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Staff Picks: Absolutely on Music

After reading more than half of Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, by Haruki Murakami, I realized that the title is a pun. In classical music, some pieces have extra musical associations, such as Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which musically embodies the accompanying narrative of a passionate lover gone mad. Pieces that don’t have this association are called absolute music, with titles such as, “Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, Op.120.” The play on words, Absolutely on Music, artfully connotes the contents of the book. The conversations between Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami do not contain a narrative, but are rather discreet discussions about music, career and people. Through details such as the crafty title, the interview-style book retains stylistic elements of Murakami’s writing.

The casual format allows the reader to get to know Seiji Ozawa through conversation -rather different than reading a biography. In these semi-structured conversations, he chooses the parts of himself to convey. The conductor is an interesting man. He seems humble but elite at the same time. He reflects on his early career, living poor in NYC and sleeping in movie theaters when it was too hot in his little apartment. This story of initial struggle makes clear that he worked for the love of music, community and learning. He was not interested in fame and many times performed for under-paying positions (or nothing whatsoever). His comments reminded me of a documentary on Bill Cunningham. The New York Times’ famed and successful fashion photographer lived for many years in a small efficiency in Carnegie Hall. He believed in working for free on projects outside of the Times because distance from compensation allowed him total artistic freedom. The concept invites questions of one’s work and integrity. It becomes clear through these conversations that both Murakami and Ozawa share a devotion to their craft that goes beyond making a living.

Murakami is not a musician, but a collector of records and devoted audience member. He seems to have a photographic memory of the catalogue of recorded performances. His outsider perspective brings an opportunity for the two men make parallels between the intense work of writing and conducting. For example, both men also wake up very early to work (writing or studying scores). This calls to mind a favorite book of mine on the daily habits of artists/creatives. The first-thing-in-the-morning work schedule seems to be the overall winner in the search for a writing/study routine.

Ozawa’s anecdotes about other musicians are engaging. The two men effectively gossip about different performers, generally in complimentary form. An early story about Bernstein and Glenn Gould provokes thought about who leads a concerto’s aesthetic direction- soloist or conductor. Power over such decisions is not clearly defined and may change depending on the situation. Ozawa explains that when Anne Sophie Mutter recorded with Herbert Von Karajan for the Mozart concerto cycle, the taste was dictated by Karajan as he was seemingly mentoring the young virtuoso. In the case of Glen Gould, known for his edgy takes on common repertoire, Bernstein made a point during the performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to let the audience know that although he did not agree with the interpretation, he would be following Gould’s lead. (Hear the speech and performance here.) A discussion between Ozawa and Murakami on the merits of the announcement ensues.

Readers do not need to be musicians in order to appreciate this book. A curiosity about classical music would be helpful, but formal training is not important. A fun component of this project is the accompanying website with a playlist of the music from the book. Especially if the pieces discussed are not familiar to readers, this can be a great introduction to some beautiful compositions. The larger questions about art and career are universal topics that can apply to a variety of perspectives. I was personally wondering about the misogynistic overtones of this conversation- a few moments hit a nerve with me. I don’t think that it detracts from the conversation as a whole, but the framing of two men chatting about musical taste and tradition and does present an exclusive position. No music by female composers is discussed and a statement about the competitive nature of professional musicianship emphasizes a masculinist approach to classical music. However, this pair represents the old guard and I would like to believe that the conversation is (slowly) opening up to include wider demographics. For other viewpoints on music criticism check out the work of Anne Midgette or Wynne Delacoma.

The mission of these men, their commitment to education and the future of classical music, is encouraging. Ozawa’s elite orchestra Saito Kinen strives to create music in a space beyond nationality and politics. This book exists as a way to bring this idyllic concept down to Earth a bit.

This book was gifted to me by Kayo Denda and I am absolutely grateful that she found it.

Recommended books in the Rutgers collection: