A deeply personal, intimate conversation about music and writing between the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author and the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In Absolutely on Music, internationally Haruki Murakami sits down with his friend Seiji Ozawa, the revered former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for a series of conversations on their shared passion: music. Over the course of two years, Murakami and Ozawa discuss everything from Brahms to Beethoven, from Leonard Bernstein to Glenn Gould, from Bartók to Mahler, and from pop-up orchestras to opera. They listen to and dissect recordings of some of their favorite performances, and Murakami questions Ozawa about his career conducting orchestras around the world. Culminating in Murakami's ten-day visit to the banks of Lake Geneva to observe Ozawa's retreat for young musicians, the book is interspersed with ruminations on record collecting, jazz clubs, orchestra halls, film scores, and much more. A deep reflection on the essential nature of both music and writing, Absolutely on Music is an unprecedented glimpse into the minds of two maestros.
Murakami: Maestro Karajan was very fond of the Sibelius Fifth, wasn't he? I think he must have recorded it four times.
Ozawa studied with Leonard Bernstein, so we learn a lot about him (very positive, I must say). I've always wondered about the role of conductors, and you really get to look behind the curtain. Ozawa emphasizes the importance of "how you wave your baton during rehearsals", and the two discuss the effect of different famous conductor approaches on what the audience ends up hearing.
So many of the pieces they discuss sound like fine dining, and I ended up starting a wishlist. I had no idea that Mahler had not been popular before Bernstein championed his music. Now we hear Mahler everywhere, but that wasn't the case before. Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, and on and on; they discuss them all.
Murakami uses his writing skills, comparing, for example, two Mahler pieces conducted by Ozawa. One is “like making a leisurely tour in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz”, while the other is “like zipping around in a sports car with a nice stick shift”. Murakami also talks about his own writing at times, emphasizing the importance of rhythm to any good piece of writing.
I'm a jazz lover, so that's how I set down a rhythm first. Then I add chords to it and start improvising, making it up freely as I go along. I write as if I'm making music.
There's no mistaking Ozawa's enjoyment of Murakami's enthusiasm and insight when it comes to music. Ozawa ends up agreeing with him the vast majority of the time. “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine,” he says to Murakami. “It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.”
Like Murakami with music, Ozawa looks outside of music for inspiration. He's an art museum fan and, for example, feels that Klimt's and Schiele's paintings helped him understand Mahler's music. Ozawa's experience as a rising star in the music industry is fascinating. At Milan's La Scala he gets roundly booed, but it turns out every conductor does when starting out there. Tough crowd! By the end of the week the booing is gone.
There is a lot of technical detail about tempo, breathing, the use of silence, and so on, which may bog down some readers. But the enthusiasm and knowledge and experience shines through. I really enjoyed this one.
There was some neat trivia about Ozawa's working as assistant conductor to legendary conductors Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. Nothing gossipy or trashy, just respectful and/or humorous anecdotes and observations. Teasingly, Ozawa starts talking about a visit to pianist Glenn Gould's apartment in Toronto while he worked there conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. There are likely few surprises to be told about the eccentric bohemian Gould, but Murakami still refrains from providing details of the evening, presumably on Ozawa's request to preserve Gould's privacy even all these years after the fact.
If you use Spotify, Murakami's website has some very specific links to some of the pieces of music discussed in the book. Otherwise youtube is probably your best friend
Read and listen and take away from this what you can. I got a sense that I never had before of how a conductor perceives music. The music under discussion in the book is primarily German music ... Beethoven, Brahms, and especially Mahler, and I much prefer French, Scandinavian (Grieg, Sibelius) and other classical music. That point alone made this a little less interesting to me, although they do have a discussion on the fourth movement of Symphonie fantastique by French romantic composer Berlioz. I perked up a bit for that. However, most of the music discussions become rather tedious and a little repetitive. As I said, I thought I would enjoy this much more than I did.
Will need to reread with the recordings at hand- I read the bulk of this at work, where we had a sudden crackdown on using work computers to stream media :(