Book Review: Haruki Murakami's Conversations with Seiji Ozawa in 'Absolutely on Music'

Jan 23, 2017

There are perhaps no two men more qualified to talk about their pursuit of music and literature than Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa. So when I discovered that the two had sat down at various intervals over the course of a few years to discuss music and transcribe their conversations, I knew I had to read Absolutely on Music.

"I believe that music exists to make people happy. In order to do so, those who make music use a wide range of techniques and methods which, in all their complexity, fascinate me in the simplest way."

-Murakami, Absolutely on Music, pg. 10

I must confess, this book was one of the most precious Christmas gifts I have ever received. Most of my friends and family know how much I love Haruki Murakami's novels, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase, but there is no way my mother-in-law could have guessed my deep affinity for conductor Seiji Ozawa.

As a young girl, I was fond of the PBS concert broadcasts in which this mysterious, ageless conductor with wild hair and wings for arms would lead his orchestra in a dazzling display I only barely understood.

It was enthralling. His physical language was some alien cross between a dancer and a history professor. I fully expected him to fly at some point during Beethoven's Fifth. I often tried to imitate his movements in the hopes of lift-off.

So what would a conversation between these two artistic icons yield? Would their egos or mastery of their subjects create unfortunate walls of obfuscation? 

Quite the opposite. 

"What I was searching for— with increasing clarity as the sessions progressed— was something akin to the heart's natural resonance. What I did my best to hear, of course, was that resonance coming from Ozawa's heart ... through a kind of sympathetic vibration that occurred during all of these conversations, I may have been simultaneously discovering Seiji Ozawa and, bit by bit, Haruki Murakami."

-Murakami, Absolutely on Music, pg. 14

Whether you are a musician with a master's degree in theory, a blossoming author or a layman in both subjects, this book is understandable, fresh and deeply rewarding. It's humble. It's the outcome of two respectful men coming together to unwind what they see and experience and appreciate one another's opinions and expertise. They seamlessly arbitrate music and literature as if mending a garment unfairly rent.

Murakami's website even features a playlist so readers can listen along with the book to gain insight into the music the two men discuss. It's as if you are in the room with them.

The historical moments that Ozawa recalls and Murakami lays out in precious detail are mesmerizing. Ozawa's recollection of Leonard Bernstein's presentation of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with Glenn Gould nearly brought me to tears with its tone of emphatic patience and empathy. 

" 'I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception, and this raises the interesting question: 'What am I doing conducting it?' [Audience murmurs] I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.' "

-Murakami, Absolutely on Music, quoting Leonard Bernstein's pre-concert speech

What a different world there once was, wherein famous artists and cultural icons held each other up first as humans and equals even when their opinions differed. 

What a glorious place to experience on the page.

Book cover, in full
Credit Google Books