Book review: Absolutely on Music by Murakami & Ozawa


Published on 7 January on Scroll.in

A series of conversations with a renowned conductor reveals a new facet of Murakami’s writing technique.

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Publishers will publish, bookshops will stockpile, and fans will comply. This is perhaps just one of the pluses of being Haruki Murakami. An idea is all he needs, and in no time there’s a brand new book ready to fly off the shelves.

So, when Murakami decided to record and transcribe his conversations on and about music – a total of six interviews during 2010 and 2011 – with acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa into a book, the success of the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely on Music is a gorgeous volume, detailing a significant facet of what inspires and rules Murakami’s very being – his relationship with music.

Like Murakami in global literature, Ozawa is renowned in the world of classical music. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 long years, and was music director for the symphony orchestras of Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago.

After decades of practising music, a sudden and unfortunate episode of esophageal cancer, followed by major surgery, compelled Ozawa to take a rehabilitation break. This is when Murakami caught his attention. Until then, the writer was just an “anonymous fan” whom Ozawa had heard of from his daughter. And it was only after they spent an afternoon listening to recordings by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida that Ozawa realised that Murakami “doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

Not an amateur

That Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club named Peter Cat in Tokyo before he became a phenomenon in the literary world is well-known. But despite being an avid listener and collector of records, and someone who frequents classical concerts and operas, why he almost always identifies himself as a “musical layman” is unexplained. He says he took decades to understand the nuances of the compositions, and still insists that his “technical knowledge of music is limited.”

The truth is that Murakami’s affair with music has been dedicated and disciplined, definitive glimpses of which can be seen in almost all his works. For instance, not only is one of his earlier novels named for The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, Leoš Janáček’s composition Sinfonietta plays a critical role in the epic 1Q84. As Scott Meslow writes, reading Murakami is often like negotiating a playlist.

But Absolutely on Music isn’t just about music – it’s also about comparisons between different recordings and performances from two different perspectives, the expert’s and the outsider’s. Obviously, a firm grasp on the subject is imperative to appreciate the depths of the music being discussed in the book.

Fan moment

In Absolutely on Music, Murakami confesses to being self-conscious in the company of Ozawa. He recalls his visits to Ozawa’s concerts, where he shared a moment or two with the maestro he hugely admired. He avoided talking about musical, because he knew that “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.” This formality gradually faded when Ozawa had time to spare during his rehabilitation, the period when he and Murakami became friends.

As in his fictions, Murakami doesn’t impose his love or understanding of music on the reader – and certainly not on Ozawa – through this book. But it’s certainly interesting to observe how he interprets a certain composition. While Ozawa reminiscences about his early career and narrates anecdotes from his days in 1960s New York, Murakami prompts and prods like a practised interviewer. In fact, his interpretation of Ozawa’s musical lifespan is fascinating to the subject too. At one point Ozawa exclaims, “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because 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.”

Rhyme and reason

Like all musical compositions, Absolutely on Music too pauses for an interlude after every conversation. These are brief, self-aware breaks, interjected deliberately to maintain a rhythm in the narrative.

One such interlude is when Murakami deliberates on the effect of music on the craft of writing. Very lucidly, he explains to Ozawa how rhythm controls the flow of words:

“No one ever taught me 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.”

More than their shared passion for music, Murakami also aspires to draw out similarities between himself and Ozawa. In the Introduction he points out that both he and Ozawa are early risers, who spend those first hours of the day creating art – music and stories respectively. Both are happiest when they’re immersed in their work. And they both share the trait of stubbornness. Murakami’s original motive behind putting this book together is to bring out the ways in which each of them is dedicated to music.

But one can safely say that Murakami’s fans love his trademark eccentric worlds of possibilities rather than certainties, which seem to resemble theirs too. So, it’s hard to imagine Absolutely on Music hitting the same grey zone as his other books, for it digs deep into the technicalities of classical Western music, something that not every reader has their sentiments attached to. Still, because it’s Murakami, there’s still the unexpectedness of magic in this book.

Forget fiction and non-fiction, adults are turning to colouring books


Published on 10 October, 2015 in Scroll.in

The unlikely pursuit of filling intricate drawings with colours has become a publishing opportunity.
Beauty Needs Space CoverThree years ago, when artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar designed a few colouring panels for a non-profit organisation which works with under-trial prisoners at the Byculla jail in Mumbai, she was told that colouring calmed and relaxed the women. These were women incarcerated for petty and serious crimes, and made to share one large dorm in the jail.

Privacy is not an option in prison and most other activities that inmates are usually made to participate in are in groups that they may or may not prefer. In that sense, colouring was one activity that could perform in solitude.

“I could feel the energy that they were not at peace with each other. The bed was the only space they had and I can imagine why colouring had a positive effect. There is a lot of detail in colouring books for adults and because of that, the mind doesn’t wander and one finds it easier to focus,” says Harikumar.

Colourful beginnings

Harikumar was at an art residency in Vienna in 2014 when the idea of Beauty Needs Space, a colouring book for adults, first came to her. She was out on a date and shied away from eating cake by saying “I feel fat”. That’s when her Viennese date said to her, “But beauty needs space”.

“It wasn’t an idea I could push away because in between work (which is usually drawing) I doodle and I find it very relaxing. During the residency, I used to do this series called Vienna Diary where I would wake up and make a quick drawing and put it out on my Facebook page. I would write on themes that I faced every day – culture, perception, trying out Tinder in Vienna, patriarchy, food and travel etc. The series was hugely popular.

“I thought I was talking to a very Indian audience, but I received email from Scotland, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and, of course, India. The “beauty needs space” comment got me thinking and that’s when I started putting up my drawings for the colouring book just to test the waters. The response was great. So I started drawing the first one – Beauty Needs Space – which appears on the cover. I decided to self-publish because I had buyers writing in saying, ‘I am in whenever you are ready.’ That meant a lot.”

A meditative palette

As a concept, colouring books for adults have been around in the West for a while now. Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford published her Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Bookin 2013; since then, the book has been translated into 14 languages and has sold more than a million copies.

In 2015 she has published two more books – Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book andLost Ocean: An Inky Adventure and Colouring Book. French illustrator and graphic designer Emma Farrarons has been smart enough to pitch her book, The Mindfulness Colouring Book, as an “anti-stress art therapy for busy people”. And UK-based publishing house Michael O’Mara has sold over 300,000 copies of the different colouring books it has published, even claiming that “colouring can lower anxiety, stabilise mood, increase attention span and serve as a sleep aid.”

It’s believed that colouring increases powers of meditation, especially because the panels in these books for adults are far more intricate than those for children. However, Harikumar, being the first Indian to initiate the concept here, isn’t suggesting that her book will do any of that.

“I just hope that people will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed creating it. If you enjoy it, you will find it relaxing. I hope people are able to find a part of themselves somewhere in the drawings,” she says.

Many of the colouring panels in Beauty Needs Space have been drawn with consciously positive messages, which can be found inside the back cover of the book. It has twelve high-quality A4 prints that one can colour and frame, stick on, and add one’s own beauty to it. There are empty spaces for users to fill in their own messages as well.

Says Harikumar: “I started the book as a social media experiment. As I put out each drawing, I heard from people across the world and the stories have been very heart warming. I have sold only through my social media accounts which go by the name of @Induviduality and I am happy to have sold to most continents except South America.”

Her next project for adults? Titled Women on Top, it’s a colouring book based loosely on theKamasutra.