This odd little book by Haruki Murakami is subtitled “Conversations With Seiji Ozawa” and is precisely that – a word-for-word transcription of taped conversations between these two masters in their respective fields.
Murakami as novelist probably needs no introduction to readers of these Reads pages and lovers of classical music will recognise Ozawa as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (among others) as well as a leading figure in music education. Make no mistake, therefore, this is a meeting of two heavyweights and is accordingly full of potential – that, sadly, for me at least, it did not deliver.
For a start, the concept and format seem ill-fitted to a book. This is the material of a radio discussion or, in a pinch, an arts show on TV. Perhaps a podcast or TED Talk even.
In those environments, for a start, the dialogue would be supported by the music under discussion. Although most of the compositions they talk about will be familiar to musical readers, the depth of analysis may well take them aback. Stage directions are provided throughout (eg, “The solo piano section of the first movement begins [5:56]”) but that is hardly the same as being able to hear the music while its pace, expression, tempo and interpretation are pored over.
I can see this working if you can hear the music but unless you are very familiar with the piece it is unlikely that you will be able to do more than follow the general drift of their discussion. And as a large part of the book focuses on specific pieces, much of the book is rendered inaccessible to most readers.
Readers hoping for gossipy insights into Ozawa’s symphonic world will also be largely disappointed as he proves a master of tact and diplomacy. Affectionate and admiring comments abound for characters such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein and the interpretive if eccentric, genius of Glenn Gould is readily acknowledged – there is little controversy.
There are also few personal revelations, although something of a surprise is the financial struggle that someone of Ozawa’s stature experienced in his apprenticeship days, despite those being at the very highest level: “I was single when I started, so I got $100 a week. You can’t live on that, of course. When I got married, they increased my pay to $150, but that was still not enough.”
And where is Murakami in all this? Well, as this is a book about music I suppose it is inevitable that he plays a subsidiary role, posing questions and occasionally making his own observations but primarily seeking to learn from Ozawa.
In that sense he shows all the novelist’s inquisitiveness about another world. Readers of Murakami’s novels will know that music plays an important part in his work and his life but may be surprised by the extent of his knowledge. In an afterword, a clearly awed Ozawa comments: “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music. Tiny details, old stuff, musicians – it’s amazing. He goes to concerts, and to live jazz performances, and he listens to records at home. It really is amazing.”
One section of the book is called “The Relationship Of Writing To Music” – my hopes rose at this point that Murakami would offer insights into his own work. Sadly, it is a very short section but he does offer the following: “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music. The two sides complement each other: listening to music improves your style; by improving your style, you improve your ability to listen to music…. No one ever taught me to write and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? By 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.”
I think Absolutely On Music is a very niche book. It is not without occasional interest but I can’t shake off the view that it is a very odd idea to produce a book that is little more than a transcript of two good friends sharing a conversation in which they have the music to hand and the reader of the book does not.
In their respective fields these are artists of the very highest stature but, unfortunately, this book does little more than hint at their grandeur.
Absolutely On Music
Authors: Haruki Murakami & Seiji Ozawa
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, nonfiction