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

Footnote 1: See lifehacker.com/the-music-and-souvenir-filled-workspace-of-author-haru-1724850226.

Anton's picture

I call it "Music by Dasein."

Regarding this high fidelity stuff...I don't need it, but I certainly love it. It's fun, it's a fascination, a great toy, something to be pondered and played with, but Hi Fi has never once taken me someplace my car stereo couldn't, a friend's "Low or Mid Fi" rig did't, or where a well placed boom box wouldn't.

People, place, setting/situation...all of these come before recorded fidelity, for me.

John Prine, Miles Davis, or Aaron Copeland...have any of your favored artists works not worked for you in the car or at someone else's place and only at home in front of your main rig? I hope not!!

Does anyone hear a beloved tune in the car and think, "Man, this sound is crap, but when I get home I'm gonna play this on the big boy system and get a chance to enjoy it?" Or, do you tilt your head back slightly and sing along?

I think that the music all lives in the same place, and every method of reproduction just gives us slightly a different view of the same landscape.

rschryer's picture

...in the same place, and every method of reproduction just gives us slightly a different view of the same landscape."

Well said. (May I add that better gear gives better views?)

Anton's picture

That’s one reason I said it that way!

With you 100%!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you get one of the new automobiles with surround sound systems designed by one of the hi-end audio manufacturers, you can enjoy the music even more :-) ..........

cgh's picture

Love, love, love Murakami. Some of my favorite Murakami may be considered minor Murakami, like ...Sheep Chase and Colorless... Absolutely on Music: Conversations would be a good book for this crew.

John Atkinson's picture
I was visiting Sasha Matson last week to measure the speakers he is reviewing for the January 2020 issue and he lent me Haruki Murakami's "Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa." I was never that impressed with Ozawa when I saw him conduct but the insights Murakami-san draws from him are fascinating. Jim Austin has also read this book, which was published in English in 2016.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If JA1 visited Sasha Matson to measure the speakers he is reviewing, they most likely weigh a ton ........ May be the WAMM Master Chronosonic? :-) .........

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
If JA1 visited Sasha Matson to measure the speakers he is reviewing, they most likely weigh a ton ...

260 lb each.

Bogolu Haranath wrote:
May be the WAMM Master Chronosonic? :-)

Nope. And as Sasha's listening room is on the second floor of his house, won't ever be the Master Chronosonics :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Aha ...... Wilson Sasha DAW ......... What else would Sasha Matson review? ......... That was too easy :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be JA1 could review the new Revel Performa F226BE ($7,000/pair) ......... There is a good possibility that the F226BE could outperform many bookshelf and floor-standing models in this price range :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Two other competitors (among many others) in the price range of Revel Performa F226BE are, GoldenEar Triton One. R ($6,000/pair...... Stereophile review may be forthcoming) and the new Polk Audio Legend Series top-model L-800 ($6,000/pair) with SDA-PRO (stereo dimensional array) technology (see, S&V website) :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you allow me to say so ...... Revel's top of the line Performa F328BE ($15,000/pair) could match (may, even outperform) the Sasha DAW, at less than half the price ....... It also, weighs less than half the weight :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

Dam, this AWSI might be the finest piece of Audio Magazine Writings to date.

Is recorded Music a foundational element for a High Quality Life ?

I think so, at least for those who've discovered it and are able to harness the technology to bring it into daily life.

High-End Audio = High Quality Life

For me, as an Analytical, Music brings fond memories and is also a Powerful Mood Altering Synthetic Pleasure Creator that I must control the intensity of or suffer hopeless addiction and or my Wife's Lawyer induced withdrawal.

For my wife, music is something she asks to be turned OFF say'n "I'm trying to make dinner and can't think while that person is singing her head off" ( referring to oh so sweet Norah Jones ) .

Our New Editor seems capable of Leading Stereophile on a path to being a sort-of Audio Mag ( journal ?) version of Atlantic Monthly,

I Love It.

Tony in Venice

teched58's picture

...to read The Atlantic. First Jim was a physicist, now he apparently wants to be a literary essayist. The problem with that is, he was hired to be the editor of an audio magazine.

Much as I too admire Murakami, I searched in vain for something in this post [as well as his previous post about feeling the music] that made it pertinent to the subject that this website is supposed to be about. [The fact that Murakami's most famous novel has the same title as a Beatles song doesn't count.]

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"This bird had flown" :-) ........

ednazarko's picture

There are some albums that are chock full of ghosts for me. A few seemed to have been played when Really Big Things happened in my life, and I need to be careful to only play them when I don't have anything else to do, for a few hours, because the ghosts hang around for awhile after the music's over.

Others bring back ghosts of friends who are no longer with us. One Leon Russell song I still can't hear without weeping for the ghost of a girlfriend who died 42 years ago. A few songs bring back other friends, sometimes because a song is by their favorite performer, or they were playing in the recording session. My father drops in when 1940s big band music plays.

Like Kafka's ghost girl, some songs bring back the young ghosts of friends and family who still are corporeal. Can't hear Mitch Ryder's Devil with the Blue Dress medley without seeing my 5 year old niece become totally possessed, becoming a twitching shaking spinning go-go dancer. 35 years later, it still has that effect on her.

And a whole lot of albums drag out ghosts of my earlier self - that sunset in Fiji, that sunrise on a Manhattan roof, that evening we were listening to the Dead's Live in Europe and went outside and found the stars had been rearranged into the Skull and Roses. If I play that these days, I need to plan a couple hours for gentle re-entry.

Anton's picture

I’m traveling to drop my kids off at their schools in So Cal. Besides helping find household items and such, I’m sneaking in a chance to ogle some gear, visit a favorite retailer, and hunt vinyl. There is absolutely a “toy” component to what we do. I am looking at totems that symbolize good sound and good music. I’m getting joy from my hobby even without ‘playing’ a note.

It’s a great hobby.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Toy Soldiers" :-) ........

rschryer's picture

Our hobby is the one thing we can count on to bring us perpetual joy in this topsy turvy world.

Happy hunting, Anton.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Haruki Murakami has been on my "Must Read" list for, like forever. There's two other authors I've soaked up who are touching on similar but by no means identical themes.

Philip K. Dick's big questions circle around simulacra: "an image or representation of someone or something/an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute". And recorded music was of singular importance to the author; he churned out the bulk of his work while strapped to his Stax Earspeakers, probably playing Linda Ronstadt LPs. He worked in a Berkeley record store for a while, Charles Amirkhanian told me about seeing him behind the counter in a classical record store on Telegraph Avenue. "The Simulacra" has one of the finest depictions of the "High-End" record process I have witnessed—Richard Kongrosian is a hypochondriacal concert pianist at a recording session where the recording media is some living goo with a short shelf life and the musician is playing telekinetically. And what can one say of a title like "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said"? Of course, a lot of this obsession of PKD's is around the edges of "Does it have a soul? How can we know?" That's, like, 99% of "Blade Runner"? And, like 99% of LPs? CDs? Is it really "real" enough? What is "real" in the context of a Britney Spears recording, anyway?

The other that comes to mind is Thomas Pynchon. I could go all logorrheic on you, but two-three moments stand out. 1. Säure Bummer and Gustav Schlabone discussing Beethoven vs. Rossini while burning down an extraordinarily powerful joint, ending with the SS busting into the room, demanding papers [Säure Bummer whips out his Zig-Zags], 2. Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin levitating to the top the the cathedral during the premiere performance of "Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis", a changed woman forevermore, and 3. Mucho Maas waxing visionary while expounding [Post-LSD] on "She Loves You"—

" . . . "Whenever I put the headset on now," he'd continued, "I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about 'She loves you,' yeah well, you know, she does, she's any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the 'you' is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it's a flipping miracle." His eyes brimming, reflecting the color of beer. . . "

cgh's picture

“You’re caught in tonality,” screams Gustav. “Trapped. Tonality is a game. All of them are. You’re too old. You’ll never move beyond the game, to the Row. The Row is enlightenment.”...

“Sound is a game, if you’re capable of moving that far, you adenoidal closet-visionary. That’s why I listen to Spohr, Rossini, Spontini, I’m choosing my game, one full of light and kindness. You’re stuck with that stratosphere stuff and rationalize its dullness away by calling it ‘enlightenment.’ You don’t know what enlightenment is, Kerl, you’re blinder than I am.”

ok's picture

and I’m still trying to get myself some sleep –unfortunately to no avail, so I'm finally getting up to have a piss. Lights appear to be offline, but my stereo somehow keeps playing some forgotten old tune, 13th Floor Elevators’ You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore. Something is obviously very wrong and cold fear is starting to take the upper hand, while I can’t help but heading straight to its source, a nervous black shadow right behind the bedroom door, undoubtedly female for no obvious reason. Fear now is turning to panic; I'm trying to scream, but my voice has been taken away by the hag. I'm being shaken by my devastated wife and consequently awaken back to my bed, where I find her sleeping for good.

Long after these Night Mares had become an icky routine, I took my chances with some horror movies in a desperate attempt to heal myself through homeopathy when all else failed. First one happened to be The Sixth Sense –but my creepy session suddenly came to a full stop; the kid’s first encounter with a ghost was a hysterical dead woman with both her wrists cut, who stared at him and yelled: you can’t hurt me anymore, you can’t hurt me anymore!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Poltergeist? :-) .......

ok's picture

since my ectoplasmometer's indications were not conclusive. I also feel that any kind of blind testing will only make matters worse..

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be the 'Ghost-Busters' could help :-) .........

on7green's picture

Great Piece.
And not to mention After Dark (2004), where Murakami pays homage to the trombone, Curtis Fuller's Blues-ette, and vinyl records. Writing that stays with you.