Reviews

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

A famed Japanese novelist who just happens to be a supreme music fanatic sits down with a celebrated Japanese conductor for a series of informal talks.


Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 325 pages
Author: Haruki Murakami
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-11
Amazon

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).


Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.


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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.