(Moment from the Flux by Serena Caulfield)
Absolutely On Music
I feared that, ten pages in, plodding through the density of detail within Absolutely On Music would be like reading back issues of Gramophone or BBC Music in my dentist’s surgery, passing time until, teeth newly glistened, I was free. And I was wrong. Not about Gramophone or BBC Music, whose terribly serious reviews can forge both a blissful euphony and a contrived spontaneity in a single sentence, but about this book, a conversation between a writer and a conductor, both Japanese, in which they are at one in their shared passion for music.
Not just any music, but classical music. And unlike the vast majority of reviews in Gramophone or BBC Music, which veer between curmudgeonliness and highfalutin post-mortems, Absolutely On Music springs from author Haruki Murakami’s long love affair with the magic which floats from the depths of an orchestral pit.
If you have little time for classical music and think it a harmless adjunct to examining French plonk in a supermarket, this book is not for you. However, if – like myself – you have hovered time after time over a scrum of tightly packed musicians in an illuminated pit, sepulchered in the darkness of a venue, with absolute fascination and no little befuddlement about how the orchestra works, this book is a must.
It is arguable that an orchestra’s raison d’etre, even its bete noire, is the conductor, who has no equal in any other form of employment, except perhaps a mechanic bent over an engine, or a surgeon tinkering with a dodgy heart, for they are responsible for extricating a rhythm you would like to hear.
And I use ‘extricating’ advisably, because the conductor – Absolutely On Music offers an eye witness exposition of maestros Karajan and Bernstein at work – must disentangle the music from both the score and the orchestra’s interpretation of it. Conductors adopt different strategies to disembarrass what the composer intended, and even today we talk of Karajan or Bernstein in reverential or hushed tones for when they struck gold and had an overwhelming sense of the composer’s concentrated aspiration.
Murakami is the reverential and star struck pupil in this series of interviews with the patient and encyclopedic conductor Seiji Ozawa, for three decades the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony, among others, and who, as a young man, worked alongside geniuses like Bernstein, Karajan and Glenn Gould.
Murakami plays a cd or a vinyl recording of Brahms First Symphony or Bartok’s the First Concerto or Mahler’s First Symphony, asks Ozawa question after question, and the conductor’s replies, a brief riposte or a long dissection, a thrust following a parry, are never less in breadth and content the equal of an impeccable dissertation. ‘What’s the comma in the score for,’ asks Murakami. ‘It means, take a breath here,’ answers Ozawa.
To see a world in a grain of sand, indeed.