You don’t have to be a hi-fi nut or a vinyl fetishist to enjoy a place like Spiritland, the listening club/café tucked away in the redeveloped King’s Cross buildings that also house Central St Martin’s art college. It’s the perfect place to hold something like yesterday’s event at which the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s connection to music was discussed, to tie in with the new book of his conversations with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. I imagine the jazz bar called Peter Cat which he and his wife, Yoko, ran in Tokyo before he became a full-time writer had a similar atmosphere: comfortable and chilled, with the music of Red Garland or Duke Ellington coming out of a high-end sound system.
Murakami’s love of music is well known and is frequently threaded into his stories as motif or incidental colouration, from Percy Faith’s “Go Away Little Girl” in After Dark through Wilhelm Backhaus’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32 in Sputnik Sweetheart and Cream’s “Crossroads” in Kafka on the Shore to Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84. He’s a collector of rare jazz LPs, and when I interviewed him for the Guardian in 2003, the final question I asked him was this: if his house caught fire, which three albums, from his library of several thousand, would he save? He thought for a minute. “I give up,” he said finally. “I couldn’t choose three. So I let it burn. Everything. I save the cat.”
Yesterday I was rather hoping to hear “Star-Crossed Lovers”, from Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, a piece which plays a role in Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, through Spiritland’s sound system, but the house DJ, Tony Higgins, didn’t play it in the couple of hours I was there. He did play Curtis Amy, Gene Ammons, Oliver Nelson and many other good sounds, but the principal memory I left with was that of the classical pianist James Rhodes delivering a blazing attack on the British government’s attitude to music education in schools.
Just off a flight from Barcelona, where he had been performing Chopin and Beethoven, Rhodes was scheduled to discuss the topic of “deep listening and literature” with Alex Clark. Having read the book, he was impressed by the knowledge and understanding of classical music that enabled Murakami to engage in discussions with Ozawa that ranged across many musical topics, including the variations between the way orchestras of different nationalities typically interpret the same composition.
Before long, however, he had detoured into what is obviously a serious preoccupation. He spoke of how absurd it was to build another concert hall in London at a cost that would subsidise many years of music education. He described offering to subsidise such lessons for pupils at a school in Basildon, only to be told by the head teacher that if the money were made available, it would have to be spent on English and maths in order to satisfy the priorities of Ofsted, the government’s education watchdog. His tone as he told this story was pleasingly intemperate.
Clark prefaced one of her questions by saying, “If you were the Jamie Oliver of music education…” In a sane world, that is exactly what he would be.
* The photograph above shows Alex Clark and James Rhodes in conversation at Spiritland. Rhodes is the author of Instrumental, a memoir published in 2015 by Canongate, and of How to Play the Piano, published last month by Quercus. Absolutely Music by Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa is published by Vintage.