Book review

Now we know what Haruki Murakami thinks about when he thinks about music

A series of conversations with a renowned conductor reveals a new facet of Murakami’s writing technique.

Publishers will publish, bookshops will stockpile, and fans will comply. This is perhaps just one of the pluses of being Haruki Murakami. An idea is all he needs, and in no time there’s a brand new book ready to fly off the shelves.

So, when Murakami decided to record and transcribe his conversations on and about music – a total of six interviews during 2010 and 2011 – with acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa into a book, the success of the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely on Music is a gorgeous volume, detailing a significant facet of what inspires and rules Murakami’s very being – his relationship with music.

Like Murakami in global literature, Ozawa is renowned in the world of classical music. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 long years, and was music director for the symphony orchestras of Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago.

After decades of practising music, a sudden and unfortunate episode of esophageal cancer, followed by major surgery, compelled Ozawa to take a rehabilitation break. This is when Murakami caught his attention. Until then, the writer was just an “anonymous fan” whom Ozawa had heard of from his daughter. And it was only after they spent an afternoon listening to recordings by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida that Ozawa realised that Murakami “doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

Not an amateur

That Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club named Peter Cat in Tokyo before he became a phenomenon in the literary world is well-known. But despite being an avid listener and collector of records, and someone who frequents classical concerts and operas, why he almost always identifies himself as a “musical layman” is unexplained. He says he took decades to understand the nuances of the compositions, and still insists that his “technical knowledge of music is limited.”

The truth is that Murakami’s affair with music has been dedicated and disciplined, definitive glimpses of which can be seen in almost all his works. For instance, not only is one of his earlier novels named for The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, Leoš Janáček’s composition Sinfonietta plays a critical role in the epic 1Q84. As Scott Meslow writes, reading Murakami is often like negotiating a playlist.

But Absolutely on Music isn’t just about music – it’s also about comparisons between different recordings and performances from two different perspectives, the expert’s and the outsider’s. Obviously, a firm grasp on the subject is imperative to appreciate the depths of the music being discussed in the book.

Seiji Ozawa. Image credit: James Lawler Duggan / Reuters
Seiji Ozawa. Image credit: James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

Fan moment

In Absolutely on Music, Murakami confesses to being self-conscious in the company of Ozawa. He recalls his visits to Ozawa’s concerts, where he shared a moment or two with the maestro he hugely admired. He avoided talking about musical, because he knew that “Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather.” This formality gradually faded when Ozawa had time to spare during his rehabilitation, the period when he and Murakami became friends.

As in his fictions, Murakami doesn’t impose his love or understanding of music on the reader – and certainly not on Ozawa – through this book. But it’s certainly interesting to observe how he interprets a certain composition. While Ozawa reminiscences about his early career and narrates anecdotes from his days in 1960s New York, Murakami prompts and prods like a practised interviewer. In fact, his interpretation of Ozawa’s musical lifespan is fascinating to the subject too. At one point Ozawa exclaims, “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine. It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.”

Rhyme and reason

Like all musical compositions, Absolutely on Music too pauses for an interlude after every conversation. These are brief, self-aware breaks, interjected deliberately to maintain a rhythm in the narrative.

One such interlude is when Murakami deliberates on the effect of music on the craft of writing. Very lucidly, he explains to Ozawa how rhythm controls the flow of words:

“No one ever taught me to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

More than their shared passion for music, Murakami also aspires to draw out similarities between himself and Ozawa. In the Introduction he points out that both he and Ozawa are early risers, who spend those first hours of the day creating art – music and stories respectively. Both are happiest when they’re immersed in their work. And they both share the trait of stubbornness. Murakami’s original motive behind putting this book together is to bring out the ways in which each of them is dedicated to music.

But one can safely say that Murakami’s fans love his trademark eccentric worlds of possibilities rather than certainties, which seem to resemble theirs too. So, it’s hard to imagine Absolutely on Music hitting the same grey zone as his other books, for it digs deep into the technicalities of classical Western music, something that not every reader has their sentiments attached to. Still, because it’s Murakami, there’s still the unexpectedness of magic in this book.

Absolutely on Music, Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, Random House.

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