Lis­ten Up

Haruki Mu­rakami’s Ab­so­lutely on Mu­sic: Con­ver­sa­tions With Seiji Ozawa

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You can’t read far into the short sto­ries or nov­els of Haruki Mu­rakami with­out re­al­iz­ing how much he adores jazz. In his mem­oirs and other pub­lished es­says, he re­lates how he was smit­ten when he heard Art Blakey and the Jazz Mes­sen­gers in Kobe in 1964, at the age of fif­teen, and how he went on to run a jazz club in Tokyo dur­ing much of the 1970s. His le­gions of read­ers will have no trou­ble sum­mon­ing up rec­ol­lec­tions of mu­sic in his writ­ings, per­haps begin­ning with the jazz records and trom­bone Tony Tak­i­tani in­her­its from his father in the epony­mous short story. The web­site www.haruki-mu­ help­fully tal­lies the spe­cific mu­si­cal ci­ta­tions in his large cor­pus of writ­ings and links to per­for­mances of all of them. Some books have only a few, but the ref­er­ences re­ally pile up in oth­ers: 29 com­po­si­tions each in 1Q84 and Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End

of the World, fully 46 in Nor­we­gian Wood. Scrolling through the site, one is struck by how much non-jazz mu­sic is also there, in­clud­ing lots of Bea­tles tunes and a great deal of clas­si­cal mu­sic. The list­ings for 1Q84 in­clude links to an in­ter­est­ing as­sort­ment of pieces by Bach, Janácˇek, Schubert, Han­del, Haydn, Vi­valdi, Rameau, and Mar­cel Dupré.

Mu­rakami, it turns out, is no less de­voted to clas­si­cal mu­sic than he is to jazz, even if that pas­sion has been less dis­cussed. It in­hab­its ev­ery page of his vol­ume Ab­so­lutely on Mu­sic: Con­ver­sa­tions With Seiji Ozawa, in which he tran­scribes a se­ries of six ex­tended pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions he had with the noted con­duc­tor, spread pe­ri­od­i­cally through the years 2010 and 2011. The two be­ing lead­ing cul­tural fig­ures of Ja­pan, they had known each other ca­su­ally, but the op­por­tu­nity to deepen their con­nec­tion ar­rived only when, at the end of 2009, Ozawa was di­ag­nosed with esophageal cancer and had to cut back dras­ti­cally on his mu­si­cal en­gage­ments. Given Ozawa’s light­ened cal­en­dar, Mu­rakami pro­posed the in­ter­views that ended up form­ing this vol­ume. A spe­cific ex­change served as in­spi­ra­tion. As Mu­rakami ex­plains:

“Dur­ing one of Seiji Ozawa’s vis­its to my home, we were lis­ten­ing to mu­sic and talk­ing about one thing or another when he told me a tremen­dously in­ter­est­ing story about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bern­stein’s 1962 per­for­mance in New York of Brahms’ First Pi­ano Con­certo. ‘What a shame it would be to let such a fas­ci­nat­ing story just evap­o­rate,’ I thought. ‘Some­body ought to record it and put it on pa­per.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘some­body’ that hap­pened to cross my mind at the mo­ment was me.”

It is there­fore with some ea­ger­ness that one plunges into the first in­ter­view, stoked with the prom­ise of rev­e­la­tion. It be­gins with Ozawa re­count­ing the

anec­dote, which is the one about Bern­stein is­su­ing a dis­claimer from the stage prior to con­duct­ing the con­certo with the New York Phil­har­monic be­cause he and Gould held such diver­gent opin­ions about how it should be in­ter­preted. It is one of clas­si­cal mu­sic’s very fa­mous sto­ries, re­tailed in who knows how many bi­ogra­phies, gen­eral-in­ter­est ar­ti­cles, and mu­sic-ap­pre­ci­a­tion books. The New York Times car­ried a be­mused ar­ti­cle by its chief critic, Harold C. Schon­berg, the day after it hap­pened. There was no pos­si­bil­ity that the story might “just evap­o­rate” if it were not en­shrined in this book. Still, the reader forges ahead, hop­ing Ozawa will have a unique take on it since he was right there in Carnegie Hall, serv­ing as one of Bern­stein’s as­sis­tant con­duc­tors at the Phil­har­monic. “I couldn’t catch his English,” Ozawa says, “so I asked the peo­ple around me what he was say­ing, and I got the gen­eral idea.”

This is the first of sev­eral spots at which Ozawa voices re­gret that his lim­ited lan­guage skills pre­vented him from un­der­stand­ing what his col­leagues had to say. This would come as no sur­prise to peo­ple in­volved hands-on in the mu­sic world, where ev­ery­one ac­knowl­edges that he com­mu­ni­cates in mys­te­ri­ous lo­cu­tions that of­ten re­sem­ble no lan­guage known to man. Mu­rakami con­firms that: “It’s true, the mae­stro does speak his own spe­cial brand of Ozawa-ese, which is not al­ways easy to con­vert to standard writ­ten Ja­panese.” The con­ver­sa­tions were in Ja­panese, as one would ex­pect, and Jay Rubin has ren­dered them smoothly into English, but even so there is just so much one can do to cover for the speaker. Con­sider Ozawa’s com­ment, later in the book, about the afore­men­tioned Times critic, who re­viewed the Phil­har­monic week after week dur­ing Ozawa’s ten­ure as as­sis­tant con­duc­tor: “Un­for­tu­nately for Bern­stein, there was this mu­sic critic for The New York Times named Sean Berg or some­thing.” Not en­cour­ag­ing.

The con­ver­sa­tions are at their best when Mu­rakami plays records or CDs from his col­lec­tion and then they dis­cuss what they hear. Ozawa an­nounces that he ba­si­cally dis­likes the whole idea of ob­ses­sive record col­lect­ing and the fetishism that can im­ply, but he is quickly won over by the fact that Mu­rakami ac­tu­ally lis­tens to the record­ings he amasses. In­deed, he lis­tens very care­fully, and he brings well-honed skills to bear on com­par­ing one in­ter­pre­ta­tion with another. So does Ozawa, as one would ex­pect, but they are not al­ways struck by ex­actly the same things. “It’s hardly for me to point out how very high the wall is that sep­a­rates the pro from the am­a­teur, the mu­sic maker from the lis­tener,” Mu­rakami writes. “Our most im­por­tant task is to search for an ef­fec­tive pas­sage­way through the wall — and two peo­ple who share a nat­u­ral affin­ity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that pas­sage­way.”

They lis­ten to­gether to pas­sages from com­pet­ing read­ings of pi­ano con­cer­tos and sym­phonies by Brahms, Beethoven, and Mahler, among oth­ers. (The au­thor’s web­site, www.harukimu­, pro­vides Spo­tify links to many of the record­ings they hear.) These lis­ten­ing ses­sions of­fer oc­ca­sional flashes of in­sight. A par­tic­u­larly fine ex­am­ple in­volves a pas­sage in which Brahms, in his First Sym­phony, di­vides phrases be­tween two horn play­ers, over­lap­ping them to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of a sin­gle horn play­ing seam­lessly with­out stop­ping to breathe. So great is the con­duc­tor’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this de­tail that one is shocked when, a few pages later, Mu­rakami con­fronts him with a video­tape in which he leads the Bos­ton Sym­phony in that very piece — with the en­tire pas­sage be­ing played by the prin­ci­pal hor­nist alone. Ozawa shrugs it off. “Yes, he de­cided on his own, and he ab­so­lutely in­sisted on do­ing it his way. In other words, he re­jected Brahms’s lit­tle trick.”

That ex­change en­cap­su­lates what keeps this vol­ume from soar­ing. Mu­rakami of­ten seems too much in awe to press his in­ter­vie­wee deeply. “Why did you al­low it?” you want him to ask. Who stands up for Brahms, if not the con­duc­tor? But this is Seiji Ozawa, who, in what seemed an end­less mu­sic di­rec­tor­ship of 29 years, trudged with the Bos­ton Sym­phony through the realm of glossy but com­pla­cent gen­er­al­ity. He was cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of pol­ished work dur­ing his time at the helms in Bos­ton, at the Vi­enna State Opera, and with the Saito Ki­nen Orches­tra he co-founded in Ja­pan; but the gen­eral crit­i­cal con­sen­sus is that he never stood at the top of the pack, that his read­ings never claimed de­fin­i­tive sta­tus com­pared to those of other con­duc­tors.

One is will­ing — in­deed, ea­ger — to make al­lowances un­der the cir­cum­stances. The Ozawa we meet is a man in his au­tum­nal years un­der­go­ing cancer re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. One can for­give lapses of mem­ory, but Mu­rakami is not al­ways equipped to steer him as se­curely as he re­quires. Even at his best, Ozawa can come across as lack­adaisi­cal when it comes to de­tails, with Mu­rakami ac­cept­ing what he says as a pro­nounce­ment from an or­a­cle. Mu­rakami oc­ca­sion­ally rambles on with words that lie some­where be­tween state­ment and ques­tion, and when he yields the floor to Ozawa, the re­sponse is “Hmm … I won­der.” Con­ver­sa­tions some­times grind to a list­less halt:

Mu­rakami: La Bo­hème is an opera that won’t work un­less Mimì makes the au­di­ence cry, don’t you think? Ozawa: That’s quite true.

Mu­rakami: And Freni could do that nat­u­rally. Ozawa: You can tell your­self, “I’m not go­ing to cry to­day,” but you can’t help your­self. I’m think­ing I’ll go visit her in Mo­dena next time I’m in Florence. He drinks hot tea. Ozawa: This is su­gar, isn’t it? Mu­rakami: Yes, it is.

The tone may seem more nat­u­ral to Ja­panese read­ers, by which I mean the book’s at­ti­tu­di­nal pose rather than any­thing specif­i­cally lin­guis­tic. Mu­rakami’s rev­er­ence for Mae­stro Ozawa is al­ways present, and so is Ozawa’s rev­er­ence for his own mas­ters, par­tic­u­larly Bern­stein and Her­bert von Kara­jan (who over­saw his ap­pren­tice­ships) and Prof. Hideo Saito, his orig­i­nal con­duct­ing teacher. Both par­ties to the talk­fest are well placed to ap­pre­ci­ate the ac­tiv­i­ties of Ja­panese per­form­ers in Western clas­si­cal mu­sic, but even there they skate along the sur­face. An en­tire in­ter­view is de­voted to the mu­sic of Mahler, and Ozawa pre­dictably ex­tols Bern­stein’s mis­sion­ary work on that com­poser’s be­half, which was in full swing dur­ing Ozawa’s time as as­sis­tant con­duc­tor. They give lit­tle credit to any of the con­duc­tors who pushed the Mahler agenda be­fore that, and it is supremely strange that nei­ther men­tions that the first-ever record­ing of Mahler’s Fourth Sym­phony — the first elec­tri­cal record­ing of any Mahler sym­phony — was made in 1930 in Ja­pan, of all places, with Hide­maro Konoye con­duct­ing the New Sym­phony Orches­tra of Tokyo. Since Ozawa finds noth­ing orig­i­nal or au­thor­i­ta­tive to say about Mahler in the 83 pages de­voted to him, at least that his­tor­i­cal odd­ity might have led to some thoughts of unique value from two fig­ures in Ja­pan’s cur­rent cul­tural di­a­dem.

One should not dis­count what is good about the book. Mu­rakami is gen­uinely in­ter­ested and alert, hun­gry for Ozawa to deepen his grasp of a sub­ject he loves. He ar­rives with ears well pre­pared, even if his back­ground re­search seems of­ten lim­ited to what he gleans from the record­ings he owns. Ozawa comes across as ge­nial if some­times far­away. Ev­ery now and then there are flashes of in­sight. Still, the book peaks too early, leav­ing read­ers to stroll through its sec­ond half with wan­ing in­ter­est. This will not go down as an im­por­tant en­try in Mu­rakami’s oeu­vre, but one won­ders if it might lead to one. I ended up wish­ing he had drawn on it for a work of fic­tion in­stead — but then, of course, Ozawa would not likely have de­voted so much time to a project that did not have a bio­graph­i­cal aim. And yet, Mu­rakami har­bors pal­pa­ble in­ter­est in the phe­nom­e­non of con­duct­ing, in de­tails of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, in want­ing to un­der­stand the kind of per­son who would get swept up in such things. Who knows — maybe some day such a char­ac­ter will stand at the heart of a Mu­rakami novel, one that is not strait­jack­eted by the lim­i­ta­tions of mor­tal ba­nal­ity.

“Ab­so­lutely on Mu­sic: Con­ver­sa­tions With Seiji Ozawa” by Haruki Mu­rakami was pub­lished by Al­fred A. Knopf last Novem­ber.

Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Mu­rakami; photo Nobuyoshi Araki

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