A Behind the Music Story (without the usual descent into self-destruction): Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music

If you’re a music lover, you’ll love this book.

And if you’re not that serious a music lover, there’s still plenty to love.

That’s because Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa offers one of the most pleasant and relaxing reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

But I should warn you – it’s easy to be intimidated by the book in the beginning. That might sound strange, given it’s almost entirely composed of dialogues between the novelist Haruki Murakami and his long-time friend, and world-famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa, which occurred over a couple years. After all, how hard could it be to follow transcripts of conversations between two friends?

The answer depends on what you’re trying to get out of the book. If you’re a serious musician or someone who can talk for hours about the differences between certain movements of certain obscure concertos, well, this is the book for you. In fact, one of the best parts of the book for this kind of reader is its focus on the career of Seiji Ozawa, who is highly respected and even beloved in the music world. This book, then, acts as a kind of biography, albeit an unorthodox one.

Personally, I fall strictly into the second audience for this book, someone who can play music or at least enjoys listening to it, but doesn’t feel anywhere near as competent discussing it as I might another subject. There are obviously certain classical music pieces I’ve always enjoyed – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata comes to mind – I would never describe myself as a serious listener of classical music.

This book made me realize how much I was missing out on, and since finishing it I’ve listened to one piece of classical music a day (keeping a list of the pieces, too, of course, to be filed alongside my other obsessive lists).

So what’s so great about this book, and why can even a novice like me enjoy it?

First, Murakami and Ozawa’s conversations analyze a wide range of composers and music and offer insight into what makes certain music so great and why so many people devote their lives to pursuing this invisible art. Additionally, a significant portion of the book is dedicated to discussing the work of Gustav Mahler, and those sections were so compelling I’ve done nothing but listen to Mahler since making the aforementioned list.

Second, the conversations also illustrate how music works on a technical level. From how orchestras work to how world-class musicians are trained, this book allows a glimpse into the surprisingly rigorous lives of professional musicians.

Third, Ozawa himself is a fascinating individual, someone whose passion for music is palpable and who has used his various positions (he seems to have been the director of half a dozen of the best philharmonics) and prestige to assist younger musicians from around the world.

And finally, as I said at the outset, this is a thoroughly pleasant and relaxing reading experience. Murakami’s admiration and appreciation of Ozawa transforms what might otherwise sound like transcripts of formal interviews into what they really are – conversations between two old friends. That isn’t too surprising, given that the entire book is a labor of love – if you know anything about Murakami, you know he’s obsessed with music (and cats, but that’s another story). And when I say obsessed with music, I mean he could probably switch from being a novelist to a music historian, or at the very least write insightful essays about, well, pretty much any composer I can think of. It’s truly incredible how much Murakami knows about every piece of music in his alarmingly large collection, right down to the subtle differences in a horn section between two recordings of the same symphony by different conductors. The only thing I found more incredible than how thoroughly he knew his collection was that he apparently doesn’t know how to play an instrument (the only other author that comes to mind who cared so deeply about music is Thomas Bernhard, and he trained to be a professional musician for most of his early life).

Absolutely on Music offers an easy introduction to the life of a world-class conductor, a look into how great works of art are produced, and a window into the friendship between two men whose love of music will undoubtedly expand your own.

So go read it. Now.

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