Polymaths awaken our nostalgia for a borderless conception of mental life. Just as early humans navigating an ancient landscape would not have realized when they crossed a strip of earth that would eventually become a charged geopolitical border, some intellectual pilgrims remain enviably oblivious as they follow their interests across disciplinary boundaries.
Many novelists are polymaths. Virginia Woolf wrote excellent essays on feminism and the history of literature; Gore Vidal penned lively polemics on modern politics and ancient history; John Updike was a talented and knowledgeable art critic. If subjects are countries, these areas share long and porous borders. However different their customs and dialects, criticism, history, philosophy, and journalism cluster together within a broader region on most intellectual maps. While some writers remain cloistered within the realm of fiction, travel to neighboring territories is fairly common.
Novelists with expertise in areas apparently distant from the humanities are more unusual. David Foster Wallace wrote an erudite but accessible work of popular mathematics on the history of infinity. Cormac McCarthy has spent hundreds of hours in highly technical conversations about science with the physicists and biologists at the Santa Fe Institute. These examples suggest the imperfections in conventional maps of intellectual life – to certain minds math, physics, and fiction are naturally adjacent domains that all explore deep questions about the nature of reality.
Close readers of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami already know of his profound love for music. His 1987 "Norwegian Wood" takes its title from a Beatles song. His 1995 "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" opens with a character listening to Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” overture while making spaghetti. And his 2014 "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" alludes to Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage,” a set of three suites for solo piano. Murakami himself owned and ran a Tokyo Jazz club called Peter Cat in his 20s, and he estimated in 2011 that he owns around 10,000 records.
A new book of conversations between Murakami and the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa shows just how closely Murakami has been listening to music over the years. Absolutely on Music: Conversations is a strange and delightful book. Murakami and Ozawa sit sipping hot hojicha tea, snacking on persimmons, and discussing in riveting detail works by Mahler, Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms, and many other central figures in the history of Western music. The two have been friendly acquaintances since the 1990s, but they began exchanging these impressions, memories, and insights in a series of long sessions while Ozawa was recovering from cancer in 2010 and 2011.
The topics range widely. They compare the conducting of Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan and the pianistic sensibilities of Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida. They consider Mahler’s use of Jewish folk styles in his symphonies. Murakami makes tea, supplies rice cakes, and plays different recordings so they can compare the nuances of various interpretations. Ozawa explains subtleties only a conductor would know, such as how Brahms specifies in a symphonic score a particular horn sound or why conductors before Leonard Bernstein rarely tackled the complete cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies. Sometimes Ozawa sings.
Murakami is not an expert musician – he doesn’t study scores or analyze harmonic shifts and patterns based on any formal training. But this does not prevent him from participating in the conversations as an equal. He is astonishingly sensitive to the ways that performers’ interpretive choices govern the shades of meaning a composition conveys. He also appears to have a nearly perfect memory for a massive discography of classical repertoire. Whatever concerto or symphony they’re discussing, Murakami knows which performers recorded it, when they did so, and how their renditions differ at the smallest levels.
Ozawa is 81 and Murakami is 67; between them they have well over 100 years of experience studying and listening to music. Ozawa began his career as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in the early 1960s. By the end of that decade he was established as one of the most talented young conductors of his generation. He spent the following decades conducting orchestras in all the major musical capitals of the world: Vienna, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Milan, Tokyo, and elsewhere.
Murakami’s musical credentials consist solely of his love and knowledge of music. While he defers to Ozawa on technical matters, he describes music with rich and suggestive metaphors and images that capture something essential about the spirit of the music. Both men share an insatiable perfectionism in their respective domains. They rise early in the morning to pursue their creative work in darkness with total concentration.
Ozawa can read complex scores and hear their music in his head, a skill that Murakami likens to being able to read literature in its original language rather than a translation. Murakami, like most people, accesses music only through particular performances. But he is fascinated by Ozawa’s ability to study a score in silence and develop an entire interpretation of the music.
The fact that Murakami has such strong and considered views on different recordings and musicians suggests that he also has some conception of the “original” or ideal form of the music. Without these intuitions about the nature of a piece, he would not be able to assess how successfully various performances realize the music. In this way Murakami is analogous to a member of a preliterate society listening to epic poetry. The first audiences for Homer’s epics would have been incapable of deciphering a manuscript of the poems. But they had some sense of the ideal form of the narrative, and their preferences and tastes helped to shape the choices of different rhapsodes. The same process is still at work with music.