Published by Knopf on November 15, 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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A deeply personal, intimate conversation about music and writing between the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author and his close friend, the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Haruki Murakami's passion for music runs deep. Before turning his hand to writing, he ran a jazz club in Tokyo, and from The Beatles' Norwegian Wood to Franz Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage, the aesthetic and emotional power of music permeates every one of his much-loved books. Now, in Absolutely on Music, Murakami fulfills a personal dream, sitting down with his friend, acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa, to talk, over a period of two years, about their shared interest. Transcribed from lengthy conversations about the nature of music and writing, here they discuss everything from Brahms to Beethoven, from Leonard Bernstein to Glenn Gould, from record collecting to pop-up orchestras, and much more. Ultimately this book gives readers an unprecedented glimpse into the minds of the two maestros. It is essential reading for book and music lovers everywhere.
Absolutely on Music is a transcription of Haruki Murakami’s conversations with his friend, the world-renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa. Murakami calls himself an amateur when it comes to the world of music, but honestly, he truly holds his own in these conversations.
They open by listening to and critiquing recordings of major orchestral works. I worry that this might turn off some readers who lack a musical background but otherwise love music. These sections might take a bit of “study” rather than casual reading, but they’re still accessible. It helps to listen to the performances while reading. [Here’s a YouTube playlist I made that goes along with their conversation.]
I loved hearing Ozawa speak about how his conducting changed throughout his career. Listening to recordings from different points in time, side by side, was very revealing, even to him. I also enjoyed hearing about his time working under Leonard Bernstein. Ozawa is humble, but not overly so; he knows he’s a master. His reminiscences are a wonderful balance between the delightful, the profound, and the nitty-gritty inner workings of musical life. There is insightful commentary about being Japanese in the classical music world, especially how Easterners have a unique perspective when it comes to Western music.
A little bit of chauvinism does creeps through. When commenting on a female pianist’s playing: “Such a clean touch! Decisive, assertive.” / “Like a man’s.” I don’t know if this speaks more to the fact that this conversation is between two older Japanese men, or if it’s a reflection of attitudes toward successful women in classical music. Probably a bit of both. But there it is.
The entire section on Mahler was fantastic! They talked about how Mahler’s music became popular, and why it became popular so long after his death. Ozawa and Murakami’s discussion put Mahler in the context of his time, with the “breakdown of traditional German music,” as well as art (Klimt, for example), and even literature (Kafka).
As much as we musicians like to joke that a conductor has the easiest gig (all they do is wave their arms around!), Ozawa and Murakami’s conversations really help the reader understand how crucial the role of the conductor is, and how much the conductor affects an orchestra’s performance. I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversations via this book.