Everyone listens to music, it is a staple of life. It’s uplifting, dramatic, disheartening, aggressive and everything in between; there’s a song for everything and everyone. Music has become so integral to people’s lives, we freak out if we leave our headphones at home; we’re disappointed to hear ads on Spotify (or the radio, if you’re old-fashioned), and we go to extreme efforts to collect and expand our collections. But what does it mean to listen to music?
That is what Absolutely On Music by Haruki Murakami sets out to ask. It never truly answers it, but the book is written – and it explicitly states – not for people who collect music, but for those that listen to it. It is a collection of conversations between the author, Haruki Murakami, and Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. Their conversations are split into six pieces, each with a different direction, and are interluded with smaller conversations ranging from collecting records to Murakami’s experience at the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland.
The book reads almost like a script, with only two people talking and minor directives throughout. At first, it’s disconcerting to read. The structure makes it an awkward story to tell, through only people talking, but as the reader gets further into the book, this gets easier. At its best point, it feels as though you’re in the room with the two, listening to them talk excitedly about every facet of music. However, it can also become quickly bogged down. There are near-endless references to pieces of classical music that, as a millennial, I haven’t listened to and have no idea about. To counter my point, there is a Spotify playlist with almost all of the songs, however that is a task within itself to mine through and find what they’re listening to.
It truly is a matter of taste – if you don’t share the love for classical music that these two do then parts of the book are going to slow down and feel like a haul. However, those parts almost seem inconsequential to the over narrative – which is a combination of multiple factors.
The first of these is the friendship between Ozawa and Murakami. At first, you can feel that the conversations are a little tense. The speech definitely feels like two strangers talking to each other about something they both have some vested interest in, but there is no emotional connection between the two. However, the longer the book goes on, the more comfortable the two seem with each other. Murakami gets Ozawa to open up about things that, at first, felt like they were crossing a line. Sometimes Ozawa even offers random additions to the conversations about his life, which is depicted so clearly that you can almost see the things happening. The afterword by Ozawa is where this really shines through. You can tell that the two had formed a very close bond over the writing of this book and their conversations with each other, and it is rewarding as a reader to see how that flourished.
The second is Ozawa’s flagging health. The conductor had a history of illness with pneumonia, shingles and lower back problems; but these conversations happened after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It is obvious throughout the book when he is struggling; either through his responses or Murakami’s concerned tones. However, it seems to give him an even greater sense of introspection; and in turn nostalgic feeling. The way he describes his life; as a conductor, an apprentice and a teacher, is filled with passion – you can tell that he loves what he’s doing and what he’s done with his life.
The third and final piece of narrative is the actuality of listening to music. This is the central theme of the book – everything their conversations rest on. It describes listening to music as an art form as well as appreciating an art form. One thing they discuss is how Ozawa’s performance of the same piece changes so drastically in sound. This boils down to two different things that Ozawa suggests – the musicians themselves are different, and he himself is in a different stage of his life. An equally interesting part of this is his performances with the academy students. Murakami makes a note of mentioning that the performance was “played with real urgency, but it was nevertheless spontaneous and filled with pure joy”. In my opinion, this is equally reflective of the student orchestra as it is of Ozawa. Ozawa’s passion for music led him to teach this new generation of musicians, and this obviously carried over in the performance. In all, the book talks about listening to music as a way of art itself – the same song will almost never be interpreted twice. Whether it’s being listened to or performed, it will always carry a meaning independent of the song that only the listener can have.
Overall, this book is refreshing. It isn’t a page turner, by any definition of the phrase, but it takes something that a lot of people find almost menial in their everyday lives and turns it on its head. The rhythm at which the two speak about listening to music is almost musical in itself, it has its ups and downs and plenty of moments in between. If you love listening to music, and not in a way of listening to it in the background but actually sitting down and devoting time to listening to music then I would highly recommend this book. It’s one for all the music lovers out there.