed — and later, mass-produced — the first sophisticated electronic musical instruments that would be recognizable today as synthesizers. Around the same time, thousands of miles away in Japan, Kakehashi was formulating his own inspiration.