Absolutely on Music Book Notes

Every once in a while, I will finish a book I should have stopped reading 20 pages in.  Usually this is due to some bullheadedness on my part: I should like this book, damn it, so maybe if I just read a few more pages I’ll get into it?  And then a few hundred pages later, I close the book and realize it was a lost cause.

That being said, this book, Absolutely on Music [public library] was just too outside of my realm of knowledge to be engaging.  It’s one of Murakami’s nonfiction books.  And since I loved his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running [public library] so much, I kept trying to give this book more chances (which alas is what I tend to do to his fiction books, which I tend regret spending time to read after the fact).  Anyways, this book is a conversation between Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, one of the most famous conductors of classical music in the world, and the first famous Japanese conductor in that world.  Their conversations range from classical music and different interpretations of the same songs by different conductors/orchestras, how writing is like conducting, and various interesting stories from Ozawa’s life and work.  There are some vignettes from Ozawa’s early work history under Lenny Bernstein and Karajan (famous conductors?), later career and recordings, foray into opera, his impromptu/once-a-year orchestra in Japan, and involvement in music education in the string quartet camps he created.

Honestly, if I was a bigger classical music buff, I’m sure I would have gotten so much more out of this.  Or, maybe, if I had listened to this book on audio and they included soundtracks of the different songs they discussed, I would have more context to put their conversations in.  As it stood, it made me feel very ignorant of a deep world of music, as if they were talking about things I had no experience of, despite playing violin in an orchestra for 7 years.  Then again, I was at best an indifferent violinist…Anyways.  If you are a classical music buff and get the song references below, you’ll get a kick out of this book, and perhaps will understand the nuances of musical interpretation that various conductors and symphonies have.

More general non-music related takeaways:

  • It helps if you have the talent and if you start practicing early, but nothing replaces hard work ethic.
  • In art, possibly there is some inescapable innate talent required.  But this might also be a function of life experience.
  • Stay the fuck away from politics.  Assume the best of everyone, work hard, help people out, be passionate about things, always try to do the best for your particular tribe, and generally you’ll be treated well.
  • The more you take on, the more voracious you are about learning, the faster you will learn–if you’re willing the price in time and outwork your peers, that will all pay off.
  • Every master has their own unique style.  You should focus on thinking about what unique thing YOU want to bring into the world is, what your world view is.  Technical mastery is one thing, but without vision you’re only good as a tool for someone else to direct.
  • If you are passionate about something and pay attention to the details, you don’t need a degree or advanced study to pick up on fascinating patterns and variations.  You just need to pay very close attention.
  • Again, do what you love and it won’t feel like work.  Or at least, it will feel meaningful enough that even when it feels like work you’ll still be motivated to stick with it.
  • Ozawa’s early career success sounds like an example of Ryan Holiday’s idea of the canvas strategy–he took on extra work to make his bosses’ lives easier, and since they were famous conductors, he got to learn their techniques and build relationships which resulted in them recommending him for prestigious conductorships around the world.


Book Notes:


Murakami–musical layman, no technical training, just knows that he likes good music

“Basically, I believe that music exists to make people happy.”


Things Ozawa and Murakami have in common–a sense of craftsmanship, flow, and purpose in work:

“…what I mean here is that I can feel a sense of identity in the way we live our lives.

First of all, both of us seem to take the same simple joy in our work. …both of us are happiest when absorbed in our work.  And the very fact that we are able to become so totally engrossed in it gives us the deepest satisfaction.  What we end up producing as a result of that work may well be important, but aside from that, our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward.

Secondly, we both maintain the same ‘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.  We’re patient, tough, and, finally, just plain stubborn.  Once we’ve decided to do something in a certain way, it doesn’t matter what anybody says, that’s how we’re going to do it.  And even if, as a result, we find ourselves in dire straits, possibly even hated, we will take responsibility for our actions without making excuses. …”


On the self-centeredness of creative pursuits:

“Creative people have to be fundamentally egoistic, this may sound pompous, but it happens to be the truth.  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.”


On habits of working:

“Like Ozawa, I also get up at four in the morning and concentrate on my work, alone.  In winter, it’s still pitch dark, with no hint of sunrise and no sound of birds singing.  I spend five or six hours at my desk, sipping hot coffee and single-mindedly tapping away at the keyboard.  I’ve been living like this for more than a quarter of a century. …It often occurs to me that this life of mine would not exist if I lacked the ability to concentrate.”


On work as life:

“As I watched him in action, however, one thing dawned on me: He can’t help himself; he has to do this.  His doctor, his gym trainer, his friends, and his family could all try to stop him (and of course they did try, to a greater or lesser degree), but this was something he had to do.  For Seiji Ozawa, music was the indispensable fuel that kept him moving through life. …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?”

“To put it simply, this man was living in a world that transcended reasonable ways of thinking, just as a wolf can only live deep in the forest.”



Beethoven Third Piano Concerto in C minor

Beethoven’s 9th

Beethoven’s Fidelio opera

Beethoven’s String quartet no. 16, no6, no13

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (in D minor)

Brahms First Symphony

Berlioz (who is apparently crazy) Benvenuto Cellini; Symphonie fantastique; Grandes Messes des Morts, The Damnation of Faust

Mahler Ninth

Mahler Second Symphony

Mahler Fifth Symphony

Mahler First Symphony

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde

Mahler Eighth Symphony

Bruckner Ninth

Mozart’s string quartet no. 15 in D minor (K. 421)

Mozart’s Divertimento K 136

Mozart’s Haffner Symphony

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

Bartok Piano Concerto No 1

Bartok Piano Concerto No 3

Bartok Divertimento for String Orchestra

Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no1

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades

Handel’s Concerti Grossi

Bach Brandenburg concerto

Bach Well-Tempered Clavier

Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht

Poulenc opera

Honegger opera

Sibelius Fifth Symphony

Richard Strauss’s Elektra opera

Richard Strauss Burleske

Richard Strauss Metamorphosen

Schumann Piano Concerto

Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, Oiseaux exotiques, Saint Francois d’Assise

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov

Orff’s Carmina Burana

Debussy’s La Mer

Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande

Britten’s War Requiem

Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges

Ravel String Quartet in F Major

Rigoletto opera

Don Giovanni opera

Cosi fan tutte opera





La Boheme

Madam Butterfly

Manon Lescaut



Ginastera’s Estancia op. 8

Weber’s Oberon

Haydn’s String Quartet No 75, op 76, no1

Smetana’s String Quartet no1

Janacek String Quartet no1

Schubert String Quartet no13

Mendelssohn String Octet in E flat major

Grieg’s Holberg Suite

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings

Hugo Wolf Italian Serenade


On empty spaces:

“In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music–the importance of those pauses or empty spaces–but it’s there in Western music, too.  …Not everybody can do it–certainly no ordinary musician. …Or if they do, the spaces don’t fit in as naturally as this. [in Glenn Gould’s Beethoven Concerto]  It doesn’t grab you–you don’t get drawn in as you do here.  That’s what putting in these empty spaces, or ma, is all about, isn’t it?  You grab your audience and pull them in.”


On the similarity between music and writing to Murakami:

“No one ever taught me how to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques.  So how did I learn to write?  From listening to music.  And what’s the most important thing in writing?  It’s rhythm.  No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm.  It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

“…the rhythm comes from the combination of words, the combination of the sentences and paragraphs, the pairings of hard and soft, light and heavy, balance and imbalance, the punctuation, the combination of different tones.  ‘Polyrhythm’ might be the right word for it, as in music.  You need a good ear to do it.  You either can do it or you can’t.  You either get it or you don’t.  Of course, it is possible to extend one’s talent for rhythm through hard work and study.. …I write as if I’m making music.”


Ozawa’s 10K hours:

As a young conductor, he acted as the assistant conductor to Lenny Bernstein, conductor for the NY Phil.  B/c Ozawa was poor and obsessed with music, he ended up spending almost all of his time at the rehearsal hall, poring over scores, reading scores, watching rehearsals, watching the conductor, sounding things out on the piano, etc.  Altho there were 3 assistant conductors and they were supposed to divide up scores evenly to cover in case Lenny got sick, in practice Ozawa learned everyone’s scores b/c the other 2 assistants had other jobs and occasionally also couldn’t make it.  So his sense of responsibility meant that he learned 3x as fast and worked 3x as hard.


Interesting: the same songs sound different when played by different symphonies (even if same conductor).  The same conductor may choose to express the music differently at different points in his life: enthusiastically when young, more nuanced/nurtured/mature when older


On Ozawa’s technique (he seems to think it was innate, or learned early on in college w/Prof Saito, but then it turns out he had been conducting orchestras since middle school):

“So then, when I got to observe Lenny or Maestro Karajan conducting close-up, I pretty much understood what they were doing.  I could see what they were trying to do.  I could look at them analytically.  So it never occurred to me to mimic their techniques.  By contrast, someone who doesn’t have his own technique in place ends up imitating someone else’s outward form, just superficially copying another person’s movements.  That didn’t happen with me.”


On how vision is necessary before one can usefully apply technique:

“MURAKAMI: Yes, but even before that–you have to have a clear image in your own mind of exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it.  If you’re writing fiction, say, it’s important to be able to write, of course, but before that you have to have a strong sense in mind of something you are determined to write about.  As far as I can tell from your records, at least, you always had a strong self-image from the time you were young.”

“It seems to me that the world is full of musicians who…while they have a high overall level of technical mastery and can perform music that may be technically flawless, they rarely communicate a distinct worldview.  They don’t seem to have a strong determination to create their own unique worlds and convey them to people with raw immediacy.”


On Ozawa and the canvas strategy (part 2):

When Lenny (Bernstein) went on sabbatical, Ozawa “house-sat” the orchestra for him, which meant doing chores for the orchestra, inviting guest conductors, making the arrangements for the guests, etc.  He became friends with these famous guest conductors, who later recommended him to lead other famous symphonies around the country.


On connections between music and art:

“And when I first saw the work of Klimt and Egon Schiele, they came as a real shock to me.  Since then, I’ve made it a point to go to art museums.  When you look at the art of the time, you understand something about the music.”

“There’s something about it [Klimt’s art], I don’t know, that tells you about the importance of madness, or that transcends things like morality.  And in fact, at the time, morality was breaking down, and there was a lot of sickness going around.”


What is special about Ozawa (ability to deep dive into music and see it high level all at once):

“Maybe it’s a bit too much to be talking about ‘special powers,’ but there are these people who have the ability to simultaneously take in all parts of some complex object or some convoluted idea all at once, like taking a high-resolution photograph of it.  Maybe you have something like that going on with music rather than understanding it through logical analysis.”


Ozawa insulates himself from politics by being bad at the language and purposefully distancing himself from it.  Also he seems rather oblivious to ppl being mean to him, and tends to assume the best of ppl, which perhaps causes them to treat him better.

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