Haruki Murakami's book reveals more about the capacity of musical discussion than music

by Peter Walls / 08 February, 2017

Haruki Murakami: words and music.

Talking about music, even when the talkers are great, offers only limited rewards.

In this transcript of conversations, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, a music lover with a vast collection of recordings, puts on a disc (often vinyl) and begins talking about it with his ­compatriot, the conductor Seiji Ozawa. It’s like a DVD audio commentary, with the soundtrack reduced to subtitles:

The movement begins with a soft, tranquil solo.

OZAWA [as soon as the music begins]: Her sound is truly beautiful. She has such a great ear.

Soon the orchestra steals in (1:19).

MURAKAMI: This is the Royal ­Concertgebouw Orchestra.

OZAWA: That’s a fine hall, too.

They are discussing Mitsuko Uchida and Kurt Sanderling performing the slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The italicised commentary – though not the actual Murakami/Ozawa dialogue – grows more intense: “The piano’s incredibly subtle solo ends, and the orchestra glides in again. This is truly miraculous music-making. The two ­listeners groan simultaneously (5:42).”

But this is words without song. There is no accompanying CD or web-based audio companion of the kind that, for example, accompanies Alex Ross’ books, The Rest is Noise and Listen to This.

What is to be gained from these abstracted interchanges is consequently quite limited. We get a feel for Murakami’s aesthetic sense (one of five “Interludes” is devoted to “The Relationship of ­Writing to Music”) and we learn ­something about the way Ozawa approaches his craft. Ozawa tells Murakami how Brahms orchestrated a passage in the last ­movement of his first symphony so that it sounds as if the principal horn never has to take a breath. He also points out how many conductors and horn players ignore the composer’s intentions here.

Sometimes, though, Absolutely On Music floats just above celebrity gossip – something for which Ozawa’s illustrious career provides ample scope: as a young man, he was assistant conductor to both Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan – referred to throughout (revealingly, but without comment) as “Lenny” and “Maestro Karajan” respectively.

These conversations took place in 2010-11 when Ozawa was recovering from esophageal cancer and unable to conduct. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital ­Concert Hall is currently featuring an April 2016 concert ­conducted by a still rather unwell Ozawa and an interview with Daishin ­Kashimoto, the (Japanese) First ­Concertmaster of this ­illustrious ­orchestra. The ­concert is a ­palpable reminder of Ozawa’s ­extraordinarily sensitive musicianship and the interview brings to life the tact and modesty that inform the dialogues with Murakami. But this interview, like the ­dialogues themselves, suggest the ­incapacity of musical discussion to communicate much about music, absolutely.

ABSOLUTELY ON MUSIC: CONVERSATIONS WITH SEIJI OZAWA, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, $50)

Peter Walls is chief executive of Chamber Music New Zealand, emeritus professor of music at Victoria University and music director of Opus Orchestra and Nota Bene Choir.

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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