Absolutely on music conv.., p.15
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.15Haruki Murakami
OZAWA: I suppose so. But in Mahler’s case, the individual sounds rise up and come right at you. In the crudest of terms, he throws this raw sound at you in its most basic coloration. He can be very provocative in the way he draws out the individuality or idiosyncrasy of each and every instrument. By contrast, Strauss uses sounds after he has blended them together. I probably shouldn’t be making such simplistic declarations.
MURAKAMI: When it comes to the techniques he employed in orchestration, it must have been a major factor that Mahler—and Strauss, too, for that matter—was also an outstanding conductor.
OZAWA: That’s absolutely true. Which is precisely why his music makes such tremendous demands on the orchestra.
MURAKAMI: In the finale of Mahler’s First, all of the horn players stand up at one point, don’t they? Is that specified in the score?
OZAWA: Yes, right in the score it says, “All stand up holding instruments.”
MURAKAMI: I mean, does that really have some effect on the sound?
OZAWA: Hmm. [He pauses to think.] I suppose there might be some difference in sound with the instruments held aloft like that.
MURAKAMI: I thought it was maybe just for show.
OZAWA: Well, that may be the case, too. But don’t you think the sound of the instruments would come through more clearly with them held in a higher position like that?
MURAKAMI: Seeing it happen is powerful enough. I’m fine with it being just for show. I recently heard this Mahler First in a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. They had ten horns, and when they sprang to their feet all at once, it was tremendously powerful. Do you ever feel that there can be this element of showmanship in Mahler’s music, a kind of lowbrow ornamentation?
OZAWA [laughing]: You may be right!
MURAKAMI: Come to think of it, wasn’t there some kind of direction for the horn players to raise their horns in the finale of the Second Symphony?
OZAWA: Hmm, you’re right, where they’re supposed to turn the horns so the bells face upward.
The Directions in the Score Are Very Detailed
MURAKAMI: The directions are extremely detailed, aren’t they?
OZAWA: Yes, tremendously detailed. Every little thing is written into the score.
MURAKAMI: You mean, like, how to use the bow and things like that?
MURAKAMI: So I guess there’s not much to sort out when you’re performing Mahler—no sections where you can’t figure out how to play things?
OZAWA: No, there are very few places where the musicians have to wonder how to play their parts. Take a Bruckner or a Beethoven, for example—they’re full of passages like that. But in a Mahler score, there are tons of little directives for every single instrument. Just look at this. [He points at a large page in a well-worn score.] We call these symbols “pine needles” or “hairpins.” This one [<] indicates a crescendo, where the volume grows gradually louder, and this one [>] indicates a decrescendo, where the volume grows gradually softer. There are hundreds of these things. This line goes taa-ra-ra, taritara, raaa-ra. [He sings the line aloud.]
MURAKAMI: I see.
OZAWA: Beethoven wouldn’t put in so many directives. He’d just write “espressivo” in a passage like this. Now, here, you see this line. It’s not just a legato marker to make the notes link smoothly. It means play it like this: taa-aa-ri, rari-rari, raaa-ba. [He sings expressively.] Having this many directives means that the range of choice given to us performers is narrowed way down.
MURAKAMI: But won’t there be passages where you can’t agree with the directive, or where you wonder why it should be played that way?
OZAWA: There are some, especially where horn players think, “It couldn’t possibly be that way.”
MURAKAMI: But if that’s what the score says, I suppose the musician feels obliged to at least try to play it the way it’s written.
OZAWA: That’s what we all do, because we have to.
MURAKAMI: Are you talking about passages that are technically difficult?
OZAWA: There are lots of those. And there seem to be some in particular that musicians find impossible to play.
MURAKAMI: But impossible or not, if the score contains such detailed instructions that the performers are given hardly any choice, how are there so many different kinds of performances of Mahler with different conductors at the helm?
OZAWA: [He takes a long while to think this one over.] Hmm, that’s an interesting question. By which I mean that I’ve never thought of it before. As I said earlier, a Mahler score gives so much more information than a Bruckner or a Beethoven, so it only stands to reason that it should offer a narrower range of choice—but in actual practice, it doesn’t really work out that way.
MURAKAMI: No, I’m sure it doesn’t, because listening to all these various performances, I can tell that one sounds very different from another. The sound itself is different.
OZAWA: But still, I really have to think about it. You know, ultimately, the more information a composer supplies, the more each conductor has to agonize over how to put all that information together—over how to balance the various pieces of information.
MURAKAMI: You mean, for example, in instances where you’re given detailed instructions regarding two different instruments that are playing at the same time?
OZAWA: Sure, that’s it. How do you prioritize? Or rather, how do you bring the best out in both instruments? In Mahler, especially, you have to help both instruments rise to their full potential. But you get into rehearsals with your orchestra and you hear what it actually sounds like and you sense that you can’t bring both out to the fullest—so then you’ve got to strike a balance. So even though there is no composer who gives as much information in his scores as Mahler, there is also no composer whose sound changes as much depending on who is conducting.
MURAKAMI: It’s a real paradox, isn’t it? It seems that the richer the information given to your conscious mind, the more subconscious choices you have to make. I suppose that means that you, as the conductor, don’t take these bits of information as restrictions?
OZAWA: That’s true.
MURAKAMI: In fact, maybe you’d rather have some restrictions.
OZAWA: Well, sure. That would make the music easier to understand.
MURAKAMI: But even if you had some restrictions, you’d still have the sense of being free.
OZAWA: I think that’s true. It’s our job as conductors to convert the music exactly as it’s written into actual sound; and so execute these restrictions accurately. But above and beyond what is written, we are free.
MURAKAMI: If you think of being free as something that happens above and beyond the accurate transfer of the score into sound, then there’s no difference in the performer’s ability to be free, either. This would hold true whether we’re talking about the music of Beethoven—which has relatively few restrictions written into the score—and that of Mahler, which has a lot.
OZAWA: That is true, but only to an extent. Strauss, for example, provides information that is very consistent and indicates a single direction in which the music is meant to move. But Mahler is not like that at all. His instructions are often inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. He even has a few that may make perfect sense to him but not to anyone else. All are “restrictions” of one kind or another, but they can be very different in character.
MURAKAMI: I see what you mean. But for a composer who puts so many restrictions into his scores, Mahler has surprisingly little to say about metronome settings.
OZAWA: It’s true, he doesn’t write them in.
MURAKAMI: Why do you think that is?
OZAWA: There are all kinds of theories. Some people say he figures he’s given you so many detailed instructions that the tempo will take care of itself. Others say he wants to leave the tempo, at least, up to the judgment of the performers.
MURAKAMI: And yet with Mahler’s symphonies, you don’t find such extreme diffe
OZAWA: You may be right about that.
MURAKAMI: I can’t seem to recall any performances that struck me as extremely fast or extremely slow.
OZAWA: Recently, though—say, in the past five or six years—a few such performances have begun to emerge. When I was in Vienna in 2006 I came down with a case of shingles and couldn’t conduct for a while, so I started listening to other people’s performances. I think it was about that time that you began to hear these more extreme performances. Maybe some conductors were doing it just to be different, adopting tempos that hadn’t been used by people who had made recordings up to that point—by Bernstein, for example, or Abbado—or by me.
MURAKAMI: But since the tempos aren’t specified, the conductor is free to choose his own.
OZAWA: That is correct.
MURAKAMI: Mahler himself was both a composer (the one who gives the instructions) and a conductor (the one who interprets them). So balancing one against the other might have been quite a struggle for him. Speaking of interpretation, the funeral march that comes at the beginning of this third movement really varies in sound, depending on who conducts it: it can be full of an emotional heaviness, or have an academic feel, or even be somewhat comical. In your performance it can feel more neutral, given your more fine-grained treatment from a purely musical standpoint. Then comes the passage of traditional Jewish music which, as I said before, Jewish musicians have tended to imbue with a kind of klezmer sound; while others have taken a cooler approach. Such questions of interpretation are also choices for the performer, I presume.
OZAWA: That traditional Jewish section uses an actual klezmer melody—so you have some conductors who strongly emphasize its Jewish sound, and others who deal with it as one motif in the context of the overall long movement. In the latter case, the conductor will give the theme a precisely nuanced performance when it first appears, and when it is developed again later, they will not add any particular flavor and will tie it in with what follows. That’s another way to do it. The score contains no instructions when it comes to making choices like these.
MURAKAMI: I seem to recall that the movement is labeled “Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen,” which translates as “Solemnly and measured, without dragging.”
OZAWA [looking at the score]: Correct, that is what it says.
MURAKAMI: When you start thinking about it, those are difficult instructions.
OZAWA: Yes. [Laughing.] Very difficult!
MURAKAMI: It starts with a double-bass solo. But is the conductor the one who establishes the sound in this case—like “That’s a little too heavy,” or “Lighten it up a little”?
OZAWA: Well, yes, but it would be mainly the character of the bass player’s tone that would determine that. The conductor can’t say a lot where such things are concerned. Come to think of it, though, before this point, it was unheard of for a symphonic movement to begin with a long double-bass solo. The very fact of having a bass solo was unusual enough, but to put it at the very beginning of the movement! Mahler was really an oddball.
MURAKAMI: Personally, I like this part, but the way the solo is played kind of sets the mood for the whole movement, so it must be hard to perform. All alone like that for such a long passage.
OZAWA: It is hard, so often I’ll talk one-on-one with the soloist about it offstage rather than during rehearsal—like, could you play it a little softer, or raise the intensity a bit, or tone it down just a little?
MURAKAMI: This solo must be the chance of a lifetime for a bass player, I would think. Really nerve-wracking!
OZAWA: Sure, it’s a tremendous responsibility. Which is why we always have a bass player perform it during an audition. How the person plays this solo can determine whether or not he’s invited to join the orchestra.
MURAKAMI: I see!
OZAWA: Behind the double bass, the timpani are going ton-ton-ton, like this.
MURAKAMI: In fourths, counting off the same monotonous rhythm all the way through.
OZAWA: Yes, re-la-re-la—keeping up the sound of a heartbeat, so to speak, setting up a solid framework for the music. And just as the heartbeat won’t wait for anyone, the timpani won’t wait, so the double bass has to do its best to keep up, taking breaths or one thing or another to fit into the framework. Look, here’s a comma in the score.
MURAKAMI: Yes, what’s that for?
OZAWA: It means “Take a breath here.” Rii-rari-raa, raa. [He sings the double bass’s melody.] Things like this are all written in. Of course, you can’t actually “take a breath” on a double bass—it’s not a wind instrument—but it means that the bassist should momentarily cut the sound, as if taking a breath, rather than keep the sound going without a break. Mahler is very careful to provide these detailed directions.
OZAWA: So then, you see, when the oboe enters with its ryat-tatari-ran, ran [he sings with a bouncing rhythm], then the phrase comes to life. And then later, he writes in these accents for an instrument like the harp, whose softer sound is more difficult for the audience to hear. And then he adds a staccato mark on all of the following notes.
MURAKAMI: Oh, I see. It’s incredibly detailed. What a job it must have been to write a score with so much information in it!
OZAWA: That’s why the performers are so nervous to do this one.
MURAKAMI: I can see where they’d be kind of stressed out playing this stuff, the way it never ceases to demand that they concentrate on every little thing.
OZAWA: Exactly. There’s a lot of stress involved. Take this part, for example: you can’t play it as you ordinarily would—tori-raa-yaa-tataan—but rather toriira-ya-tta-tan. The instructions are very precise. You can’t relax.
MURAKAMI: This instruction, “mit Parodie”—does it really mean you’re supposed to play it with a sense of parody?
OZAWA: It does.
MURAKAMI: That’s another difficult bit of direction.
OZAWA: You have to have a spirit of parody here.
MURAKAMI: But I imagine you can overdo it and destroy the dignity of the music.
OZAWA: You’re right. All it takes is one teaspoon too much or too little, and you can change the whole flavor of the music. That’s what’s so interesting.
MURAKAMI: Even given all this direction, I’m sure there are still times when a musician supposedly playing it as written produces a sound that is different from what you imagined.
OZAWA: Yes, of course, that happens. When a musician produces a sound that is different from the sound I have in my head, I’ll work hard to bring the two closer together—either through verbal instruction or via hand signals.
MURAKAMI: Are there musicians who don’t get the point?
OZAWA: Yes, of course, all the time. It’s the conductor’s job, during rehearsals, to find compromises, or to keep pushing until the musicians come around.
What Makes Mahler’s Music So Cosmopolitan?
MURAKAMI: Just listening to this third movement of the First Symphony, it seems pretty clear to me that Mahler’s 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-siècle overripeness, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldviews—a huge variety of stuff, no single one of which you can place at the center of things. With so many elements thrown together indiscriminately (which sounds bad, I know), aren’t there plenty of openings where a non-Western conductor such as yourself can make his own special inroads? In other words, isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?
OZAWA: Well, this is all very complicated, but I do think there are such openings.
MURAKAMI: I remember when we talked about Berlioz and you said that his music had openings that a Japanese conductor could exploit, be
OZAWA: The big difference between Berlioz and Mahler is that Berlioz doesn’t put in all these detailed instructions.
MURAKAMI: Ah, I see.
OZAWA: 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 it’s well worth the effort.
MURAKAMI: You mean you have to dig down to something deeper than superficial Japanese emotionalism to understand it and internalize it?
OZAWA: Yes, that’s 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 d’être.
MURAKAMI: Earlier we listened to Mitsuko Uchida playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, and I don’t think it would be wrong to say that her performance is very Japanese with regard to the transparency of her piano or her perfect placement of those moments of silence. I don’t think she is deliberately aiming for such things but rather that they emerge quite naturally as a result of her pursuit of the music itself. In that sense, they are not superficial at all.
OZAWA: You may be right about that. There may be uniquely Eastern ways of playing Western music. I would like to go on believing in that possibility.
MURAKAMI: I guess you could say that Mahler was a person who, half consciously but also half unconsciously, departed from what you might call orthodox German music.
OZAWA: It’s true. Which is precisely why I want to think that there is plenty of room for us non-Europeans to cut our way inside. Professor Saito had some very helpful things to tell us in that regard. “You youngsters are blank slates at the moment. So when you go to other countries, you will be able to absorb their traditions. But traditions are not always good. There are both good traditions and bad traditions. That’s true of Germany, of France, and of Italy. Even in America now there are both good traditions and bad traditions. You’ll have to learn to distinguish between the two, and when you go to those countries, you should absorb their good traditions. If you can do that, you will find there is a role for you as Japanese, as Asians.”
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes