Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa
By Haruki Murakami
A review by Bethany Tillerson

Haruki Murakami is the famous Japanese author of worldwide bestsellers such as Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. Classical music is a favorite of his, and it comes up so often in his books that his website includes playlists containing the music mentioned in each. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is casual friends with the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, and from 2010 through 2011 he recorded a few of their discussions about music, which he then compiled into the book Absolutely On Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa.

The book introduces the reader to various events in Seiji Ozawa’s admirably lengthy career (he’s served as the conductor of the Vienna State Opera and the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Toronto and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras). Murakami manages to consolidate their conversations into easily-followed discussions. This is not a long book—even including the foreword (by Murakami) and the afterword (by Ozawa), it still totals less than three hundred pages, and since most of it is in the style of a script with only a few narrative sections and explanatory notes, it doesn’t take long to read.

Given its short length, the amount of information and experiences packed into its 293 pages is incredible. Ozawa speaks about his career as one of the most successful conductors of the mid-20th century, as well as his deep-running appreciation for music along with the people who honed that appreciation into a talent for conducting.

Readers have the opportunity to learn a lot about what Ozawa has to say regarding his role. For instance, “The more information a composer supplies,” he tells Murakami, “the more each conductor has to agonize over how to put all of that information together—over how to balance the various pieces together.” What he offers is not necessarily advice, but insight into how a conductor must think, how important the act of interpreting (and, more than that, understanding) the music actually is. “When I study a piece of music, I concentrate fairly deeply on the score…I just think about the music itself,” he says. “I guess I could say that I depend entirely on what comes between me and the music.”

He talks with Murakami at length about his experience as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor (one of three in the 1960s), his days of scraping by as he pursued a career in music, and working with pianists such as Glenn Gould and conductors like Herbert von Karajan. It’s easy to get a sense of the orchestra world as it existed in the late 20th century by reading his stories of interviewing for his position as Bernstein’s assistant seated at a bar piano, spending every free moment he had studying music in New York City, and racing for the best recording halls.

The author, by his own admission, is a casual listener of classical music, but he’s insightful and a quick learner throughout these conversations. Murakami has deep and intriguing questions to ask Ozawa, and the love of music that they share seems enough to fuel their conversations. Despite his lack of technical skills, Murakami has a wide-ranging intellectual knowledge about various orchestras, musicians, and conductors, as well as the development of music through the 20th century. For instance, he is able to have a genuinely interesting conversation with Ozawa about the complexities of Mahler’s music and the way performances have changed across the decades, and how recording equipment has impacted the way orchestras tend to record now as opposed to the past.

Sprinkled throughout are interludes, usually branching out from classical music to look at more abstract concepts: Western jazz and its related Japanese enka (a type of Japanese song that uses similar chord progressions combined with a vocal technique similar to vibrato), Ozawa’s Swiss summer music school, and Murakami’s thoughts on the similarities between music and writing. These are valuable additions that expand the reader’s understanding of Ozawa and his experiences as a Japanese man conducting Western music. It’s nice to hear Murakami’s own opinions come through, too, as he relates his own experiences as a solitary writer to Ozawa’s much more social job.

Ozawa’s ability to explain the technical parts of conducting to a layperson such as Murakami (and a potential reader) is admirable; it shows a real talent for educating, and, perhaps more importantly, shows just how well he understands music. He makes abstract terms and ideas concrete–for instance, when speaking of the timpani in Mahler’s Titan, he describes it as “keeping up the sound of a heartbeat…and just as the heartbeat won’t wait for anyone, so the timpani won’t wait…” Even without following along with the pieces that the two are listening to, the reader is able to comprehend what is happening and how it affects an interpretation of the recording. Ozawa explains the complexities of a Mahler score in the same way someone might explain a complicated recipe, going through the various steps taken to understand and interpret and, finally, perform it.

Still, this book is best read with music accompanying the book, paying attention to the same details of the recordings and picking up differences and similarities, coming to your own conclusions just as Murakami and Ozawa come to theirs.

The conversations are not always linear–they follow threads of thought, wrap back on themselves, and string in other composers or musicians, just like all casual conversations do. It’s clear that these were not scripted, but were instead an outpouring of genuine affection and love for classical music. They are natural and friendly, offering the reader a glimpse of a friendship deepened by mutual respect for the other’s field. The musings on music are at times broken by a comment on the tea they’re drinking, or the food they’re eating, and the effect is one of a relaxing day spent with a friend.

The reader feels almost as if they are in the room with them, listening to music, and learning a bit more about it as a famed conductor relates his experiences leading some of the best orchestras in the world.