8 min read

Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami

Murakami chats with internationally renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa over two years of interviews.

Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami


The book is presented in an interview format, with occasional asides by Murakami. They chat about various composers, how different the same piece can feel depending on who conducts/plays it, how to think about music, and more. Later, Murakami audits Ozawa's International Academy Rehearsal. He watches as the world's best music students work together to make "good music" in a short period of time.

My scant knowledge of classical music is just enough to make it through the book, though there are plenty of parts where I am completely lost. Even so, Ozawa and Murakami open up a view into a world I've never thought much about. Scattered throughout the book are neat insights into both Ozawa and Murakami's work process (tl;dr: make time for deep work).

Murakami gives me the feeling that I'm right there with the two creatives, sipping tea as they chat.

I recommend this book for anyone who:

  1. Adores classical music
  2. Knows a little about classical music and is curious about how top performers think and practice their craft.

Buy "Absolutely On Music" on Amazon, read it on Kindle Unlimited

, or check it out at the library.

You can find selections of these pieces in the book on Murakami's Website. He's also got music to go along with his other books.


Quick Summary

The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book. My thoughts are in italics.

Shared traits of Ozawa and Murakami

First, both of us seem to take the same simple joy in our work...both of us are happiest when absorbed in our work.

Secondly, we both maintain the "hungry heart" we possessed in our youth, that persistent feeling that "this is not good enough," that we must dig deeper, forge farther ahead. This is the major motif of our work and our lives.

The third of our shared traits is stubbornness. Once we've decided to do something in a certain way, it doesn't matter what anybody else says, that's how we're going to do it.

On Creativity

Creative people have to be fundamentally egoistic. To build something where there was nothing requires deep individual concentration, and in most cases that kind of concentration occurs in a place unrelated to cooperation with others.

People who live their lives watching what goes on around them, trying not to make waves, and looking for the easy compromise are not going to be able to do creative work, whatever their field.

I get up at four in the morning and concentrate on my work, alone. I spend five or six hours at my desk, single-mindedly tapping away at the keyboard. I've been living like this for more than a quarter of a century. This life of mine would not exist if I lacked the ability to concentrate.

As I watched [Ozawa, sick with cancer] in action, one thing dawned on me: He can't help himself; he has to do this. There was only one way in this world for him to feel truly alive, and that was for him to create music with his own hands and to thrust it as a living, throbbing thing into the faces of an audience:"Here!"
Who could possibly tell him to stop?

This man was living in a world that transcended reasonable ways of thinking, just as a wolf can only live deep in the forest.

On Direction

The most important thing was to maintain this long, bold line. "Direction." He would give it priority even if that meant sacrificing details of the ensemble. Maestro Karajan sets up the direction clearly beforehand, and he clearly demands it from the orchestra.

He saw the music in terms of very long units--sixteen measures, or up tot thirty-two measures. Karajan's performances always have this very solid narrative that comes from his creation of those long phrases.

On Empty Space

That's what putting in these empty spaces, or ma, is all about isn't it? You grab your audience and pull them in.

  • Mastery of empty spaces can help 'grab your audience' in conversation, speeches, and writing.

Mann said a lot about breath. When people sing, they have to take a breath at some point. "Unfortunately," string instruments don't have to breathe, so you have to keep the breath in mind as you play.

On Perspective

OZAWA: ...your perspective is so different from mine. It's that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.
  • who can you talk to that can re-freshen a topic of expertise?

Murakami thinks of a piece of music as intrinsically tied to the physical record. Ozawa relates to music primarily by reading scores, and the music can become purer and more internalized.

Two people who share a natural affinity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that passageway [to have an honest, direct conversation].

On Wanting to Make Music

OZAWA: [Sick and unable to conduct]. Something had been building up inside me and it burst out all at once...I was dying to make music, but I couldn't.
  • What get's you so fired up that you would want to work, even in the throes of disease? Don't know? Go tinker

On Temporary Collectives like the Saito Kinen Orchestra

Their mindset is very different from that of the usual professional orchestra...you've got a dozen or more people in a section of the orchestra. Each one of them is thinking, "I'm the one who's going to make this work," "I'm number one," and they're playing up a storm

  • Can you put together a group of photographers/writers/engineers/artists to work on a short-term project? What kind of results would you get? Think the Beats, Magnum Photos, hackathons, Design, Build, Fly

When I saw the art of Egon Schiele, I could really see how he and Mahler were living in the same place at the same time.

On Combining

The structure is much easier to see in a piece by Beethoven. You can hear the winds and the strings talking to each other. But Brahms creates his unique sound by blending the two together.

  • What two fields can you blend together to create your own 'unique sound'?

On Music and Writing and Reading

What's the most important thing in writing? It's rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.

At first glance, the hours I spend staring at the passage[, stumped,] would seem to be a waste of time, but I think that's the time when I'm really getting it.

When to do deep work

"When do you read scores?" "In the morning. Very early. I have to concentrate, and I can't have a drop of alcohol in my system."

4-5 hours.

Building a Career

"What was your policy in those days--to accept any offer that came?" "That's right. I was still not in any position to choose."
  • So I said yes to everything, which is gonna come up later with the "hell yeah or no" thing, but I think it's a really smart to switch strategies. When you're earlier in your career I think the best strategy is you just say yes to everything, every piddly little gig, you just never know what are the lottery tickets. -Derek Sivers
"So at that point in your career, you were able to take on the works that you wanted to record--not just what the record companies brought you?" "Yes, that was more and more the case."

On Improvement

It's amazing how different the music is with only seven years separating the performances.

I'm constantly trying to improve the quality of an orchestra, increasing its value.

On Practice and Performance

During the performance itself, it almost doesn't matter how you move the baton. What really matters is how you wave your baton during rehearsals, in order to get the orchestra ready.

  • The work is done in practice not at the performance. In weightlifting, if the coach is making technique changes during a competition, not enough practice was done.

Before I ever got to conduct a professional orchestra, I had already been conducting for 7 years.

Someone who doesn't have their own technique in place ends up imitating someone else's outward form, just superficially copying [instead of understanding analytically why they do this or that].

The worst thing that can happen in music: technically flawless, but doesn't communicate a distinct worldview.

"Did you enjoy just reading the scores?" "Oh, tremendously."

The important thing is not so much to learn it, as to immerse yourself in it. The challenging thing is whether or not you can get inside a work once you've learned it.

Porfessor Saito: You youngsters are blank slates. When you go to other countries, you will be able to absorb their traditions. But traditions are not always good. You'll have to learn to distinguish between the two, and when you go to those countries, you should absorb their good traditions.

You can't teach innate talent, but you can teach someone how to approach music and how to think about it.

On "good music" and "good writing"

There were still one or two thin membrane-like things left covering the music, preventing it from directly moving into people's hearts. Stripping off that last membrane can be a very difficult thing to do. But unless you manage to strip it off, a work of art has no--or almost no--meaning.

It was as if the animal had begun to understand instinctively what kind of sounds Ozawa had in mind, what kind of rhythms he was looking for. He was not so much training them as he was using a special kind of communication to elicit empathy from them...they were beginning to discover the rich meaning and natural joy of music.

How did these many little orders accumulate in such a way to create something so vivid?

The two things needed for "good music" were spark, and magic.

To see him literally grinding himself down as he grappled with the nurturing of these young musicians, made me feel that no matter how many bodies he might have to devote to this work, he would never have enough.

  • Seneca says life is long enough if you know how to use it. Can you use your life so fully that others wish they could give you more?

On standing out

In Japan, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" But in Europe, self-assertion is perfectly normal. You get the best results when each member asserts his opinion.

People can't do anything until they've gauged the opinions of the other people present. They look around, they absorb the atmosphere, and only then do they raise their hands and say something unobjectionable. That way, there's no progress where it matters.

On Teaching and Learning

"So even world-class professionals like you can learn from teaching." "We definitely learn from teaching."

The more time you spend rehearsing, the more difficult become the various hurdles that need to be cleared. You put lots of time into refining each of these tiny details. This process teaches me an awful lot.

The more we rehearse together, the better we understand each other.

Buy "Absolutely on Music" on Amazon

Let me know what you thought of the book.


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