"Absolutely on Music" by Haruki Murakami & Seiji Ozawa

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Devoted fans of Haruki Murakami already know of his love of music. His novels are full of songs and references, and his characters live in a world influenced by music – they frequent record stores buying Beethoven and Miles Davis records, whistle a Rossini melody while making tea, or have Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” playing in the background. They notice what song might be playing when they walk into a room and reflect on it, letting memory wash over them.

Murakami’s titles can be direct references to music too, such as his most recent novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” or “Norwegian Wood” (the first taken from a suite of Franz Liszt, and the second, of course, from the Beatles). And his many readers also engage with the pieces they might come across in one of his books – when the novel “1Q84” was released, Leoš Janáček’s “Sinfonietta,” which shows up prominently in the book’s narrative, sold as many copies in one week as it had in the previous 20 years. It’s amazing to me to think of people reading a book and rushing out to find a recording of a fairly obscure Czech composer! This is the influence of Murakami, both in Japan and worldwide. 

In “Absolutely on Music” Murakami goes directly to the heart of music by jotting down his conversations with the great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. The result is an absolute gem. Here are two masters of their craft sitting, listening to records and sharing their passion of music.

There are wonderful passages when Murakami lets his skill as a writer come through. He describes a moment as Mitsuko Uchida performs Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto: “Beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space. A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself.” Murakami compares the act of writing with the creation of music, at how important rhythm is, and propelling the reader forward, as a well-performed piece of music does. 

We also get to see how deeply-rooted music is to Ozawa. It sounds as though he speaks as he conducts. Murakami writes that “he gesticulates grandly, and many of his thoughts emerge in the form of songs. … Music was the indispensable fuel that kept (Ozawa) moving through life.”

The real wonder of the book is hearing Ozawa talk about his career. He describes mastering his conducting technique under Herbert von Karajan in Berlin and Leonard Bernstein in New York, and of learning how to bring out long phrases in music, and to incite the orchestra to feel the direction of the music. He tells of subways rattling under Carnegie Hall in the 1960s as Bernstein became obsessed with Mahler’s symphonies and his introduction to La Scala when he conducted Pavarotti in Tosca. As he received the ritual booing from Milan’s critical audience, he describes how the musicians were all behind him, and they would “boo” right back at the audience. And we see the deep emotion Ozawa gets from simply reading a score. 

“Absolutely on Music” is a wonderful read for anyone who is mesmerized by music or who has heard a beautiful Ravel or Brahms piece coming through the trees in Aspen this summer and wondered how the conductor and musicians can work in harmony to create such an incredible, unified sound. There is a passage in the book I can relate to that describes a small Swiss mountain town, with Ozawa conducting, and the warm applause that comes from the audience at the end of rehearsal, and how music has become an intimate part of the town. I think Ozawa and Murakami would like summers here in Aspen as well.