Haruki Murakami needs no further introduction. Dubbed a “literary genius”, his bestselling books and stories have been translated into more than 50 languages. With his unique brand of intelligent prose that straddles the line between reality and imaginary, his page-turners not only provoke thoughts, but also evoke emotions.
Murakami has always been a music lover first, and author second. In as early as Hear The Wind Sing (1979) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), or later during his career in Kafka on the Shore (2002), his works are often peppered with melodious descriptions of music; weaving an elegant arrangement that guides the reader through different genres like jazz, rock, country and classical.
PETER CAT AND MURAKAMI’S PRE-AUTHOR DAYS
Kyoto-born Murakami met his wife Yoko while studying drama at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Both of them shared a love for jazz music, juggling multiple part-time jobs and putting aside their hard-earned wages to realise a dream: three years later in 1974, even before completing his studies at Waseda, Murakami and Yoko opened Peter Cat at the South exit of Kokubunji Station, Tokyo.
Café by day and jazz bar by night, Peter Cat was a culmination of everything Murakami loved, but running it was a challenge. In Peter Cat’s early days, they were always short-handed, which meant Murakami had to manage everything himself, from daily tasks like serving customers to preparing drinks to washing dishes; to the more music-centric roles like playing records to entertaining song requests to contacting musicians who were willing to perform at his space.
“As long as it is something that I like, I will work hard and do it wholeheartedly.” One often imagines that being a shop owner is liberating, both financially and emotionally. Murakami insists that this is not the case – even when Peter Cat finally got its momentum on track, it was not a truly profitable business. In truth, he was often attacked with ill-meaning resentment and unfounded criticisms, which became even more exhausting as the years passed. In the end, Murakami ran Peter Cat for a total of seven years before finally retiring from the business.
In 1979, at Peter Cat’s second location in downtown Sendagaya, Murakami began writing his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, following a burst of inspiration while watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Working in brief stretches, often writing for one or two hours in the kitchen after closing for the night, he finally completed it after ten months, and proceeded to send it to Gunzo magazine, where it won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers.
Murakami admits that his writing style stems from his love for music. Even today, he almost always works while listening to music. “I’ve never learned how to write from anyone, nor have I studied in particular. So, if you ask me where I learned to write, my answer is music. Rather than learning a technique from someone, I’ve become conscious about rhythms, harmony and improvisation. If you think my books are easy to read, perhaps we have something in common musically,” he said.
With a penchant for classical, jazz and rock music, Murakami often pays homage to his favourite songs, either incorporated into stories or titles. In Hear the Wind Sing, he mentions many distinctive tunes that complement the lazy summer setting, including “California Girls” by The Beach Boys and “Good Luck Charm” by Elvis Presley.
Murakami’s clever connection with words and music continues in Norwegian Wood (1987), which echoes the underlying veiled meaning suggested in The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”, depicting an extramarital affair. In Murakami’s book, the main character reminisces the relationships he had with two very different women.
Classical music also makes an appearance in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1997), which comprises three parts: Book of the Thieving Magpie, Book of the Prophesying Bird and Book of the Bird-Catcher Man. What makes Murakami’s books so intriguing to read is the existence of these “easter eggs” – whether about his personal preferences of music, or about the genre itself – which make an appearance when you least expect it.
[BONUS] There’s even a comprehensive list of the music that Murakami has mentioned in his works over the years: check it out here.
APPRECIATING THE CONNECTION BETWEEN MUSIC AND PEOPLE
Another interesting thing to know is that many jazz fans have also revealed that they became interested in the music after reading about it in Murakami’s books. Portrait in Jazz (1997), beautifully illustrated by Makoto Wada, brings together 26 jazz legends ranging from Billie Holiday to Chet Baker to Charlie Christian, a tribute to the golden age of jazz and the iconic musicians that became Murakami’s inspirations.
In Absolutely on Music (2011), Murakami delves into a personal conversation about music and writing with his close friend Seiji Ozawa, an internationally acclaimed conductor who formerly led the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps it can be said that music has shaped Murakami into the author he is today. Without music, he would not be the Murakami we know and admire.
Where music has inspired Murakami; Murakami has also inspired music: to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Hear the Wind Sing, a list of the songs mentioned in the novel was released as an album. There are also compilations made based on the songs he talked about, like Murakami Haruki’s Lullaby, based on the songs he listens to before going to sleep.
Beginning 5 August 2018, Murakami stepped up to a new role as the host of his on-radio segment, Murakami Radio, on Tokyo FM. Through Murakami Radio, which runs for 55 minutes per session, fans and music lovers can hear Murakami for the first time as he talks about two things that have an important spot in his heart: music and running (he has been competing in marathons since the 1980s). In May of this year, a “Stay Home” special was aired for Murakami Radio’s 14th episode. During the show, the 71-year-old author played a selection of songs he hoped would keep listeners’ spirits up during the peak of the pandemic.
“It’s always been my hobby to collect records and CDs. Thanks to that, my house is filled with such things. However, I sometimes feel guilty towards the world while listening to such amazing music and having a good time alone. I thought it might be good to share it with other people while chatting over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee,” shares Murakami. For context, he owns a massive collection of over 10,000 LPs, which you can listen to over here, thanks to a Spotify user by the name of Masamaro Fujiki, who compiled over 230 hours of tunes based on Murakami’s collection.
For your listening pleasure, SOL presents this playlist of Murakami’s selections from Murakami Radio:
“KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR” – BEN SIDRAN
“LA VIE EN ROSE” – JACK NICHOLSON
“WINTER WONDERLAND” – LISA ONO
“THE GOOD LIFE” – BLOSSOM DEARIE
“KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH HIS SONG” – PITINGO
“AND I LOVE HER” – SARAH VAUGHAN
“POLKA DOTS AND MOONBEAMS” – MEL TORMÉ
“LIBERA ME” – YARON HERMAN
“THE MORE I SEE YOU” – CHET BAKER
“WHEN YOU’RE SMILING” – BILLIE HOLIDAY
“YOZORA NO MUKOU” – CHIE AYADO
“OVER THE RAINBOW” – ELLA FITZGERALD
This article was originally published in Chinese on Sound of Lifeon 17 July 2020.
Cover image: Haruki Murakami Radio
Writer | Michelle Tan Underneath her RBF, Michelle is actually a friendly raccoon. Loves collecting ugly things, changing her hair colour, and dinosaurs (not necessarily in that order).