Absolutely On Music review: Exploring the symphony of friendship

Haruki Murakami focuses on conversations with venerable conductor Seiji Ozawa

 Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Sat, Dec 24, 2016, 06:00


Book Title:
Absolutely On Music


Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa Trans. Jay Rubin

Harvill Secker

Guideline Price:

One of the advantages of being an author as marketable as Haruki Murakami is that anything you set your sights on can be turned into a book: the publishers will gladly run with it, confident it will fly off the shelves the world over. Murakami has attracted possibly more readers than any other living literary novelist through his oneiric, compulsive, at times somewhat bloodless fictions.

Now comes his third foray into non-fiction, following books on his devotion to long-distance running, and the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. A collaborative effort, Absolutely On Music consists of transcribed conversations between Murakami and his friend, the venerable conductor Seiji Ozawa, who served as musical director of numerous major orchestras, including three decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The six core conversations took place between winter 2010 and summer 2011, and are supplemented by several diverting “interludes”, and an account of a visit to Ozawa’s music academy at a Swiss lakeside town.


Anyone familiar with the Murakami phenomenon will be aware that music is an abiding passion of the Japanese writer’s life: jazz, classical, rock and pop.

His fiction is peppered with musical references (the hugely successful Norwegian Wood took its title from the Beatles song, while his recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage drew inspiration from a Franz Liszt suite).

In his introduction to Absolutely On Music, Murakami sets up the dialogues as an encounter between layman enthusiast and ailing maestro: then a septuagenarian, Ozawa had time to talk music while recuperating after surgery for cancer of the oesophagus.

Murakami is not a profound thinker.

His memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was an easy-paced jog through a terrain of mundane remarks relieved by glimpses of deeper insight.

Yet, there Murakami proved good company: you were happy enough to trot along with him, this writer so relaxed about the prohibition on cliché and banal utterance felt by prose writers in English since the reign of Martin Amis.

Absolutely On Music likewise won’t satisfy those hoping for the lightning flash of brilliant ideas.

A sample – having given the matter some consideration, Murakami ventures a communality between music and prose: it’s all about rhythm!

Nonetheless, the author’s mild, modest and enthusiastic presence again instils an agreeable tonality.

Moreover, despite his typically scrupulous protestations of dilettantism, Murakami is a surprisingly subtle appreciator of the music under discussion here, which includes Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Strauss.

Indeed, even Maestro Ozawa is occasionally startled by his knowledge of performances, works and recordings, not to mention his vast and gem-speckled record collection.

Spinning anecdotes

Ozawa himself, on the other hand, turns out to be more the intuitive, instinctual type, better at spinning anecdotes from his decades conducting the world’s great orchestras than analysing the music he has lived so long inside.

“You know,” he admits, “it’s gradually begun to dawn on me that I’m not the kind of person who thinks about things this way.”

Often he is happy to sit back and agree with Murakami’s interpretations: “That’s true”; “Indeed”; “I do”, he assents.

Ozawa’s former mentors – such colossi of conducting as Leonard Bernstein and Herbert Von Karajan – appear throughout the conversations, ushering Ozawa through the hallways of memory, recalling years of impecunious passion as an assistant conductor in New York, poring over scores in his basement bedsit.

Some of the conversations are based around particular works, among them Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 and Brahms’ Symphony No.1.

Everyone knows that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and it is quite pointless to read these sections without simultaneously listening to the performances, but fruitful when you do (fortunately, many of the recordings can be found online).

A discussion of the eclectic third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 is particularly illuminating.

There is too much detail on Ozawa’s career; general readers won’t be fascinated by the specifics of his transfers between this orchestra and that.

A brief digression on jazz and blues is tantalising – a full book exploring Murakami’s love for jazz would be welcome.

Weird lyricism

It is the warmth of the converse between the two men that animates these dialogues, with some of the liveliest moments being those of shared appreciation for particular performers and passages – for instance, the white-hot virtuosity of Glenn Gould, and the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who induces both listeners to “groan simultaneously” (Murakami’s notes accompanying the transcriptions occasionally veer into weird lyricism: “The clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest”).

Those who, like me, have never had more than a vague understanding of what it is that the conductor does with an orchestra will come away only partially enlightened.

Sporadically useful for providing a deepening understanding of music, this book’s real value is in how it documents a friendship enlivened by a profound and rapturous passion.

Rob Doyle’s most recent book, This Is The Ritual, is published by Bloomsbury