What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

By Michael Landes, Staff Writer

Haruki Murakami may be the most widely-known Japanese author in the world today. His novels regularly appear on tables in the NYU Bookstore and on the shelves of students of all stripes and schools, but his new book “Absolutely on Music” departs from his typical fantastical fiction style. Essentially a series of interviews with conductor Seiji Ozawa, the book delights in the recondite knowledge that the two men share about classical music. Though it may not satisfy those hungry for another classic Murakami novel, the book ultimately provides a penetrating look into the work of a conductor for those in love with literature and music.

Very few passages depart from the interviews at hand, and those that do typically cleave to the circumstances surrounding the interviews. Still, a plot is still discernible in the book: that of two men whose relationship deepens as they discuss art. Large sections of the book focus closely on the records that they listen to together, with departures mostly exploring Ozawa’s relationships to the musicians, conductors and music to which they listen.

Despite the interview format, Murakami hews to very few norms in his transcripts. He editorializes in charming notes to the reader, and leaves in bits of dialogue about their other actions (their frequent breaks for tea is one of the best examples). The irony of reading transcripts of interviews about music is constantly present as well, when Ozawa explains musical concepts to Murakami by singing a melody, copied down as “taa-ra-yaa-taa.” These small details allow the reader who is not listening along to remain entertained and even enchanted by the passion with which these two men discuss their love of music.

The two quickly gain familiarity with each other, and as the book progresses, less time is spent on the specifics of Murakami’s record collection and more time is spent discussing Ozawa’s memories with Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan and Hideo Saito. The themes of the book are not as fully teased-out as they would be in a fiction or nonfiction work, but they are still clear and present, particularly in the motivation for the interview series: Ozawa’s bout with esophageal cancer, which sparked a desire in Murakami and Ozawa’s family members to record some of his knowledge.

Death, though never explicitly discussed in the abstract, is ever-present as both men note many deceased colleagues of Ozawa and as they discuss his own maturation as an artist. Fittingly, the book concludes with an interview that took place on a train as Murakami traveled with Ozawa and his students to a concert they were performing in Paris.

Without any music playing in the background, they discuss education almost exclusively. Ozawa explains that he only threw himself into it when his old mentor, Hideo Saito, passed away; memorialized by the Saito Kinen Orchestra, Murakami suggests that a similar orchestra could be made out of Ozawa’s students. This cycle mirrors the eternal love of music that Murakami admires so much in Ozawa; he imagines a lasting growth of knowledge from a legendary maestro even after he is gone.

The book undoubtedly suits music fans best, a comment Ozawa makes explicitly at one point, but there is a wealth to be gained for non-musicians as well. For Murakami’s die-hard fans, it may not be the novel you were waiting for, but it provides a beautiful insight into music from two brilliant minds.

Email Michael Landes at books@nyunews.com.

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