Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)
The “Conversations” in this book’s title took place over a period of several months in 2010–11, in locations around the world, beginning with novelist Haruki Murakami’s home near Tokyo and culminating in the Swiss town of Rolle, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where Seiji Ozawa was presiding over a summer academy for young musicians. As Murakami explains in his introduction, the seventy-five-year-old conductor was recovering from cancer of the esophagus and, approached by the admiring author, was glad to devote his time on the sidelines to a series of interviews about a career that by then had already spanned nearly fifty years.
The “Conversations” label also tips us off to the informal nature of the proceedings. These are casual sessions, initiated by Murakami’s gentle questioning and, almost as often, by recordings he plays as a means of prompting the maestro. The first section sees the pair working their way through multiple renditions of Beethoven’s third piano concerto, with Murakami proving himself such a keen listener—eager to discuss differences in tempo between, for instance, Rudolf Serkin and Glenn Gould—that you can almost believe he’s single-handedly responsible for Japan’s status as the world’s largest consumer per capita of classical music CDs. (In a 2011 New York Times profile, Murakami told Sam Anderson he estimated his record collection at somewhere around 10,000 LPs, but was “afraid to count.”)
One advance review called Absolutely on Music “High Fidelity for classical music fans,” and there were times when, reading these two savants parse minute differences among multiple versions of the same piece, I felt as if I’d crashed the highbrow nerdfest of my dreams. Parenthetical asides about tea and rice crackers only add to the homey atmosphere, and a charming fanboy moment arises when the two men listen in rapt attention to the playing of their great compatriot, pianist Mitsuko Uchida—“like an ink painting in space,” Murakami says of one of her solos. (An ovation is due to Jay Rubin’s translation, which renders all the highfalutin music talk and the easygoing tone of Murakami-san and Ozawa-san’s exchanges with equal transparency.)
Aficionados will also appreciate Ozawa’s reminiscences of two mentors, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, and of the differences in their approaches: Bernstein prizing expressivity above finesse, von Karajan the taskmaster intent on discipline. Amusingly, a digression meant to illustrate the extent of Gould’s eccentricity meets with a deadpan Murakami interjection: “Unfortunately… the anecdotes revealed at this point cannot be committed to print.”
The conversations offer more substantial rewards as well. First, there is the fly-on-the-wall fascination of eavesdropping on two super-cultivated, intellectually curious East Asians as they toss around ideas about Western high culture. For both men, getting a sense of place was key to their understanding of the tradition. Ozawa’s first encounters with Klimt and Schiele paintings in Viennese museums gave him more of a handle on the fin de siècle, while for Murakami a Mahler epiphany arrived when he drove around the Bohemian countryside (now part of the Czech Republic), where the composer was born.
Elsewhere, Ozawa reaches sage-like gravitas when he talks about his commitment to the written score (which he prefers to conduct from memory) and the almost Talmudic discipline needed, even after decades of close study, for a proper understanding of a composer’s intentions. His reflections on teaching, and the need to hand down a legacy to the next generation, glow with an equivalent sense of dedication.
I was conscious of one missed opportunity in these pages. Ozawa made important early recordings of Messiaen and Takemitsu in the late ’60s, but we don’t hear anything from him about where music has gone since then, where it might be headed, or what can be done to keep the classical tradition alive in a time of aging audiences and ever-increasing electronic distraction. By contrast, in his 1989 interview with Jonathan Cott, Bernstein recognized that changes in strategy were going to be crucial to the music’s survival. Ozawa’s mop-top, turtlenecks, and Jiminy Cricket podium presence made him a seemingly with-it public TV icon during his ’70s prime with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but no one should pretend a mainstream platform like that is ever coming back for classical music.
Sadly, perhaps inevitably, a valedictory air hangs over this book. More health concerns forced Ozawa to cancel a planned engagement at Tanglewood last summer, and given that he’s now eighty-one, it may be time to acknowledge the twilight phase of a long career. Consensus opinion is that his tenure with the BSO (1973–2002) lasted longer than was healthy for either party, and Ozawa almost seems to nod to some of his critics when, reassessing one of his later BSO recordings with Murakami, he concedes, “The Boston Symphony Orchestra may have a tendency to make sounds that are too nice”—an admission that begs the question of who let the orchestra’s sound get that way.
I came along too late to be able to have a firsthand opinion on those issues. But with regard to Ozawa’s vast discography (over 200 albums) I can single out with gratitude a pair of blockbusters—Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and a brain-rattling Technicolor rendition of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. The Berlioz is just one instance of his notable feel for French music, which makes it all the more satisfying that after battling his way back from cancer the maestro won a Grammy in 2015 for a recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Another keeper: a DVD of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, so potent as to suggest any full reckoning of Ozawa’s achievements will have to take his later work with that ensemble into account.
For all that, the real value of Absolutely on Music is that it amounts to a dual portrait. We learn as much about the music-lover asking the questions as the music-maker who answers them. It’s difficult to think of a contemporary fiction writer aside from Murakami whose work so consistently reveals his devotion to an art form other than the one he’s practicing; as Patti Smith (who has some authority in this area) recently said of him, “Hardly a soul writes of the listening and playing of music with such insight and tenderness.”
Music is key to the inimitable texture—the fun—of Murakami’s fictional universe. In his Tokyo, every third person demonstrates an offhand mastery of the Western classical canon, and they’re nearly as familiar with jazz and pop. On the face of it, this should be as preposterous as the talking animals and underground cities his characters run up against, but Murakami’s smooth, unshowy prose and confident storytelling mean all of these tropes contribute to the absorbing parallel realities he constructs in book after book.
Music mania also lends depth to those protagonists. Toru Okada, the narrator of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is the exemplar: passive and retiring by nature, he can’t quite fathom why he lost his wife even as her reasons for leaving are maddeningly obvious to us. But Toru’s fondness for music serves as a tip-off. It marks him as a hero of sensibility before he becomes one in action, setting off on his redemptive quest for the woman who may be too good for him. At a nerve-racking juncture near the end of the story, when body and spirit are equally in peril, Toru actually stops to ponder the differences between the Arturo Toscanini and Claudio Abbado versions of Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie. I love this moment because at the same time that it pokes fun at Toru’s geekiness, it suggests his classical fixation helps him keep things together at a time of maximum danger. In South of the Border, West of the Sun, meanwhile, we know from the get-go that the unreal, unattainable love object Shimamoto belongs to a higher order of being because of the care she takes with vinyl LPs as a little girl. “It wasn’t a record she was handling,” Murakami writes. “It was a fragile soul inside a glass bottle.”
A late work, 2013’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, extends the symbiosis between music and literature, or maybe I mean music and life, even further. Franz Lizst’s piano cycle “Years of Pilgrimage” plays such a central role in the narrative that the book should practically come with a CD or download card to complete the connection. For Tsukuru, the piece evokes feelings for which terms like nostalgia and homesickness are barely adequate, and becomes a soundtrack for his attempts to reconcile himself to the facts of his past. Ambiguous, unresolved, haunted by a sense of loss that will never find a resolution, the novel builds toward an awareness that “[s]ome things in life are too complicated to explain in any language”—with Lizst’s composition able to express what words no longer can.
Murakami fans who don’t share his obsession with classical music may well find these chats with Ozawa too esoteric for enjoyment. But they’ll pass up Absolutely on Music at the cost of missing a crucial insight into the sources of this maestro’s creativity. By which I want to suggest that in a career marked by spectacular powers of invention, which is now going on forty years, Murakami’s ongoing immersion in Beethoven, Mahler, and all the rest contributes in no small way to the fecundity of his imagination. An intense engagement with music, the kind of deep listening Murakami shows himself to be a practitioner of, is a passage through the night mind, a journey into inner space. It’s not a stretch to believe that these forays allow Murakami not only to tap but also replenish “the springs of the unconscious” that he refers to here—unmistakably to his, and our, benefit, across thousands of pages.