Blessed with perfect pitch and an obvious gift, Okura began her formal musical training at age 5 at the prestigious Toho Gakuen School of Music. Her precocious talent and passion for music eventually led to her appointment as concertmaster and soloist for the Asian Youth Orchestra, and, while in her teens, to her United States solo debut with the late Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. She most recently released a CD entitled ‘Music of Ryuichi Sakamoto’ with the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble! We dive into her creative process, the album, and more. Read below for the full interview…
How has acquiring a masters degree aided you in your career? Did you learn more at Juiliard through upper-level classes that you feel made you a more well-rounded musician?
A little bit. I took composition, arranging, film scoring and music technology courses which help me today. However, as an improviser and the musician who I am today, most of my studying came from learning jazz through recordings, theory books, jazz piano lessons, jazz vocal lessons and such. It all came after I finished my degree program. The degree itself is completely useless in my field. If you want to be inspired and enlightened, I don’t think going to a school is the way today. I have learned so much more on the internet for free than any of the classes I have taken at Juilliard.
Could you give us some insight and updates on Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble and how they’ve matured musically since forming almost 10 years ago?
I think it’s in a constant mode of metamorphosis. It changes and develops, rejects some elements and welcomes another. It will keep changing as I keep changing, while adhering to the basic concept of world chamber jazz, which is some combinations of world music elements with classical compositional techniques and forms, with jazz harmony, grooves, swing, improvisation and performance practices.
For those with an ‘ear’ for music, what is the biggest difference between classical Japanese and Chinese music?
It’s the different combinations of minor pentatonic scales from Japan which makes Japanese music sound more Japanese. Chinese music, as far as I know, uses mainly the major pentatonic scale.
You stated that you embrace the challenges of being Asian American. Could you expand upon that a little bit?
In the U.S., if you are Japanese, you are basically Chinese, meaning that most average American people cannot distinguish Japan from China, culturally, historically, linguistically, and geographically. And white Americans are very protective of their own identity, and therefore, anything Asian people do, if it is slightly “western”, they try to make fun of you, and say that Asian people want to become white. There is a huge pressure to embrace your own culture and stick with your own people, and stay within the stereotypes, which are not always positive. Socially, there is a divide, mostly due to the resistance from the white mainstream American culture. So that is a challenge. Trying to present myself in a positive light without being though as me trying to be “white”.
Why did you choose to showcase Ryuichi Sakamoto with your new album? What about him made him the focus? Was it his ambition in film scoring?
I used to be a big fan of him when I was a little girl, starting at 5 years of age. So I always wanted to play his music with my own group. In 2011, I was one of the violinists considered for Mr. Sakamoto’s trio for his European tour. Though I didn’t get the gig at the end, I arranged some tunes for the second round of the audition, and the arrangements came out really great. So I felt that it was the right time to do a whole album of Mr. Sakamoto’s music. I had so many ideas for different arrangements and I really wanted to put them down.
How much work goes into arranging an existing piece of work? Any arranging techniques that you learned that you could share?
How much work depends on the style of arranging. As I mentioned in the liner notes, I have used many different techniques. Reverse remix, and re-composition, re-harmonization, re-orchestration, transposition, changing meters, feels and genres (grooves). I made up some of these terms. For example, reverse remix is an acoustic version of an electronic piece, the reverse of remix. Re-composition is deconstructing the original piece into many different smaller elements, and then re-orchestrate and notate the music the best way possible for the current ensemble, using 20th century classical music notation as well as jazz notations to get the desired effects, not necessarily the exact musical notes. Re-harmonization is a jazz term for putting a more complex harmony over the same melody, and improvising on that new harmonic progression. So the most time consuming process was the re-composing. The process ended up feeling as though it was my own composition.
Lastly, any advice for any struggling young musicians?
When I was young, I wanted to be “successful”. When you are older, like myself, you want to be good, really good, the best. You also want to be authentic to yourself, and find something that only you can do very well, instead of imitating someone else’s career who became successful and try to be better than that person. I think people are much more moved by your dignity and your own story. Do not waste your time trying to be commercially successful because you have very little control over such fate. If you do what you believe in, you probably don’t mind a little bit of struggling. But it is a sacrifice because most good musicians are extremely smart people, and had they chosen another path, they’d be doing really well. You are willing to struggle now because you are young. But in 20 years, you will hate being broke. I have turned down opportunities that would have made me very comfortable today, and I still wonder whether I made the right choice or not.
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