February 09, 2017

Quotes from Absolutely On Music

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Haruki Murakami's recent non-fiction book Absolutely On Music, which is made up of interviews with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. In reading the book I hoped to find some discussions of art that could also be applied to my own interests. Not necessarily tricks that could be directly translated from conducting an orchestra to animated filmmaking, but just generally inspiring artistic ideas and philosophy. Here are some of the sections I noted:

"Perhaps one reason we never talked seriously about music until recently is that the maestro's work kept him so fully involved. As a result, whenever we got together to have a drink, we'd talk about anything other than music. At most, we might have shared a few fragmentary remarks on some musical topics that never led anywhere. 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. Knowing this, I avoided bringing up musical topics when I was in his company."
(from the introduction, vii)

"Whatever differences there might be between making music and writing fiction, both of us are happiest when absorbed in our work. And the very fact that were are able to become so totally engrossed in it gives us the deepest satisfaction. What we end up producing as a result of that work may well be important, but aside from that, our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward."
(from the introduction, xi)
I really relate to this. Nothing is as exciting or fun as when I'm really engrossed in making a cartoon, either writing, storyboarding or animating.

"M: In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music - the importance of those pauses or empty spaces - but it's there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he's doing exactly the same thing. Not everybody can do it -- certainly no ordinary musician. But somebody like him does it all the time.
M: Ordinary musicians don't do it?

O: No, never. Or if they do, the spaces don't fit in as naturally as this. It doesn't grab you -- you don't get drawn in as you do here. That's what putting in these empty spaces, or ma, is all about, isn't it? You grab your audience and pull them in. East or West, it's all the same when a virtuoso does it."
This is something very applicable to animation (at its most basic level, a held pose so that the audience can process something), or film storytelling (a pause to provide tension, or the opposite, such as an Ozu 'pillow shot').

"M: He's like an old master of classical rakugo storytelling, just going along with his instincts.
O: Yes, he's completely at ease, not the least bit concerned if his fingers stumble a little. That part where you said he was flirting with danger -- he really was. But that just adds to the overall flavor when you're that good.
M: When I first heard this recording, I was worried that his action or touch or whatever you call it was just a bit slower than it used to be -- but, strangely enough, the more I listened to it, the less it bothered me.
O: That's because a musician's special flavor comes out with age. His playing at that stage may have more interesting qualities than at the height of his career."

This is a much more appealing view of aging as an artist than what you usually hear in western pop culture, which is generally that people lose the vitality and energy of their early work, becoming repetitive or irrelevant.

"O: Look, Beethoven himself changes a lot in the Ninth. His orchestrations were quite limited until he got to his Ninth Symphony."
I just found this an encouraging thought, that one of classical music's most famous composers had a creative breakthrough that late in his work.

"M: The sound is unified, and the quality of the playing is high.
O: Yes, but it could use a little more flavor.
M: I think it's expressive, and it really sings.
O: But it's missing a certain heaviness - a feeling from the countryside.
M: You mean it's too clean and neat?
O: The Boston Symphony may have a tendency to make sounds that are too nice."
"M: Listening to their sound, I can see exactly what you mean. This is very good-quality, high-level teamwork.
O: No one does anything to depart from the orchestra's overall sound. But that's not necessarily the right way to play Mahler. Getting the proper balance between the two is extremely hard."

I feel this way about nearly all modern commercial animation. Everything has a tendency to be too clean, too stiff, too restrained and neat for fear of creating a moment of genuine surprise or showing the audience the dreaded 'artist's hand.' But I think getting to see some of the individual artist seeping into the work is one of the most exciting things about animation. That's why my favorites tend to be the ones whose personal stamp is strong - Rod Scribner, Jim Tyer, Yuzo Aoki, Masaaki Yuasa, Shinya Ohira, etc.

[Ozawa talking about seeing Louie Armstrong live in the 60s]
"O: That special style of Satchmo's was indescribable. You know how we talk about artistic shibumi in Japan, when a mature artist attains a level of austere simplicity and mastery? Satchmo was like that. He was already getting along in years, but his singing and trumpet playing were at their peak."
Again, this is a nicer view of aging than the typical line of thinking in rock music, which is that everybody made their best stuff when they were in their early 20s and it's all downhill from there.

I found a lot of inspiration in the book, and I recommend checking it out if you like these quoted passages.

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