Books

Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa
Absolutely on Music

There’s a quote that has been attributed to every eloquent jerk in music from Frank Zappa to Thelonius Monk: that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

Absolutely on Music is a book comprising six conversations between acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa and the author Haruki Murakami, rendered as verbatim transcript, and littered with asides, observations and editorial notes from Murakami. It is a co-authored meeting of minds between the two men – Murakami takes the foreword, Ozawa the introduction. Few of Murakami’s strengths are on display, barring his unabashed love of music.  

There is perhaps no novelist more skilled at exploring loneliness and isolation, and this book might be his greatest achievement in doing so – although not, perhaps, intentionally. 

At one point, Ozawa spells out the book’s intention: “I don’t want to have these conversations be for record collectors”, but for “people who really love music”. The two men meet that goal a little too well – readers who are not passionate about classical music, and Ozawa’s work in particular, will likely find little to love here. Large tracts of the conversation are simply ping-ponging appreciation of particular musical scores. Every few pages, one must put down the book and reach for the headphones in order to follow along, which can be frustrating without having the particular and sometimes rare recordings at hand.

This important caveat aside, the conversation is – for ears that will appreciate it – wonderful. The two men, artistic giants in their fields, both somewhat iconoclastic in their embrace and appropriation of Western art and culture, have a way of teasing insights and observations about the classical canon from each other. There’s a nice riff on the way emotional nuances composed in one culture must be translated by musicians from another, the way Smetana has expressions that “speak” Czech, and Ravel’s work French. These gems, buried here and there in the banter, will be of great value to those devoted to classical music. 

As a whole, though, the idea does not translate entirely well to the page. The dialogue, from the highly idiosyncratic maestro in particular, is somewhat alienating in transcript. This is a book that explores the limits of talking about music, and in doing so falls short of what fans of Murakami’s intimate, incisive nonfiction might expect. This, then, is what Murakami and Ozawa talk about when they dance about architecture.  ZC

Harvill Secker, 352pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC