Music forges a meeting of minds
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