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Spirited Away by Music

Yup, you’re in a strange position, all right. You’re in love with a girl who is no more.—Haruki Murakami

The quote above, from Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore, is addressed to Kafka, a 15-year-old boy who has fallen in love with the teenage ghost of an older woman. The woman is still alive, but ever since the death of her lover many years before, she has existed separate from her spirit. Falling in love with ghosts is something I’ve done often, starting at about Kafka’s age. Early ghost-loves included Sugarcubes-era Björk and a young Sheena Easton (on the cover of her first album and singing “For Your Eyes Only” at the beginning of that Bond film). Those ghosts manifested, usually, either inside my brain or between my Polk Audio Model 7Bs on their low, tilted-back stands.

I never fell in love with Thelonious Monk, or Eric Dolphy, or Art Pepper—they’re not my type—but having heard them perform countless times in my listening room, I have developed intimate-feeling relationships with them, too, and with other performers. Short of an actual cohabitating spirit, what could be more ghostly than a musician’s individual voice, vocal or instrumental, vividly recreated in your room? What could be a purer expression of the human spirit than a talented musician’s musical creation?

Murakami’s books evoke a world below, or beyond, the conscious world we dwell in daily, the one most of us consider most real. It’s a spirit world of talking cats and intimidating mobster sheep, where things are symbolic, not literal, and truth is suggestive, not logical. In our daily lives, we skim the surface of that rich, deep, strange world, living vacant, analytical lives, separated from our spirits, as the important stuff is worked out down below. We’re usually oblivious to these goings-on, perhaps gaining a glancing awareness during times of emotional crisis. Murakami’s characters live in that world at least part of the time.

Philosophers have written about similar things. Nietzsche: “Just as in a stormy sea that, unbounded in all directions, raises and drops mountainous waves, howling, a sailor sits in a boat and trusts in his frail bark: so in the midst of a world of torments the individual human being sits quietly, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis.” The Latin phrase describes the means by which we differentiate ourselves from teeming chaos and all things from each other. It’s a way of neutralizing that world of torments, keeping it at bay.

In Murakami’s books, music is a sort of port key, transporting characters to a different time and place. “I hang up, go back to my room, put the single of ‘Kafka on the Shore’ on the turntable, and lower the needle,” Kafka says. “And once more, whether I like it or not, I’m swept away to that place. To that time.”

Murakami—a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature—is an audiophile. His novels are studded with music. Janácek’s Sinfonietta is central to 1Q84. An early novel is called Norwegian Wood, after the Beatles song. In his latest novel, Killing Commendatore—the title references Don Giovanni, the Mozart/Da Ponte opera—the narrator flips over an LP of Springsteen’s The River, brushes off the dust, and comments on the superiority of vinyl. Earlier in the book, he describes a pair of Tannoy Autographs: “the perfect speakers for . . . listening to vinyl records of chamber music.” You can see pictures of Murakami’s office online, custom JBLs aimed at the center of a dark leather sofa, the walls lined with LPs (footnote 1).

I’ve felt a Murakami-esque affinity for Murakami and his books—an uncanny connection—since long before I knew he was an audiophile. I’ve long felt that undercurrent, surging under the rocks and stones. I’ve interpreted these odd experiences as, alternately, incipient wisdom, descent into madness, and low blood sugar.

Kafka’s girlfriend-ghost was once—or, in the ghost’s time, soon will be—a musician with a million-selling album. But ever since the senseless death of her young lover, she has roamed the world bereft of music and spirit, those two things being linked. A (re)union with Kafka, together with some strange happenings on that deeper plane, may help reassemble her parts.

Murakami undercuts this seriousness with a clownish sensibility. People talk to cats, and cats answer back. The protagonist’s despised father is, at the time of his murder, a notorious cat-torturing, silk-top-hat-wearing provocateur named Johnny Walker, after the Scotch. Another character, a combination pimp/guide to the spirit realm, claims to be Colonel Sanders, the fried chicken guy.

One way of interpreting our audio obsession is as high-end consumerism. Here’s a different way: There’s a close connection between music and this thing we call spirit, whatever that is; getting closer to the one gets you closer to the other. That is what we crave.

Don’t buy it Consider tribal religious ceremonies with dancing and drums, the music of Coltrane and Johann Sebastian Bach, the unique acoustical properties of sacred spaces, and church pipe-organs (with 32′ pipes!) that vibrate your very soul. Certainly, listening to a well-recorded album of first-rate jazz is, for me, very much like going to church. It works better for me, though, than church does.

Music, especially when it’s reproduced with visceral impact, corporeal images, and chest-thumping bass, can put ghosts in our rooms, take us to dark places, send us off to other places and times. It can connect us, or reconnect us, to the place where the meaning resides.—Jim Austin




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