Monday, February 28, 2005

Character reference

A short programming notice: In the post below, there ought to be two kanji showing what the words "boku" and "watashi" look like in Japanese. If your screen shows only a question mark, blame your browser, not me.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Wind-Up Bird Songs

Unlike movies, novels tend not to have soundtracks. Not only does background music not play as we read, but there’s often little or no mention of music in the prose. The characters may not lead lives of quiet desperation, exactly, but more often than not the only thing “heard” in fiction is dialogue.

That’s not the case with the work of Haruki Murakami, however. Not only do his characters listen to music, they’re more often than not knowledgeable fans who seem more than happy to discuss their favourite recordings at length. This isn’t entirely co-incidental, of course; Murakami himself is quite the music fan, and has written various pieces of music criticism over the years (none of which, to my knowledge, has been translated into English). Moreover, two of his novels owe their titles to pop songs — South of the Border, West of the Sun was in part inspired by a Nat “King” Cole recording of “South of the Border,” while Norwegian Wood name-checks the Beatle song.

Murakami’s keen ear demands a certain attentiveness from readers, some of whom — no doubt people who never really listen to the music in movie soundtracks — gloss over the accumulated details of taste. Laura Miller, writing recently in The New York Times Book Review, described Murakami’s heroes as “men in their 30’s, easy-going solitary types with a taste for jazz, whiskey and American films” — which feels right at first glance, but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The protagonist in Dance Dance Dance — the critic jay Rubin refers to him as “Boku,” from the casual first-person pronoun (僕) Murakami uses in Japanese — is certainly in his 30’s and a fan of American movies, but his musical interest would probably best be described as classic rock: Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, the Doors, Sam Cooke, Pink Floyd, Three Dog Night, Solomon Burke, Sly & the Family Stone, Eric Clapton, Elvis, Ben E. King. He even sings the Styx hit “Mr. Roboto” while vacuuming. And his interactions with Yuki, an enigmatic girl he meets in Hokkaido, often include discussions of pop music (Boy George is mentioned more than once).

Talking about music is important in Murakami’s novels, because it’s often a way for the characters to connect. For the Boku of Dance Dance Dance, is a handy means to bridge the gap age has placed between him and Yuki; for the Boku of South of the Border, West of the Sun, music is a means of articulating emotion, of making and explaining connections. The owner of a jazz club in Tokyo, he would seem to fit Miller’s description to a T, except he also has a history with classical music, one which is inextricably intertwined with his feelings for a childhood female friend named Shinamoto. At one point, the two as adults attend a performance of the Liszt piano concerto, their youthful favourite. “The soloist was a famous South American pianist,” Boku tells us; I imagined Claudio Arrau but Boku, who apparently cares less about such things, doesn’t confirm my suspicion. In any event, he comes away from the concert disappointed. Shinamoto, who felt the performance was wonderful, asks why Boku didn’t like it. “’Don’t you remember?’ I said. ‘The record we used to listen to, at the end of the second movement there was this tiny scratch you could hear. Putchi! Putchi! Somehow, without that scratch, I can’t get into the music.’” It’s a nice gag, but it also speaks volumes about Boku’s relationship with Shinamoto, in which the past (for all its imperfections) seems more vivid than the present.

But Boku is no mere prisoner of nostalgia; his adult life has plenty of depth, but it’s expressed in his understanding of jazz. Later in the book, he and Shinamoto are at his club, and the piano trio plays the Ellington/Strayhorn composition, “Star Crossed Lovers.” A lesser novelist would have let the resonance of the title define the relationship between Boku and Shinamoto, but Murakami takes us deeper, as Boku explains why he’s so fond of the tune. Boku says that the piece was composed as an analog to Romeo and Juliet. "‘Ellington and Strayhorn wrote it for a performance at the Ontario Shakespeare Festival. In the original recording, Johnny Hodges’ alto sax was Juliet, and Paul Gonsalves played the Romeo part on tenor sax.’” Shinamoto, like the reader, leaps on the metaphor, and asks Boku if the two of them are star-crossed lovers. Boku says no, tries to talk through how he sees things. But his dance around their relationship seems awkward compared to the way he originally summed up the jazz song: “‘It took me a long time to figure out how complex it is, how there’s so much more to it than a pretty melody. It takes a special kind of musician to play it right.’” Carry that observation over to his personal life, and it makes an apt description of his dealings with Shinamoto. Unfortunately, neither ultimately is able to “play it right.”

Perhaps the best description of the importance of music in Murakami’s universe comes in the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. As with a number of Murkami’s novels, this one features a sort of parallel narrative, following the paths of narrators Watashi (私, a more formal Japanese first-person pronoun) and Boku. Boku is something of a lost soul, imprisoned in a town of darkness and fear, whose denizens are ultimately fated to lose their shadows. Music is also taken from them, but one day Boku manages, while rummaging through a junk heap of abandoned instruments, to remember the tune “Danny Boy.” It’s as if the spark of life were rekindled inside him: “When have I last heard a song? My body has craved music. I have been so long without music, I have not even known my own hunger. The resonance permeates; the strain eases within me. Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless winter.”

Music also plays a huge role in Murakami’s latest novel, Kafka on the Shore. I’ll discuss than in my next entry.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


In the current New Yorker, there’s a Talk of the Town item by Adam Gopnik about how the old city street signs on corners in Manhattan are being overshadowed by big green signs. The piece itself is apparently meant to be whimsical, and the prose almost herniates as Gopnik pushes his wan observations toward humor. One sentence particularly caught my eye, however: “The two smaller signs are still there, but they are now drowned out by the highway signage, two jazz piccolos trying to be heard above an electrified kazoo.”

Two jazz piccolos? It’s not a common instrument in jazz, and off the top of my head I can only recall one jazz piccolo performance, by Joe Farrell with the Elvin Jones Trio on “Keiko’s Birthday March” from Puttin’ It Together (the credits only list flute, but it's definitely a piccolo). As for the electrified kazoo, there are actually a number of such things. Most are homemade, such as the “giant electric kazoo” invented by Ontario’s own Nihilist Spasm Band. Those disinclined to build their own may opt for mass produced “instruments” like the Saxxy, a hi-tech toy that bills itself as a synthesizer kazoo. Naturally, there are plenty of kazoo recordings to be found, perhaps the most famous being the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, whose novelty recordings helped launch the mighty Rhino Records. But the kazoo doesn’t just exist as morning zoo joke fodder, and those interested in hearing how the instrument can be applied seriously should check out the Flat Earth Society album ISMS.

Gopnik, of course, is not being literal here, and I rather doubt the fabled fact-checkers at the New Yorker pestered him for actual musical examples. The older signs are cast as piccolos probably because they’re small (that’s what “piccolo” means in Italian), and dubbed jazzy in deference to their jazz-era typography. As for the electrified kazoo, well that’s just meant to make the new signs seem garish and ridiculous.

But what bugged me about the analogy is that in my experience piccolos never have any trouble being heard. Above anything. They may be tiny, but their tone is piercing in the extreme, and it rarely takes more than one to cut through the largest ensemble — think of the famous counter-melody in Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” march. I’m tempted to call the whole thing overblown, but I suspect only flute and piccolo players would appreciate the pun.

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