November 19, 2008
We are continuing with our interview with Makoto Nakura, marimba virtuoso; Nakura will be featured as guest soloist with LACO in its regularly scheduled concerts of December 13 (at The Alex Theater) and December 14 (at Royce Hall):
Bob: As you know, Makoto, this blog is entitled Fishing in the Third Stream, alluding to music and musicians at the interface between jazz and classical music. Since the marimba and its cousin, the vibraphone, are no strangers to the world of jazz music, I’m wondering if listening to and playing jazz have been part of your musical story.
Makoto: A cousin of my mother is a quite famous jazz vibraphone player. He studied with Milt Jackson at some occasion. My earliest recollection about jazz is from him. When I visited my grandparents when I was in junior high school, he was also visiting his parents, who lived right next to my grandparents. He kept a vibraphone at that house, and he told me to play something. I had never touched vibraphone before, but I played Smetana’s “Comedian’s Dance.” He was very nice about my playing, and he also played some jazz for us. My impression was that I couldn’t really understand what was going on as if it were like foreign language.
Since then, he and I have been close, and I have been to many of his concerts. However, I didn’t grow my interest to play jazz. I enjoy listening to jazz on radio and etc., though.
Speaking of “foreign”, I remember falling in love with Debussy’s piano preludes when I was in Junior High. Debussy’s music sounded so foreign from what I had learned before, but in this case, I really wanted to play his music. By this point, I had been studying the piano for some years, but of course my technique wasn’t good enough to play those preludes. I was trying to play simpler Debussy pieces. The color and the exotic harmony of his music inspired my imagination so much.
I also liked playing Bach’s inventions on the piano a lot. I had only known more homophonic music before I started Inventions. His counterpoint and the structure of his music just fascinated me so much.
Another piece I really liked in my high school time was Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Speaking of counter point and foreign flavor, this piece has a lot.
Bob: Can you please explain to our readers what you mean by “homophonic music,” and how it differs from the music of Bach?
Makoto: Oh, sorry. By “homophonic music,” I mean music in which the parts move together in harmony, forming chords. For example, a lot of choral music is written that way, with the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts moving together in a series of harmonic chords.
Now, Bach, in his inventions, writes first a single melody line for the right hand. Then, perhaps two measures later, the left hand comes in with that same melody, in counterpoint with the continuing, right hand melody. The harmony just arises out of the counterpoint. It is fascinating! Do you see what I mean?
Bob: I see exactly what you mean; that was very helpful. Can you tell us a little about your music education? Who were the music teachers who had the most influence on you?
Makoto: I was taking private lessons until I finished high school. I was taking marimba, snare drum, piano, and ear training lessons from different teachers at one point. I was also commuting to Tokyo from Kobe by the bullet train to study with Michiko Takahashi, who is one of the most respected marimba players in Japan. My high school was an elite high school, so it wasn’t so easy to do so many things besides regular academic works, which were already quite demanding.
I went to Musashino Music College in Tokyo where Michiko Takahashi teaches. I studied with her over seven years, so I have to say she is the one I had biggest influence from.
I also studied at Royal Academy of Music in London. I wanted to study about orchestra percussion more, and the focus of their percussion study was right there. I had a wonderful piano teacher there, too. Antonietta Notariello let me play Debussy’s preludes (finally!), and Schoenberg’s piano pieces, which opened my eyes towards atonal, twelve- tone music, as well as abstract art. If you want to know how I changed my opinion about Schoenberg through this experience: whenever I hear people say they don’t like Schoenberg’s music, I want to say “you just wait and see…”
Bob: I would love to take a “Schoenberg Appreciation Course” from you! I’m sure I would learn a lot…
How did you happen to come to the United States?
Makoto: In 1994, I won Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Young Concert Artists (YCA) is a wonderful organization that has been helping young musicians to launch their careers for 47 years. I was the first marimba player ever to win the competition, and they started booking me lots of concerts in the U.S. I was commuting from Tokyo the first two years, but I didn’t want to lose this great chance and momentum, so I decided to move to New York City in the summer of 1997. Since then, I have been living in my apartment in Manhattan by myself.
I still have concerts in Japan, and usually I go back there three times a year. I prefer living in New York City to Japan, and I would like to do it as long as I can. I just like the diversity that I find in this multicultural society.
Our interview with Makoto Nakura will conclude next time.