Music Meets Writing: On Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa

By Colin MarshallApril 10, 2017

Music Meets Writing: On Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa

Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami

HARUKI MURAKAMI’S 1Q84 opens in the middle of an unusually scored Tokyo traffic jam: “The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta — probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either.” His passenger, a young woman named Aomame, turns out to be not just a part-time assassin and one of the 928-page novel’s three main characters, but something of a classical music aficionado as well: “How many people could recognize Janáček’s Sinfonietta after hearing just the first few bars? Probably somewhere between ‘very few’ and ‘almost none.’ But for some reason, Aomame was one of the few who could.”

Not many pages later, Aomame has, at the driver’s suggestion, ditched the immobile cab in favor of an alternate route to her next victim: a set of emergency stairs built into the expressway that takes her not just to ground level but into an alternate reality. (“[P]lease remember,” the driver ominously cautions as she departs on foot, “things are not what they seem.”) Apart from the unrepresentative third-person omniscient narration, a device with which Murakami describes himself as uncomfortable, the scene, with its conspicuous reference to Western culture in an explicitly Japanese setting on one side of the boundary between this world and a mysterious other, neatly showcases some of the most often remarked-upon qualities of Murakami’s fiction.

The narration in Murakami’s earlier novels comes in the voice of protagonists something like himself, or his younger self: Japanese men in their 20s or 30s, individualist urbanites who enjoy cats, cooking, admiring women’s ears, pondering the depth of wells, quoting English-language novels and films, and listening to records. Though 1Q84 offers no obvious authorial surrogate, Aomame shares with Murakami the ability to know a Janáček — and to identify which Janáček — when she hears one. The Sinfonietta’s inclusion in a Murakami novel has ensured that many of the author’s countrymen now also know it when they hear it: world-famous Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa’s recording of the festive, elaborate, slightly maddening piece turned best seller in Japan not long after the book did.

“I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity,” writes Ozawa in the afterword to Murakami’s Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. Translated into English by Jay Rubin, who handled the first two-thirds of 1Q84 as well as three other Murakami novels — The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and After the Quake — the book delivers what its title promises, though its very existence may come as a surprise to Murakami’s many English-language readers. Aside from 2000’s Underground, an abridged and modified version of his sociological and philosophical meditation on the Aum Shinrikyo’s Tokyo subway terrorist attack, and 2008’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir about his solo sport of choice, they’ve heretofore got nothing from him but novels and short story collections.

By contrast, in Japanese (as well as in certain other Asian languages), the Murakami cup runneth over with essays, travel books, newspaper column anthologies, and several meditations on music, especially jazz. Introducing this collection of one-on-one talks with an elder countryman whom he has long admired and now considers a friend, Murakami describes jazz and classical as the twin poles of his listening life since adolescence. Lest that make him sound too musically austere, remember that the high-rotation artists he named in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running included the Lovin’ Spoonful. (And then there’s his admission, in an essay as yet unavailable in English, of enjoying Wham!) His mind is open, and in setting the tone for this book’s conversations he offers a quote from Duke Ellington: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.”

Ellington’s plainspoken declaration could have come from the mouth of one of Murakami’s characters, although the impulse to divide music into the good and the otherwise must also drive the forbiddingly worshipful attitudes surrounding both classical music and jazz. “One does not applaud in the midst of greatly great great music, even if the composer wants one to!” wrote The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, describing satirically but with barely any exaggeration the dispiriting experience of today’s first-time classical concertgoer. “Coughing, squirming, whispering, the crowd visibly suppresses its urge to express pleasure. It’s like mass anal retention.” Those Murakami readers who have found their interest sufficiently piqued by his frequent classical references to take in a performance themselves may, alas, be able to relate.

The sheer enthusiasm on display in Absolutely on Music, though, will inspire some of the discouraged to return to the concert hall. Murakami and Ozawa initially connected when both lived in Boston in the 1990s, and they had these conversations in 2010 and 2011 in places like Tokyo, Honolulu, and on the express train from Geneva to Paris, all in the aftermath of Ozawa’s bout with esophageal cancer. The treatments drained him of the energy required to conduct regularly but left him with enough to talk. “I could feel the depth and intensity of desire he brought to his work,” Murakami writes of both Ozawa’s words and his scant appearances at the podium in this period:

He was convinced of his own rightness and proud of what he was doing, but not in the least satisfied with it. I could see he knew he should be able to make the music even better, even deeper, and he was determined to make it happen even as he struggled with the constraints of time and his own physical strength.

In the book’s first half, Murakami and Ozawa mostly talk while listening to the musical selections pulled by the former from his famously vast record collection. “I can’t believe you have this,” says Ozawa when Murakami pulls out an obscure recording of one of Ozawa’s own concerts. “Even I don’t have a copy.” The conductor’s memories, no matter how hazy, tend to prompt immediate chapter-and-verse citations from the musicophile novelist. (“That was the 1981 Japan tour, wasn’t it? The tenor was Peter Dvorský.”) “It’s wonderful to think that Japan has produced such a marvelous pianist,” says Ozawa (after being described by the transcript as “[deeply moved]”) as he and Murakami listen to a performance by Mitsuko Uchida. “This is truly miraculous music making,” a note informs us. “The two listeners groan simultaneously.

The two listeners also discuss pieces by Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, and especially Mahler. “When I first started listening to Mahler, I used to wonder if he wasn’t just fundamentally mistaken about how to go about creating music,” says Murakami. “I sometimes feel that way even now. Why is he doing this in this part of the composition? But over the years, those very passages have gradually become a source of pleasure for me. There will always be a kind of catharsis at the end of the process, but in the meantime, I’m often at a total loss.” More than a few readers have no doubt said the same about Murakami’s novels, which, for all their persuasiveness and popularity, may put one off with their bizarre leaps of logic and sometimes clunky language. (1Q84’s “intimate but fully erotic all-night sex feasts,” for instance, comes all too easily to mind.)

Murakami’s writerly success can seem to have come as a natural chapter in a charmed life. After graduating college, he spent the 1970s running a jazz bar in Tokyo, only to receive the inexplicable epiphany at age the 29 that he could write a novel; it happened while he was watching an American baseball player hit a double during a Yakult Swallows game — an oft-told story, retold again in a book of essays on the writing life published in Japan last year. The manuscript he proceeded to compose at his kitchen table after closing the bar each night won a literary magazine’s prize for first-time novelists. Its successors did well in Japan throughout the 1980s, especially the uncharacteristically realistic and wistful Norwegian Wood, which became such a phenomenon that the pressure pushed him out of his homeland. He decided to try his hand in New York, where he quickly landed skilled translators, a high-powered agent and editor, and a relationship with The New Yorker that continues to this day.

Now, with his work published in 50 languages, Murakami enjoys a combination of commercial success and literary legitimacy, if not across-the-board acclaim, that any living novelist would envy. There are certain parallels with Ozawa’s life and career, right down to the hardships endured just before their inexorable-looking ascent. Murakami has written of how he and his wife once slept alongside their housecats to keep warm in the winter and had to pick up money from the street to pay their debts. The young Ozawa, unable to afford a record player, had to settle for reading scores instead. But essentially, as Murakami recounts Ozawa’s life back to him,

You left Japan, you went to a foreign country where you had no connections, and the next thing you knew, you were conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, putting your own musical world on display and captivating foreign audiences. How could someone young and unknown do something so amazing?

In response, Ozawa partially credits acts of “out-and-out favoritism.” The earliest of these came from the New York Philharmonic’s Leonard Bernstein (“Lenny” to him, and later in the book even to Murakami), whom he describes as “what you’d call a genius.” Murakami’s questioning jogs Ozawa’s memory of that era (even loosening, as Murakami notes, some anecdotes that “cannot be committed to print”), especially around the time of the older conductor’s infamous 1962 speech delivered before his performance of Brahms’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” with pianist Glenn Gould.

The conductor warns his audience of the “remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms’ dynamic indications” on which the pianist has insisted. “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?’” he asks in a disclaimer preserved and released on the concert recording. Why not “make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist or let an assistant conduct it?” In conversation with Murakami, Ozawa realizes in hindsight that, had Lenny chosen to let an assistant conduct, he would’ve been that assistant. The reader only casually familiar with classical music might get the impression that its historians count this incident as one of the most grievous breaches of personal and professional conduct in modern times, just as they might get the impression that its critics unanimously praise Ozawa as a once-in-a-generation talent in conducting. A glance into the archives of the classical press leads to the potentially jarring discovery that they don’t.

A regretful Ross observed in 1999 that Ozawa “continues to pilot the Boston Symphony toward mediocrity,” and when Ozawa stepped down as its music director, The Boston Phoenix’s Lloyd Schwartz asked, “Had he stayed longer with such lower-profile orchestras as the Toronto and San Francisco Symphonies, might he have put more effort into penetrating the music he performed rather than into creating an image?” Though Ozawa may have looked intense, “crouching and leaping during the most overtly emotional music,” Schwartz found that “these climactic moments seldom seem earned. I close my eyes and I don’t hear what I see Ozawa working so hard to project. I leave a concert wondering what it was all about […]” That complaint sounds similar to those lodged by Murakami’s detractors. (“I’m used to having my books trashed in print,” the author says, but unlike the booing Ozawa took in Italy, “if I don’t want to see bad reviews, I just don’t have to read them.”)

Criticisms of Ozawa, like those of Murakami, occasionally bring his Japanese origin into play; New York Magazine’s Peter G. Davis, for instance, once likened the conductor’s performance of Western music to a non-English-speaking actor’s performance of Shakespeare. Instead of referencing that sort of thing directly, the deferential Murakami instead raises questions about Japanese musicians in general:

I can’t help feeling that while they have a high overall level of technical mastery and can perform music that may be technically flawless, they rarely communicate a distinct worldview. They don’t seem to have a strong determination to create their own unique worlds and convey them to people with raw immediacy.

(An impairment possibly resulting from deeply entrenched Japanese social expectations and their sometimes disastrous results, which were previously indicted in Underground.)

“It’s true in just about any field in Japan,” Murakami laments, including the writers’ circles he declines to join:

People can’t do anything until they’ve gauged the opinions of the other people present. They look around, they absorb the atmosphere, and only then do they raise their hands and say something unobjectionable. That way, there’s no progress where it matters, and the status quo becomes set in stone.

And yet sometimes East meets West at just the right intersection. Ozawa makes explicit his belief that “a performance of Western music that also makes full use of Japanese sensibilities — assuming the performance itself is excellent — has its own raison d’être,” citing the stylistically distinctive Gould as the rare example of a Westerner who, consciously or unconsciously, possessed a few Japanese sensibilities of his own. “In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music — the importance of those pauses or empty spaces — but it’s there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he’s doing exactly the same thing.”

Ozawa’s memories of the jazz and blues clubs of 1960s Chicago prompt a similar reference to another concept, too little known in the West — the “austere simplicity and mastery” described with the Japanese word shibumi, connoting a kind of refined astringency: “Satchmo was like that.” It perhaps comes as no surprise that a series of conversations between two Japanese men known in their separate fields and in their distinct fashions as interpreters of Western material would return again and again to the sites where different traditions overlap. In a discussion of Mahler’s structural boundary-pushing and cosmopolitanism, Murakami draws a connection to John Coltrane’s tendency to edge “closer and closer to ‘free jazz,’ but basically he stayed within the bounds of a loose tonality […]” As a result, like the daring but not too daring works of Mahler, “people still listen to his music today — but ‘free jazz’ is little more than a historical footnote.”

Writing fiction and making music also come in for comparison throughout. The well-known and widely respected regimentation of Murakami’s work habits — up at four in the morning every day and straight to his desk for five or six hours of “sipping hot coffee and single-mindedly tapping away at the keyboard” — turns out to mirror that of Ozawa’s: “During those same hours of the day when Ozawa is concentrating on reading his scores, I am concentrating on my writing. What we are doing is entirely different, but I imagine we may well be the same when it comes to the depth of our concentration.” And ultimately, as Murakami puts it in a later analogy, “isn’t the orchestra the same thing for a conductor as literary style is for a novelist? It’s natural for a writer to want to perfect his style, so wouldn’t a conductor naturally want to work on improving his style?”

For Murakami, there are no fundamental differences between a writing style and a musical one. “[Y]ou can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music,” he insists. “The two sides complement each other: listening to music improves your style; by improving your style, you improve your ability to listen to music.” Both have a basis in rhythm — which in writing arises from “the combination of words, the combination of the sentences and paragraphs, the pairings of hard and soft, light and heavy, balance and imbalance, the punctuation, the combination of different tones” — and “[n]o one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm.” Just as the writer writes and the reader reads units of various length at once — the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, and other measurements more abstract — so does a musician. Ozawa passes along a piece of wisdom from Herbert von Karajan, his mentor in conducting before he caught Lenny’s eye: “He always told us that it was the job of the conductor to create long phrases. ‘Read what’s behind the score,’ he would say. ‘Don’t just read individual measures; read in longer units.’”

The final sections of Absolutely on Music, a book that has its own way of dividing up time, space, and theme, find Murakami on the banks of Lake Geneva for the eighth annual Seiji Ozawa International Academy. There, in a matter of days, Ozawa and other teachers (including the superannuated but pedagogically superhuman Juilliard Quartet violinist Robert Mann) transform a cohort of young, promising string players from all over the world into a set of respectably sensitive and cooperative quartets. Their final performance, like the double hit those decades ago, delivers to Murakami a kind of revelation: “There was still room for a deeper maturation. But it definitely had that sense of urgency that has to flow through all genuinely ‘good music.’” The students had managed, through sheer practice and awareness, to remove the last muffling “membrane” separating player from music, and thus music from audience. “Stripping off that last membrane can be a very difficult thing to do,” Murakami writes, citing his own attempts in various fields of endeavor. “But unless you manage to strip it off, a work of art has no — or almost no — meaning.”

This aspect of Murakami’s creative process is clearly reflected in his work itself, which is concerned to the point of obsession with what lies on either side of one membrane or another. “A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground,” wrote Sam Anderson in a New York Times profile around the time of 1Q84. “His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.” Now that Absolutely on Music has passed from Japanese into English, countless more Murakami fans (whether they already know Ozawa’s output or have as little familiarity with it as Ozawa himself shows with Murakami’s) can take pleasure in following a favorite writer as he crosses the membranes, with eagerness and occasional awkwardness, between Japan and the West, between classical and jazz, between prose and conversation, and between the written word and the conducted score.


Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes about cities and culture. He writes the LARB Korea Blog and is currently at work on the book A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.

LARB Contributor

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin's Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


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