Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami
I came to this book as a fan of Murakami’s writing, as many of this site’s readers would. SFF readers may be disappointed to read that these conversations rarely touch on writing, let alone the imagined mirror worlds that give a haunting quality to his novels. Instead, they focus on Ozawa’s memories about his peers like fellow conductor Robert Mann or famous performers like Glenn Gould, of composers like Beethoven and Mahler, and of the day-to-day challenges of managing and educating orchestra. Murakami mostly plays the role of interviewer, selecting records to listen to and asking probing questions that he hopes will reveal the maestro’s methods and thoughts.
Sadly, as Murakami explains in the introduction, the context of these conversations was often difficult. Ozawa, for example, had time to discuss his celebrated career in part because he was recovering from treatments for esophageal cancer. One of their conversations takes place while both are in Hawaii, unable to return to Japan because of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The content of their conversations here, however, always remains focused on music, its role in their lives, and how it should be studied, produced, and internalized. Perhaps that focus in the face of daunting circumstances is what lends this book its charm.
For some reason, I often found myself attempting to figure out why I enjoyed Absolutely on Music. To be honest, I have little to no interest in classical music or symphony orchestras. I also found Ozawa’s answers were often nebulous, and by the end of the conversations, Murakami began to ask for a “concrete example.” When Ozawa admits that only due to his illness has he recently had time to closely listen to a recording of his performance, Murakami asks what the maestro learned. Ozawa replies, “Well, it was like looking at myself in the mirror. I could see every little detail with frightening clarity. You can do something like that when the sound of the live performance is still in your ears — or in the very tissue of your body.” That is as specific as Ozawa’s answers often get. I nevertheless enjoyed these exchanges. I sometimes wondered if the appeal of this conversation was sort of like that old political idea that the more appealing candidate is the one you’d rather have a beer with. I finished the book thinking that both Murakami and Ozawa would make for interesting drinking partners.
Music plays a significant role in many of Murakami’s books and readers can find playlists for this book (and others) at his website. Having said that, I have often found while reading his books that I rarely enjoy the music Murakami seems to especially love. I suppose we all have our own individual taste in music — and in books. Absolutely on Music is unlikely to please everyone, but I found it enjoyable in spite of my own ignorance about classical music and conducting orchestras. Recommended.