Murakami: Absolutely on Music

murakami-ozawa-absolutely-on-music-coverAbsolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa
Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 325 pages

Haruki Murakami is, of course, the world-famous Japanese author of books like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, as well as short stories and non-fiction books like Underground (which I’ve written about at this blog). As anyone who has read Murakami’s novels will know, he is an enthusiastic music fan with catholic tastes. Classical music has had a central role in several of his novels – for instance, Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84, and Franz Liszt’s piano travelogue Années de pèlerinage in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami admits to having little formal background or training in music. But he is obviously a serious and sophisticated listener with excellent taste and a great ear.

Murakami had known conductor Seiji Ozawa in passing for many years. Ozawa served as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for twenty-nine years, and held the same position with the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Vienna State Opera, as well as at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. While he lived in Boston from 1993 to 1995, Murakami went to many Boston Symphony concerts at which Ozawa conducted. He went on to attend many Ozawa performances around the world. Sharing a similar doggedness, conviction, and enthusiasm about their respective areas of expertise, Murakami writes, “I had never encountered anyone before Seiji Ozawa with whom I found it so easy and natural to identify.”

In 2009, when Ozawa developed esophageal cancer and had to take a break from musical activities, he and Murakami decided to formalize their musical conversations and turn them into the present book. “My only purpose in this book was for me, as a music lover, to have a discussion of music with the musician Seiji Ozawa that was as open and honest as possible. I simply wanted to bring out the ways that each of us (though on vastly different levels) is dedicated to music.” Their conversations took place from November 2010 to July 2011 in Tokyo, Honolulu, and Switzerland. They not only talked, but listened to recordings (handily, timing cues are included for the recordings they listened to, so readers can follow along, and Murakami’s official website includes a Spotify playlist of the recordings).

They begin by listening to the famous 1962 live performance by Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, which was preceded by a spoken disclaimer by Bernstein commenting on the unusually slow interpretation that was to follow. Ozawa, as Bernstein’s assistant back then, was present at that performance, and actually has many nice things to say about it. Ozawa talks about the way Gould phrases music, and relates it to Japanese music: “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.”

At the end of a session in which they listen to some or all of several performances of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, they move to the recording by pianist Mitsuko Uchida, whose music making both of them love. Murakami’s comments about the recording show this: “truly miraculous music making … The two listeners groan simultaneously … Beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space … A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself.”

Ozawa reminisces about his two and a half years as one of Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductors. It was hard, ill-paying work, as Ozawa had to be prepared to conduct all of the music Bernstein was to lead, in case illness or something kept Bernstein from appearing. This forced Ozawa to do a lot of reading of scores, and he found that he liked it, getting into the habit of spending a few hours early every morning at the task.

Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami

Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami

During that time, Ozawa also began his extensive recording career, conducting everything from Bartók and Honegger to Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Once he became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, he recorded big pieces like Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. Many, many more recordings followed with the Chicago, London, and, especially, Boston Symphonies. Comparing three Ozawa performances of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, Murakami perceptively opines that in the earliest one with the Toronto Symphony, from 1966, “the music leaps and dances on the palms of your hands.” In the recording from seven years later with the Boston Symphony, “it feels as though you’re cupping your hands, embracing the music, carefully letting it ripen.” And in a much later one from 2007 with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, “you’re unfolding your hands a little, letting the air in, free it up.”

Gustav Mahler is a major topic of their talks. It happens that Ozawa’s period as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant coincided with Bernstein’s exploration of the music of Mahler, which, as the book reminds us, wasn’t at all popular or well-known prior to Bruno Walter’s early stereo recordings of a few of the works, and then Bernstein’s from just slightly later. Bernstein became engrossed with Mahler’s music during that time – “feverishly grappling” with it, in Ozawa’s words. At first, Ozawa had become aware of Mahler through the study of scores. “It was a huge shock for me – until then I never even knew music like that existed … I was amazed that there was someone who knew how to use an orchestra so well. It was extreme – his marvelous ability to put every component of the orchestra to use. And from the orchestra’s point of view, the Mahler symphonies are the most challenging pieces ever.”

Murakami ably summarizes part of the uniqueness of Mahler’s music: it is “filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without any logical connection, and sometimes even in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, fin-de-siècle overripeness, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldviews – a huge variety of stuff, no single one of which you can place at the center of things.”

Along with their conversations, Murakami attended the eighth annual Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, a seminar for younger string players held from June 27 to July 6, 2011 in the town of Rolle, on the banks of Lake Geneva. The players, who go through an audition process to take part in the Academy, form string quartets and play in an orchestra. As they rehearse and present concerts, they also receive instruction and guidance from famous string players, including longtime Juilliard Quartet violinist Robert Mann. Murakami wondered at how rough the young musicians could sound in early rehearsals, and by contrast how polished they’d sound at the actual performances several days later – it was “like a mysterious rising of the air” as their performances came together. Even as Ozawa’s health problems continued, Murakami marveled at his dedication to his academy. “To hand genuine ‘good music’ on to the next generation; to convey that intense feeling; to stir the hearts of young musicians in such a pure and fundamental manner: these surely gave him a joy that was fully as profound as that to be gained from conducting such world-class orchestras as the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.”

One gets lovely flashes of Murakami’s affectionate attention to music throughout this book. For instance, he remarks of a section from the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms, “Brahms uses the horns with great skill, as if calling the audience deep into a German forest. The sound carries with it an important part of Brahms’s internal spiritual world.” He and Ozawa discuss intricacies that most ordinary listeners, including Murakami himself, aren’t aware of. For instance, there is a passage in that same Brahms symphony where two horns, then two flutes, play alternating phrases that slightly overlap, so that there is no audible breath to break the phrase. Brahms deliberately wrote it that way, but all we normal listeners hear is a long phrase of music.

The insider anecdotes are many. For instance, Ozawa describes something I had never heard of before, the “shower.” When a conductor who has received some bad reviews comes out to take a second bow after a subsequent performance, “the musicians all make random noises with their instruments – the trumpets, the strings, the trombones, the timpani all together make one big fwaaan or gaaaan sort of noise …this was kind of like the orchestra’s musical protest to the critical reviews.”

These informal, accessible talks between the author and conductor are a delight, especially for music and Murakami fans. Even those new to classical music can learn much from these conversations, as Murakami, a musically enthusiastic layman with a gift for description and evocative metaphors, meets Ozawa, with the deep knowledge gained from a career spanning more than six decades. Buy yourself a copy of the book, fire up YouTube or Spotify, and prepare for some entertaining musical adventures.

Pirandello

“I would love to spend all my time writing to you; I’d love to share with you all that goes through my mind, all that weighs on my heart, all that gives air to my soul; phantoms of art, dreams that would be so beautiful if they could come true.”
– Luigi Pirandello

Moritz von Schwind: The Hunter’s Funeral

For the last couple of days, I have been writing program notes for an upcoming concert by the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. So for today’s Wordless Wednesday, I thought I would share what is thought to have been the original inspiration for that symphony’s third movement, the 1850 woodcut The Hunter’s Funeral by Moritz von Schwind.

moritz-von-schwind-the-hunters-funeral-1850

An Incessant Shower of Innumerable Atoms

woolf-virginiaI recently came across a passage in an essay by Virginia Woolf that resonated with me in a surprising way, and I thought I would share a few thoughts on it.

The passage comes from her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction,” in which she discusses several then-current authors and the subject matter with which they chose to deal in their works. While she doesn’t take for granted the idea that fiction of recent times is automatically better, a manifestation of “progress,” than older works, she does believe that a new approach was emerging. In the case of authors she criticizes, like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy, she feels that they are “materialists,” concerned with the outer rather than inner life, “making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.”

That observation leads to the beautiful passage that got my attention:

“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there…”

Later on, she states it in a different way: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

If a writer were to choose to focus on that “incessant shower” of impressions, Woolf says, “there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.” Writing of the intentions of one author, James Joyce, who seemed to have embraced this idea, Woolf writes, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

Now, Woolf is obviously critiquing fiction, saying that traditional forms fail to convey fully the processes of the human mind, and that one of the projects of modern writing is to experiment with alternative strategies that might evoke those processes more accurately. At the same time, I think we can see in her marvelous words the truth of what we experience on a moment-to-moment basis.

If you were to examine your thought processes closely during a five minute period at, let’s say, a movie or symphony concert, or while you’re driving somewhere, what kinds of thoughts would travel through your mind? I mean to include not just extended trains of thought, but even fleeting impressions.

I hope I turned off the heat at home.
It was really difficult to find a parking spot this afternoon.
I wish I’d slept more last night.
Lots of stupid drivers out today.
Will I have time to complete my project at work on Monday?
I hope her knee is healing OK.
I wish that person would stop coughing!
Oh, the clarinetist clammed that note.
I’m hungry.
This is kind of a boring movie.
Look at the way the sunlight glistens off of those mountains!
Why can’t they make these seats more comfortable?
Etc. etc.

Yet, if someone were to ask you later that day what you were doing during that time, you’d likely reply, “I was at a symphony concert,” or “I was driving home from work.” That might very well also be what you’d put in your journal at the end of the day, too. Our thoughts are all over the place at any moment, as anyone who has tried to meditate can verify. Innumerable thoughts and impressions pass through our minds. Many come to consciousness, a few are memorable, and very, very few make their ways into the narrative we are constantly creating for our own lives.

If we were to come upon a person on the street carrying on an ongoing conversation with her- or himself, we would probably think that there was some psychological or mental health issue there. Yet we all do this all the time – we’re just a little more decorous about it and keep the conversation to ourselves within our brains. But that little voice, that incessant chattering voice registering all those fleeting thoughts, is always with us.

Our impressions of the world around us, too, get focused, put into some kind of form, by this chattering voice. We actually take in much more information than our conscious minds can handle. Aldous Huxley took this idea to its extreme in The Doors of Perception: “Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” Or, as Michael A. Singer puts it in The Untethered Soul, “Your consciousness is actually experiencing your mental model of reality, not reality itself.”

So as not to be overwhelmed and paralyzed, our minds automatically, mostly without conscious input, reduce the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” to just a few. To a large extent, this happens simply to give us at least a small sense of control over a world that is raging around us, entirely out of our control. We’ve got to bring order to it, somehow. How else can we function? How else can we find happiness? How else can we find ourselves? How else can we create ourselves?

Sunday Salon 1-29-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 3:00 in the morning, afflicted by insomnia, at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week, I completed Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, one of just four novels this great author and longtime University of Denver professor completed. At first the book felt a little plodding to me, short of action and long on description. But as I read, I realized that the fault was mine. Williams’s descriptions of landscape, people, and the interior life of Andrews, the main character, are in fact detailed, but also careful and engrossing, giving the novel a power and gravitas that I gradually succumbed to. Now I’m anxious to read his other two mature novels, Stoner and Augustus. I also just finished the very entertaining Absolutely on Music, conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa on various musical subjects. I hope to write something up on that book in the next few days.

Viewing: For reasons that I really can’t fathom, I have found myself less than attracted to the idea of watching movies lately. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming number of viewing options I have. Or it may be that my brain, greatly enfeebled in recent days and weeks, is just not up to the task of concentrating on a single thing for an entire two hour period. Whatever the problem is, I hope it goes away soon. Halfhearted viewing of political news and old television shows isn’t really doing it for me.

Listening: My listening habits have been off as well. What music I listened to this past week was related to the program notes I have been writing for upcoming concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The notes for the former are now done, and once I’ve tackled writing a nice essay on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, I’ll send off the latter ones this week. Hooray for completed projects.

Blogging: Due to a very emotionally-trying past week, I didn’t manage to blog at all. I do have a couple of things in the works for the coming week, though, if I can follow through on them.

Pondering: Today, I will be attending my first Reno Chamber Orchestra concert since I left that organization not quite a year ago, after fourteen years of service and never missing a performance during that time. It will be a strange feeling, and I hope a not-uncomfortable one. I do look forward to the music, and to reconnecting with the people in and around the Orchestra.

And finally:
bad

Sunday Salon 1-22-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:30 on a cold, snowy, pretty Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week, I completed two books from my “inspiration” stack – Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, and, after starting it months ago, Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. Both, I would have to say, were helpful but not really revelatory. In the case of Cameron, I had already read The Artist’s Way, so I was familiar with her approach and techniques, many of which I follow (I faithfully do my Morning Pages every day). Gilbert’s book was very enjoyable and reinforced some concepts that I needed to encounter again. But the book was also high in anecdote and rather low on specific suggestions for moving forward. I am currently reading the western Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, and have just started Absolutely on Music, the conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa that were recently released in English.

Viewing: Other than a little political news, I rather unusually watched no movies or television this week – at least until last night, when I watched a couple of films starring Dana Andrews on Turner Classic Movies. Boomerang! (1947) was a very good early effort by Elia Kazan in quasi-documentary style that featured an excellent cast, including Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, Karl Malden, and Arthur Kennedy. Fallen Angel (1945) was one of two films Otto Preminger made, along with A Royal Scandal, the year after his huge hit Laura (which of course also featured Andrews).

Listening: Last week, I posted about the music that I am now myself writing, having gotten back to creating music after a break of over fifteen years. I was hoping that that post and making my efforts public would propel me forward to more creating. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, and paralyzed me for several days. But I’m now back on track. I believe that the album, should I actually complete it, will be called Jade, and will be comprised of two sections of around 20-25 minutes apiece. The segments I’ve written so far seem to divide themselves pretty naturally into two sets. The most recent segment I wrote evolved from another I’d already done, for three harps backed by synthesizer arpeggios and textures, that is somewhat static and mysterious. After noticing that it used a pentatonic scale, I decided to vary the tune slightly, slow it down a bit, and rearrange it for gamelan instruments. Now it sounds more than a little otherworldly. It would be an unusual way to start a piece, but I might just use this gamelan section to start Part 2 of Jade. In terms of music other than my own, I’ve just started on the listening and gathering of information for the next set of program notes I have to write, for concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra (the latter includes Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, which I’m looking forward to pondering and writing about).

Blogging: My main post this week was a look at Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. I also happily acknowledged Penguin Awareness Day on Friday, and passed along a couple of quotes from Seneca. All in all, it was a somewhat slow week.

Pondering: I’m sure I’ve said this sort of thing before, but, with this monk-like existence that I have right now, I miss having people with whom to share my thoughts, about all the above subjects and many others, whether trivial or semi-profound or personal. Some of those thoughts will inevitably turn up here at the blog, and the others I’ll just keep to myself for the present.

And finally: I’ve already mentioned Penguin Awareness Day, the annual celebration of which happened on Friday. So, to continue the celebration, please enjoy Penguins Doing Penguiny Things…