Murakami's 'Absolutely on Music' Is Sort of a My Dinner With Andre for Classical Music Fans

by Chris Ingalls

23 January 2017

cover art

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

Haruki Murakami

(Alfred A. Knopf)
US: Nov 2016

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is known for two extracurricular passions: long-distance running and music. The former was the subject of a 2007 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The latter interest is the root of this latest work of nonfiction, Absolutely on Music. The book is unique in its concept and scope: during 2010 and 2011, Murakami met with Japanese conductor and longtime friend Seiji Ozawa to discuss music. These conversations were transcribed and became Murakami’s latest book.

By his own admission, Murakami is not a musician, merely a fan. But these conversations show both a knowledge and curiosity of how music is interpreted through the ears of a listener, if not a musical scholar. In the book’s afterword, Ozawa goes even further: “I have lots of friends who love music,” he writes, “but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity.” As a result, Absolutely on Music is a deep dive into the exploration of music—mainly classical, although occasional forays into other genres are broached—how it comes together and, perhaps, why we enjoy it.

Much of the book’s approach is refreshingly simple: on many occasions, Murakami and Ozawa are in the presence of Murakami’s turntable and ample record collection. The needle is dropped on a classical recording—some of them conducted by Ozawa, some by other maestros such as Bernstein or Karajan—and the two share frank observations about what they’re listening to (Murakami’s official website helpfully includes a Spotify playlist of the dissected recordings, allowing the reader to create something of a classical music version of a DVD commentary track). While it seems on the surface as the ultimate nerd-fest, the result is a refreshing examination of a musical genre that has been long dismissed by the average listener as difficult and often exhausting. Ozawa may be a towering figure in the classical world, but Murakami, for all his experience as a classical collector and concertgoer is, after all, just a fan. Here, he represents us.

A central theme in many of the book’s sections, particularly the opening chapter, “Mostly on the Beethoven Third Concerto”, is the dissection of classical works and how different conductors and orchestras interpret the same piece of music. The dizzying idiosyncratic genius of the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is one of the musicians studied here, and Ozawa acknowledges Gould’s unique style as well as his well-documented eccentricities, but it’s never lowered to the level of petty gossip. Murakami is a celebrated novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize also-ran, and Ozawa has served as musical director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, among many other accomplishments. These aren’t two guys prone to reality-show rumormongering.

Still, it’s a rich delight to be a fly on the wall during these conversations, which come off as sort of a My Dinner With Andre for classical music fans. There’s no great pomp and circumstance in the proceedings, and even their occasional snack breaks are documented: “The bassoon plays the theme… we listen to the music, drinking tea and eating o-nigiri (rice balls).”

Interspersed throughout the book are “interludes”, brief sections devoted to smaller topics such as “On Manic Record Collectors” (Murakami is one, Ozawa is annoyed by them) and “The Relationship of Writing to Music” (where Murakami explains the “rhythmic” aspects of writing styles). These are short,  surface-scratching chapters that could probably benefit from further exploration, particularly the interlude titled “From Chicago Blues to Shin’ichi Mori”, where Murakami presses Ozawa for details on his love of Chicago blues music. It’s always fascinating to me to hear someone talk about a musical style that’s completely different from their own genre (Ozawa also refers here to a time when he attended a Beatles concert in the ’60s, but unfortunately couldn’t hear the music above the din of screaming teenagers). 

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In one of the book’s most important and moving chapters, “In a Little Swiss Town”, Murakami and Ozawa talk about the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, a seminar that took place in the Summer of 2011 for young string players, directed by Ozawa. As Murakami observed the retreat in progress, he was struck by the unpolished, awkward initial performances of the young musicians, several of them teenagers. But over time, under the tutelage of Ozawa and an impressive roster of guest speakers (including Robert Mann, first violinist of the Julliard String Quartet for a half-century), the assembled musicians rose to the occasion, gaining an impressive understanding of the music and the proper technique required to perform it at the highest level. The retreat culminated in two concerts in Geneva and Paris.

Murakami was in attendance at both the retreat and the performances. “When I spoke with some of the students after the (Paris) concert,” Murakami writes, “before their excitement had cooled, they said things such as ‘the tears were pouring out of me during the performance’ and ‘I’m pretty sure you don’t get to have too many experiences this amazing in one lifetime.’ Seeing them so deeply moved, and seeing the audience’s feverish reaction, I began to grasp how Ozawa felt pouring his heart and soul into the activities of this academy. Nothing could ever take its place for him.”

Absolutely on Music works on a variety of levels—as an unpacking of Murakami’s well-documented passion for music, as a point of entry into the musical genius of Ozawa, and as a full-on layman’s study of “serious” music and how everyone and anyone can develop an appreciation for it. Pick up a copy, get yourself a Spotify account and strap yourself in. It will be a fulfilling experience.

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa


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