The details of Seiji Ozawa’s life are impressive: The Japanese conductor was one of the first non-Westerners to lead several of the world’s premiere ensembles, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera. Ozawa’s pioneering integration into (and subversion of) the hidebound world of classical music—particularly the austere, lily-white oeuvre of European art music that’s dominated by German and Austrian composers and conductors—would make for a terrific book. Unfortunately, that’s not what readers get with Absolutely on Music, which collects the transcriptions of a series of conversations Ozawa had with Haruki Murakami in 2010 and 2011.
This premise holds promise. A writer of Murakami’s caliber weaving Ozawa’s recollections into a cohesive narrative could have been something remarkable. And Murakami’s outsider status as a music-loving non-musician could have potentially opened the historically heavy doors of classical music to newcomers and casual listeners. But instead of this project bridging the audiences of Murakami and Ozawa, it’s doubtful the result will satisfy either faction.
For fans of Murakami’s fiction (Norwegian Wood, 1Q84), the book demands a fairly expert grasp on classical music, or at least a level of interest I doubt many of his American readers possess. Several pieces are dissected in depth, including Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and the symphonies of Brahms and Mahler. While these works are not obscurities, the learning curve for the discussions in the book seems particularly steep. Different recordings and performances are compared side by side, with the musicians’ technique examined on a granular level. Unless you already know the music backward and forward (or have precise passages cued up to accompany your reading), you’ll probably be lost.
That level of detail, on the other hand, should sound like perfection to classical music buffs, and Ozawa fans in particular. But the conversations are dominated by Murakami’s long-winded and sometimes pedantic observations, with a slightly checked-out Ozawa offering quick verbal agreement (or, more often, polite laughter, followed by some iteration of “gee, I never thought about that before!”). While Murakami’s analytic approach to music does offer occasional pleasing friction with Ozawa’s more instinctual, mercurial one, much of the time the results are unsatisfying.
There are pleasures to be found in Absolutely on Music, to be certain—such as in Ozawa’s sporadic autobiographical recollections, particularly his start in the 1960s under the mentorships (and batons) of maestros Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. There’s also a wonderful section of straightforward narrative in which Murakami recounts his visit to Switzerland to observe Ozawa’s intensive summer seminar for string players. (The passage is later boiled away into hot air by the book’s subsequent “conversation,” in which Murakami tries, unsuccessfully, to get Ozawa to explain the musicians’ development over the course of the seminar.)
As a reader who wanted to become familiarized with Murakami’s work and as a music fan who wanted to learn more about how to listen to classical music, in the end I was left feeling decidedly empty by Absolutely on Music. The finer points went over my head, while the more abstract, philosophical discussions of music in general seemed unbaked and remedial. Ozawa remains a fascinating figure—if not a particularly introspective one—and his life and work bear examination. In spite of his significant writing talents, I’m not convinced Murakami was the person to do it.