Mu­sic forges a meet­ing of minds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Haruki Mu­rakami is ar­guably Ja­pan’s most fa­mous liv­ing writer. His sur­real nov­els have won him a large au­di­ence in his coun­try and else­where. Scat­tered through­out his con­sid­er­able oeu­vre are eclec­tic works of non­fic­tion, many yet to be trans­lated.

Those that have made it into English in­clude Un­der­ground, an ex­plo­ration of the Aum Shin­rikyo cult re­spon­si­ble for the Sarin gas at­tacks on the Tokyo sub­way in 1995, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning, a book just as much about writ­ing as it is about run­ning.

Ab­so­lutely on Mu­sic is one of two re­cently trans­lated books in which Mu­rakami holds con­ver­sa­tions with fel­low em­i­nent Ja­panese, the other be­ing his talks with the Jun­gian psy­chol­o­gist and cul­tural icon Hayao Kawai.

This one is the prod­uct of a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Mu­rakami and clas­si­cal mu­sic con­duc­tor Seiji Ozawa in 2010-11, which were pub­lished in Ja­panese at the time.

The world of clas­si­cal mu­sic has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing deeply con­ser­va­tive, and few nonWestern­ers have man­aged to reach its high­est lev­els. From this perspective Ozawa is both a trail­blazer and a pin­na­cle. When a fin­ger in­jury in a rugby game cru­elled his prospects as a con­cert pi­anist, he shifted to con­duct­ing, and it proved a great suc­cess.

Af­ter win­ning two in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, he won a schol­ar­ship to study un­der Her­bert von Kara­jan in Ber­lin. Then in 1961 he be­came an as­sis­tant con­duc­tor un­der Leonard Bern­stein at the New York Phil­har­monic. Fol­low­ing stints at Toronto and San Fran­cisco or­ches­tras, he be­came mu­si­cal di­rec­tor for the Bos­ton Sym­phony, a po­si­tion he held for a record 29 years un­til 2002, when he be­came prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of the Vi­enna State Opera.

In de­mand for some of the world’s most pres­ti­gious roles, Ozawa was also an in­no­va­tor, as can be shown by his for­ma­tion in 1992 of the Saito Ki­nen Or­ches­tra, which com­bined Ja­panese play­ers with renowned in­ter­na­tional play­ers for an­nual per­for­mances.

Mu­rakami and Ozawa be­came friends through the lat­ter’s daugh­ter, Seira, and bonded over their mu­tual love of mu­sic. Be­fore be­com­ing a writer, Mu­rakami ran a jazz bar in Tokyo and his mu­si­cal knowl­edge has fea­tured heav­ily in his work: his early novel Nor­we­gian Wood bor­rowed its ti­tle from the Bea­tles song, for in­stance.

This book, how­ever, is more about Ozawa and his mu­sic than it is about Mu­rakami. The con­ver­sa­tions took place pri­mar­ily while Ozawa was forced to take a break from work­ing dur­ing his re­cov­ery from oe­sophageal can­cer. This re­cov­ery pe­riod is in­stru­men­tal to the con­ver­sa­tions: the en­forced idle­ness cre­ates the space for Ozawa to re­flect on his stel­lar ca­reer.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the life of a con­duc­tor, not just into Ozawa’s ap­proach but those of Kara­jan and Bern­stein too. We learn, for in­stance, how Kara­jan was very much a top­down kind of con­duc­tor, a plan­ner who in­sisted on im­pos­ing his vi­sion of a piece on the or­ches­tra, while Bern­stein, in Ozawa’s view, was a ge­nius who al­lowed the sound of a piece to emerge; some­thing of a demo­crat who took a con­sul­ta­tive ap­proach and was will­ing to brook dis­sent.

Books con­sist­ing of con­ver­sa­tions are an un­usual thing. In an era where we are sat­u­rated with mem­oir, some of it very good, it’s refresh- ing to see per­sonal rev­e­la­tion func­tion­ing in a di­a­logic form that is the meat and pota­toes of fea­tures jour­nal­ism but rarely ex­tended into book length.

The re­sult is a kind of las­si­tude: the best con­ver­sa­tions have their own rhythms and seem to ex­ist apart from reg­u­lar time. The sense of leisure here is helped by the feel­ing the two men en­joy each other’s com­pany. The pre­vail­ing at­mos­phere of the book is one of easy can­dour. The prob­lem, of course, is that some of the loops and rep­e­ti­tions that shape an ac­tual con­ver­sa­tion re­main on the page. Some read­ers may find this stretches their pa­tience. Cer­tainly, there are mo­ments where

Seiji Ozawa, left, and Haruki Mu­rakami

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