Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa talk music, art and creativity

One writes fiction, the other conducts an orchestra, but Murakami and Ozawa share a drive, determination and a passion for music. They discuss the creative process, inspiration and the eclecticism of Mahler

Until we started these interviews, I had never had a serious conversation with Seiji Ozawa about music. True, I lived in Boston from 1993 to 1995, while he was still music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I would often go to concerts he conducted, but I was just another anonymous fan in the audience. Not long after that, my wife and I happened to become friends with his daughter, Seira, and we would see and talk to her father now and then. But our acquaintance was casual and had nothing to do with either his work or mine.

Perhaps one reason we never talked seriously about music until recently is that the maestros work kept him so fully immersed. As a result, whenever we got together to have a drink, wed talk about anything other than music. At most, we might have shared a few fragmentary remarks on some musical topics that never led anywhere. Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather. Knowing this, I avoided bringing up musical topics when I was in his company.

In December of 2009, however, Ozawa was found to have oesophageal cancer, and after major surgery the following month, he had to restrict his musical activities, largely replacing them with a challenging programme of recuperation and rehabilitation. Perhaps because of this regime, we gradually began to talk more about music whenever we met. As weakened as he was, he took on a new vitality whenever the topic turned to music. Even when talking with a musical layman such as myself, any sort of conversation about music seemed to provide the refreshment he needed. And the very fact that I was not in his field probably set him at ease.

I have been a fervent jazz fan for close to half a century, but I have also been listening to classical music with no less enjoyment, collecting classical records since I was in high school, and going to concerts as often as time would permit. Especially when I was living in Europe from 1986 to 1990 I was immersed in classical music. Listening to jazz and the classics has always been both an effective stimulus and a source of peace to my heart and mind. If someone told me that I could listen to only one or the other but not to both, my life would be immeasurably diminished. As Duke Ellington once said: There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. In that sense, jazz and classical music are fundamentally the same. The pure joy one experiences listening to good music transcends questions of genre.

During one of Ozawas visits to my home, we were listening to music and talking about one thing or another when he told me a tremendously interesting story about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernsteins 1962 performance in New York of Brahmss First Piano Concerto. What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate, I thought. Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper. And, brazen as it may seem, the only somebody that happened to cross my mind at that moment was me.

When I suggested this to Ozawa, he liked the idea immediately. Why not? he said. Ive got plenty of time to spare these days. Lets do it.

To have Ozawa ill with cancer was a heart-wrenching development for the music world, for me personally, and of course for him; but that it gave rise to this time for the two of us to sit and have good, long talks about music may be one of those rare silver linings that are not in fact to be found in every cloud.

At the risk of sounding somewhat presumptuous, I confess that in the course of our many conversations, I began to suspect that Ozawa and I might have several things in common. Questions of talent or productivity or fame aside, 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. Whatever differences there might be between making music and writing fiction, both of us are happiest when immersed 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.

Seiji
Seiji Ozawa rehearses with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Salzburg, 1999. Photograph: Ali Schafler/AP
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. Observing Ozawa in action, I could feel the depth and intensity of the desire he brought to his work. He was convinced of his own rightness and proud of what he was doing, but not in the least satisfied with it. I could see he knew he should be able to make the music even better, even deeper, and he was determined to make it happen even as he struggled with the constraints of time and his own physical strength.

The third of our shared traits is stubbornness. Were patient, tough, and, finally, just plain stubborn. Once weve decided to do something in a certain way, it doesnt matter what anybody else says, thats how were 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. Ozawa is an utterly unpretentious person who is constantly cracking jokes, but he is also extremely sensitive to his surroundings, and his priorities are clear. Once he has made his mind up, he doesnt waver. Or at least that is how he appears to me.

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. 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, a place we might even call dmonisch.

Still, letting ones ego run wild on the assumption that one is an artist will disrupt any kind of social life, which in turn interrupts the individual concentration so indispensable for creativity. Baring the ego in the late 19th century was one thing, but now, in the 21st century, it is a far more difficult matter. Creative professionals constantly have to find those realistic points of compromise between themselves and their environment.

What I am trying to say here is that while Ozawa and I of course have found very different ways to establish those points of compromise, we are likely headed in pretty much the same direction. And while we may set very different priorities, the way we set them may be quite similar. Which is why I was able to listen to his stories with something more than mere sympathy.

This conversation took place on 22 February 2011, in my Tokyo office. We talked a great deal about Mahler. As we spoke, I realised what an important part of Ozawas repertory the music of Mahler has been. I myself had a problem getting into Mahler for a very long time, but at a certain stage in my life the music began to move me.

Haruki Murakami: Among musicians who perform Mahler and maybe among his listeners, too there are many who think a lot about the composers life or his worldview or his times or fin-de-sicle introspection. Where do you stand with regard to such things?

Seiji Ozawa: I dont think about them all that much. I do read the scores closely, though. On the other hand, when I started working in Vienna more than 30 years ago, I made friends and started going to the art museums there. And when I first saw the work of Klimt and Egon Schiele, they came as a real shock to me. Since then, Ive made it a point to go to art museums. When you look at the art of the time, you understand something about the music. Take Mahlers music: it comes from the breakdown of traditional German music. You get a real sense of that breakdown from the art, and you can tell it was not some half-baked thing.

HM: I know what you mean. The last time I went to Vienna, I went to a Klimt exhibition at an art museum. Seeing the art in the city where it was created, you really feel it.

SO: Klimts work is beautiful and painted with minute attention to detail; but looking at it, dont you think theres something kind of crazy about it, too?

HM: Yes, its certainly not what youd call normal.

SO: Theres something about it, I dont know, that tells you about the importance of madness, or that transcends things like morality. And in fact, at the time, morality really was breaking down, and there was a lot of sickness going around.

HM: A lot of syphilis and stuff. Vienna was more or less pervaded with this kind of mental and physical breakdown: it was the atmosphere of the age. The last time I went to Vienna, I had some time to kill, so I rented a car and spent four or five days driving around the southern part of the Czech Republic the old Bohemian region where Mahlers birthplace was located, the little village of Kalischt, or Kalit as they call it now. I didnt go there on purpose, I just happened to pass through. Its still tremendously rural out there, nothing but fields as far as the eye can see. Its not that far from Vienna, but I was surprised at how different the two areas were. So Mahler came from a place like this! I thought. What a huge turnabout in values he must have experienced! Back then, Vienna was not only the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it was a colourful centre of European culture and probably ripe to the point of being overripe. The Viennese must have looked upon Mahler as a real country bumpkin.

SO: I see what you mean.

Seiji Ozawa conducts Mahler Symphony No 9.

HM: And on top of that, he was a Jew. But come to think of it, the city of Vienna gained a lot of its vitality by taking in culture from its surroundings. You can see this in the biographies of Anton Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin. Viewing it this way, its easy to see why popular songs and Jewish klezmer melodies pop up in Mahlers music all of a sudden, mixing into his serious musicality and aesthetic melodies like intruders. This diverse quality is one of the real attractions of Mahlers music. If he had been born and raised in Vienna, I doubt that his music would have turned out that way.

SO: True.

HM: All the great creators of that period Kafka, Mahler, Proust were Jews. They were shaking up the established cultural structure from the periphery. In that sense, it was important that Mahler was a Jew from the countryside. I felt that strongly when I was travelling around Bohemia.

Gustav

Gustav Mahler in 1907. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images
HM: Just listening to this third movement of the First Symphony, it seems pretty clear to me that Mahlers music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without any logical connection, and sometimes even in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, fin-de-sicle overripeness, Bohemian folksongs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldviews no single one of which you can place at the centre of things. With so many elements thrown together indiscriminately (which sounds bad, I know), arent there plenty of openings where a non-western conductor such as yourself can make his own special inroads? In other words, isnt there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahlers music?

SO: Well, this is all very complicated, but I do think there are such openings.

HM: I remember when we talked about Berlioz and you said that his music had openings that a Japanese conductor could exploit, because it was crazy. Cant you say pretty much the same thing about Mahler?

SO: The big difference between Berlioz and Mahler is that Berlioz doesnt put in all these detailed instructions.

HM: Ah, I see.

SO: So we performers are a lot freer when it comes to Berlioz. We have less freedom with Mahler, but when you get to those final, subtle details, I think there exists a sort of universal opening. We Japanese and other Asian people have our own special kind of sorrow. I think it comes from a slightly different place than Jewish sorrow or European sorrow. If you are willing to attempt to understand all of these mentalities, and make informed decisions after you do so, then the music will naturally open up for you. Which is to say that when an easterner performs music written by a westerner, it can have its own special meaning. I think its well worth the effort.

HM: You mean you have to dig down to something deeper than superficial Japanese emotionalism to understand it and internalise it?

SO: Yes, thats it. I like to think that a performance of western music that also makes full use of Japanese sensibilities assuming the performance itself is excellent has its own raison dtre.

HM: When Im listening to Mahler, I always think that there are deep layers of the psyche that play an important role in his music. Maybe its something Freudian. In Bach or Beethoven or Brahms, youre more in the world of German conceptual philosophy, where the rational, unburied parts of the psyche play the most important role. In Mahlers music, though, it feels as though he is deliberately plunging down into the dark, into the subterranean realm of the mind. As if in a dream, you find many motifs that contradict one another, that are in opposition, that refuse to blend and yet are indistinguishable, all joined together almost indiscriminately. I dont know whether hes doing this consciously or unconsciously, but it is at least very direct and honest.

SO: Mahler and Freud lived at just about the same time, didnt they?

HM: Yes. Both were Jewish, and their birthplaces were not far apart, I think. Freud was a little older, and Mahler came to Freud for a consultation when his wife, Alma, had an affair [with the architect Walter Gropius, whom she married after Mahlers death]. Freud is said to have been deeply respectful of Mahler. That kind of straightforward pursuit of the underground springs of the unconscious may make us cringe but I think it is probably what helps to make Mahlers music so very universal today.

SO: In that sense, Mahler rebelled single-handedly against the sturdy mainstream of German music, from Bach through Haydn to Mozart, and from Beethoven to Brahms at least until the emergence of 12-tone music.

HM: When you stop to think about it, though, 12-tone music is extremely logical, in the same sense that Bachs Well-Tempered Clavier is logical music … Twelve-tone music itself has hardly survived, but different elements of it were absorbed into the music that came afterwards … But this is really quite different from the kind of influence that Mahlers music has had on later generations. I think you can say that, dont you?

SO: I do.

HM: In that sense, Mahler was really one of a kind.

HM: What is the biggest difference between reading a score by Richard Strauss, for example, and reading a score by Mahler?

SO: At the risk of oversimplifying it, Id say that if you traced the development of German music from Bach through Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, and Brahms, you could read Richard Strauss as part of that trajectory. Of course, hes adding all kinds of new layers, but still you can read his music in that stream. But not Mahler. You need a whole new view. Thats the most important thing that Mahler did. There were also composers like Schoenberg and Alban Berg in his day, but they didnt do what Mahler did.

Portrait

Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg by Richard Gerstl. Photograph: Archivo Iconografico, S.A./COR
HM: As you said a minute ago, Mahler was opening up very different areas than 12-tone music.

SO: He was using the same materials as, say, Beethoven or Bruckner, but building a whole different kind of music with them.

HM: Fighting his battles while always preserving tonality?

SO: Right. But still, in effect he was headed in the direction of atonality. Clearly.

HM: Would you say that by pursuing the possibilities of tonality as far as he could take them, in effect he confused the whole issue of tonality?

SO: I would. He brought in a kind of multilayering.

HM: Like, lots of different keys in the same movement?

SO: Right. He keeps changing things around. And hell do stuff like using two different keys simultaneously.

HM: He doesnt discard tonality, but he causes confusion from the inside, really shakes things up. Thats how he was, in effect, heading toward atonality. But was he striving for something different from the atonality of 12-tone music?

SO: Yes, it was different, I think. It might be closer to call what he was doing polytonality rather than atonality. Polytonality is one step before you get to atonality it means that you use more than one key at the same time. Or you keep changing keys as the music flows. In any case, the atonality that Mahler was aiming for came out of something quite different from the atonality and 12-tone scale that Schoenberg and Berg were offering. Later, people like Charles Ives pursued polytonality more deeply.

HM: Do you think Mahler thought he was doing something avant garde?

SO: No, I dont think so.

HM: Schoenberg and Berg were certainly very conscious of being avant garde, though.

SO: Oh, very much so. They had their method. Mahler had no such thing.

HM: So he flirted with chaos, not as a methodology, but very naturally and instinctively. Is that what youre saying?

SO: Yes. Isnt that exactly where his genius lies?

John

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HM: There was a development like that in jazz, too. In the 1960s, John Coltrane kept edging closer and closer to free jazz, but basically he stayed within the bounds of a loose tonality called mode. People still listen to his music today but free jazz is little more than a historical footnote. What were talking about may be kind of like that.

SO: Wow, so there was something like that in jazz?

HM: Come to think of it, though, Mahler had no clear successors. The main symphonic composers who came after him were not Germans but Soviet Russians, such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Shostakovichs symphonies are vaguely reminiscent of Mahler.

SO: Yes, very much so. I agree. But Shostakovichs music is very coherent. You dont feel the same kind of craziness you do in Mahler.

HM: Maybe for political reasons it wasnt easy for him to let anything like craziness come out. There is also something deeply abnormal about Mahlers music.

SO: Yes, its true. The art of Egon Schiele is like that, too. When I saw his pictures, I could really see how he and Mahler were living in the same place at the same time. Living in Vienna for a while, I got a strong sense of that atmosphere. It was a tremendously interesting experience for me.

HM: Mahler says in his autobiography that being director of the Vienna State Opera was the top position in the musical world. In order to obtain that position, he went so far as to abandon his Jewish faith and convert to Christianity. He felt the position was worth making such a sacrifice. It occurs to me that you were in that very position until quite recently.

SO: He really said that, did he? Do you know how many years he was director of the State Opera?

HM: Ten years, I think.

SO: For somebody who spent such a long time conducting opera, its amazing that he never wrote one of his own. I wonder why not. He wrote all those Lieder, and he was very conscious of the combination of words and music.

HM: Thats true, now that you mention it. Its too bad. But given the kind of person he was, it might have been hard for him to choose a libretto.

English translation copyright Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa 2016. Extracted from <a href=”https://bookshop.theguardian.com/absolutely-on-music.html?utm_source=editoriallink&utm_medium=merch&utm_campaign=article” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, published by Harvill Secker on 15 November at 20.00.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/05/we-both-maintain-the-same-hungry-heart-haruki-murakami-and-seiji-ozawa-talk-music-art-and-creativity

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