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Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
The popular author's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, carries on a long tradition of pointed musical references
 
Murakami's musical references are confined to classical, jazz, and American pop.
Murakami's musical references are confined to classical, jazz, and American pop. (Illustration by Lauren Hansen)

Earlier this month, Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was published in the United States. Its title is a reference to Franz Liszt's "Years of Pilgrimage" suite, which plays a central role in the novel's narrative. The pointed reference isn't exactly a major detour from Murakami. His favorite tropes are so omnipresent that a fan recently put together a Bingo card collecting them: "Speaking to Cats," "Parallel Worlds," "Weird Sex," and — of course — "Old Jazz Record."

At times, reading Murakami's work can feel like flipping through his legendarily expansive record collection. (In a 2011 New York Times article, Murakami estimated that he owns 10,000 records, but says he was afraid to count.) Almost without exception, Murakami's musical references are confined to one of three genres: classical, jazz, and American pop. Many of his novels, including Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, and South of the Border, West of the Sun — derive their titles from songs, and his characters constantly reflect on the music they hear. If anything, Murakami's reliance on music has become more pronounced over the years; his two most recent novels hinge on songs that literally have the power to change the world.

Perhaps the strangest side effect of Murakami's enormous popularity is his ability to single-handedly drive musical trends. Following the Japanese release of 1Q84, Leoš Janáček's "Sinfonietta"— which plays a prominent role in the narrative — sold as many copies in one week as it had sold over the previous 20 years. Recognizing this power, Vintage Books promoted his latest novel by incorporating the Liszt composition into a book trailer:

How has Murakami's use of music changed and evolved over the course of the past few decades? What follows is a catalog of Murakami's most significant musical references, for fans to analyze and enjoy. Each link within an excerpt will take you to an individual song; a collected playlist is available below.


The music of Haruki Murakami, as excerpted from his books

A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, 1989)

She cleared away the beer cans and put the kettle on. Then while waiting for the water to boil, she listened to a cassette in the other room. Johnny Rivers singing "Midnight Special" followed by "Roll Over Beethoven." Then "Secret Agent Man." When the kettle whistled, she made the coffee, singing along with "Johnny B. Goode." The whole while I read the evening paper. A charming domestic scene. If not for the matter of the sheep, I might have been very happy. (158)

At my neighborhood dive bar, I drank a beer while listening to the latest Brothers Johnson record. I ate my chicken cutlet while listening to a Bill Withers record. I had some coffee while listening to Maynard Ferguson's "Star Wars." After all that, I felt as if I'd hardly eaten anything. (171)

"Heardanythingaboutthewar?" asks the Sheep Man. The Benny Goodman Orchestra strikes up "Air Mail Special." Charlie Christian takes a long solo. He is wearing a soft cream-colored hat. (341)


Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985, 1991)

"Say, isn't that Bob Dylan you have on?"

"Right," I said. Positively Fourth Street.

"I can tell Bob Dylan in an instant," she said.

"Because his harmonica's worse than Stevie Wonder?"

She laughed again. Nice to know I could still make someone laugh.

"No, I really like his voice," she said. "It's like a kid standing at the window watching the rain."

After all the volumes that have been written about Dylan, I had yet to come across such a perfect description. (345)

She rolled down her panty hose as a bluesy Ray Charles came on with "Georgia on My Mind." I closed my eyes, put both feet up on the table and swizzled the minutes around in my head like the ice in a drink. Everything, everything, seemed once-upon-a-time. (364)

The autumn sky was as clear as if it had been made that very morning. Perfect Duke Ellington weather. Though, of course, Duke Ellington would be right even for New Year's Eve at an Antarctic base. I drove along, listening to Lawrence Brown's trombone solo on "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me," followed by Johnny Hodges on "Sophisticated Lady." (387)


The Elephant Vanishes (collected short stories, English pub. 1993)

"The baker was a classical music freak, and when we got there, he was listening to an album of Wagner overtures. So he made us a deal. If we would listen to the record all the way through, we could take as much bread as we liked. I talked it over with my buddy and we figured, Okay. It wouldn't be work in the purest sense of the word, and it wouldn't hurt anybody. So I put our knife back in the bag, pulled up a couple of chairs, and listened to the overtures to Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman." ("The Second Bakery Attack, 40)

The conversation happened before Christmas. One morning after New Year's my mother called me at nine o'clock. I was brushing my teeth to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."

She asked if I knew the man my sister was seeing.

I said I didn't. ("Family Affair," 167)

Sometimes, though, fourteen or fifteen years doesn't seem so long ago. I'll think, that's when Jim Morrison was singing "Light My Fire," or Paul McCartney "The Long and Winding Road" – maybe I'm scrambling my years a bit, but anyway, about that time – it somehow never quite hits that it was all that long ago. I mean, I don't think I myself have changed so much since those days. ("The Last Lawn of the Afternoon," 268)


Norwegian Wood (1987, 2000)

Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever. (3)

Her milk was on the house if she would play the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," said the girl. Reiko gave her a thumbs-up and launched into the song. Hers was not a full voice, and too much smoking had given it a husky edge, but it was lovely, with real presence. I almost felt as if the sun really were coming up again as I sat there listening and drinking beer and looking at the mountains. (139-40).

A girl with pale pink lipstick who couldn't have been more than junior-high-school age came in and asked me to play the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash." When I found the disk and put it on for her, she started snapping her fingers to the rhythm and shaking her hips as she danced around the shop. Then she asked me for a cigarette. I gave her one of the manager's, which she smoked with obvious pleasure, and when the record ended she left the shop without so much as a "thank you." (165)


Dance Dance Dance (1988, 1994)

Once the hole was filled in, I tossed the shovel into the trunk of the car, and got back on the highway. I turned the radio on as I drove home to Tokyo.

Which is when the DJ had to put on Ray Charles moaning about being born to lose… and now I'm losing you.

I felt like crying. Sometimes one little thing will do the trick. (10)

So I made tracks to the hotel barbershop, hoping that it'd be crowded and that I'd have to wait my turn. But of course the place was empty, and I was in the chair immediately. An abstract painting hung on the blue-gray walls, and Jacques Rouchet's Play Bach lilted soft and mellow from hidden speakers. This was not like any barbershop I'd been to – you could hardly call it a barbershop. The next thing you know, they'll be playing Gregorian Chants in bathhouses, Ryuichi Sakamoto in tax office waiting rooms. (35)

I thought about when I was her age. I used to collect pop records myself. Singles. Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack," Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man," Brenda Lee's "All Alone Am I." I owned maybe a hundred 45s. I used to listen to them day in and day out. I knew all the lyrics by heart. The things kids can memorize. Always the most meaningless, idiotic lines. Stuff about a China doll down in old Hong Kong, waiting for my return…

Not quite Talking Heads. But okay, the times they are a-changin'. (109)


South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992, 2000)

Of all her father's records, the one I liked best was a recording of the Liszt piano concertos: one concerto on each side. There were two reasons I liked this record. First of all, the record jacket was beautiful. Second, no one around me – with the exception of Shimamoto, of course – ever listened to Liszt's piano concertos. The very idea excited me. I'd found a world that no one around me knew – a secret garden only I was allowed to enter. I felt elevated, lifted to another plane of existence. (10-11).

Off in the distance, Nat King Cole was singing "South of the Border." The song was about Mexico, but at the time I had no idea. The words "south of the border" had a strangely appealing ring to them. I was convinced something utterly wonderful lay south of the border. When I opened my eyes, Shimamoto was moving her fingers along her skirt. Somewhere deep inside my body I felt an exquisitely sweet ache. (15)

The piano trio finished an original blues number and began the intro to "Star-Crossed Lovers." When I was in the bar, the pianist would often strike up that ballad, knowing that it was a favorite of mine. It wasn't one of Ellington's best-known tunes, and I had no particular memories associated with it; just happened to hear it once, and it struck some chord with me. From college to those bleak textbook-company years, come evening I'd listen to the Such Sweet Lovers album, the "Star-Crossed Lovers" track over and over. (95)


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995, 1997)

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie," which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta. (1)

The owner of the shop had his JVC boom box turned up loud, as he had on my last trip. This morning it was an Andy Williams tape. "Hawaiian Wedding Song" was ending just as I walked in, and "Canadian Sunset" started. Whistling happily to the tune, the owner was writing in a notebook with a ballpoint pen, his movements as energetic as before. In the pile of tapes on the shelf, I spotted such names as Sergio Mendes, Bert Kaempfert, and 101 Strings. So he was an easy-listenin' freak. It suddenly occurred to me that true believers in hard-driving jazz – Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor – could never become owners of cleaning shops in malls across from railroad stations. Or maybe they could. They just wouldn't be happy cleaners. (81-2).

I could feel a certain warmth in the mark on my cheek. It told me that I was drawing a little closer to the core of things. I closed my eyes. Still echoing in my ear were the strains of music that Cinnamon had been listening to repeatedly as he worked that morning. It was Bach's "Musical Offering," still there in my head like the lingering murmur of a crowd in an auditorium. Eventually, though, silence descended and began to burrow its way into the folds of my brain, one after another, like an insect laying eggs. (455)


Sputnik Sweetheart (1999, 2001)

According to her father, her mother had chosen the name Sumire. She loved the Mozart song of the same name and had decided long before that if she had a daughter that would be her name. On a shelf in their living room was a record of Mozart's songs, doubtless the one her mother had listened to, and when she was a child, Sumire would carefully lay this heavy LP on the turntable and listen to it over and over. (18)

She and Miu shared similar musical tastes, it turned out. They both loved piano music and were convinced that Beethoven's Sonata No. 23 was the absolute pinnacle in the history of music. And that Wilhelm Backhaus's unparalleled performance of the "Sonata for Decca" set the interpretive standard. (20)

I folded my hands behind my head and watched Sumire as she slowly yet eagerly devoured her cake. From the small speakers on the ceiling of the coffee shop, Astrud Gilberto sang an old bossa nova song. "Take Me to Aruanada," she sang. I closed my eyes, and the clatter of cups and saucers sounded like the roar of a far-off sea. Aruanda – what's it like there? I wondered. (31)

"Whether you're a good-for-nothing lesbian doesn't matter. Imagine The Greatest Hits of Bobby Darin minus 'Mack the Knife.' That's what my life would be like without you." (65)


After the Quake (2000, 2002)

The World Thyroid Conference was a four-day event at the Bangkok Marriott. Actually, it was more like a worldwide family reunion than a conference. All the participants were thyroid specialists, and they all knew each other or were quickly introduced. It was a small world. There would be lectures and panel discussions during the day and private parties at night. Friends would get together to renew old ties, drink Australian wine, share thyroid stories, update each other on their careers, tell dirty doctor jokes, and sing "Surfer Girl" at karaoke bars.(71)

The plane reached cruising altitude and the Fasten Seat Belt sign went out. So, thought Satsuki, I'm going back to Japan. She tried to think about what lay ahead, but soon gave up. "Words turn into stone," Nimit had told her. She settled deep into her seat and closed her eyes. All at once the image came to her of the sky she had seen while swimming on her back. And Errol Garner's "I'll Remember April." Let me sleep, she thought. Just let me sleep. And wait for the dream to come. (90)


Kafka on the Shore (2002, 2005)

The Siamese was a female, just approaching middle age. She proudly held her tail up straight, and had a collar with a name tag. She had pleasant features and was slim, with not an ounce of extra fat.

"Please call me Mimi. The Mimi from La Boheme. There's a song about it, too: 'Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi." (73)

"Playing Schubert's piano sonatas well is one of the hardest things in the world. Especially this, the "Sonata in D Major." It's a tough piece to master. Some pianists can play one or maybe two of the movements perfectly, but if you listen to all four movements as a unified whole, no one has ever nailed it. A lot of famous pianists have tried to rise to the challenge, but it's like there's always something missing. There's never one where you can say, Yes! He's got it! Do you know why?"

"No," I reply.

"Because the sonata itself is imperfect. Robert Schumann understood Schubert's sonatas well, and he labeled this one 'Heavenly Tedious.'" (102)

"It's beautiful. You never get tired of listening to it. I'd say it's the most refined of all Beethoven's piano trios. He wrote it when he was forty, and never wrote another. He must have decided he'd reached the pinnacle in that genre."

"I think I know what you mean. Reaching the pinnacle's important in everything." (302)


Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (collected short stories, English pub. 2006)

The band began playing "Auld Lang Syne."

"Eleven fifty-five," she said, glancing at the gold watch on her pendant. "I really like 'Auld Lang Syne.' How about you?"

"I prefer 'Home on the Range.' All those deer and antelope." ("New York Mining Disaster," 44).

"Strictly speaking — wait a second — strictly speaking, my last round of vomiting occurred on July 14 at nine thirty in the morning when I brought up my toast, tomato salad, and milk. The last phone call came at ten twenty-five p.m. that night when I was listening to Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea and drinking Seagram's VO. Handy, isn't it, keeping a diary like this?" ("Nausea 1979," 160).

During the winter I had a part-time job at a small record store in Shinjuku. For Christmas I gave her a Henry Mancini record that had one of her favorites on it, the tune "Dear Heart." I wrapped it in paper with a Christmas tree design, and added a pink ribbon. She gave me a pair of woolen mittens she'd knitted. The part for the thumb was a little too short, but they were warm all the same. ("Firefly," 240).


After Dark (2004, 2007)

"When I was in middle school, I happened to buy a jazz record called Blues-ette at a used record store. An old LP. I can't remember why I bought it at the time. I had never heard any jazz before. But anyway, the first tune on side A was 'Five Spot After Dark', and it was great. A guy named Curtis Fuller played the trombone on it. The first time I heard it, I felt the scales fall from my eyes. That's it, I thought. That's the instrument for me. The trombone and me: it was a meeting arranged by destiny." (20)

He presses a button and the needle descends to the record. Faint scratching. Then Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" begins to play. Harry Carney's bass clarinet languorous bass clarinet performs solo. The bartender's unhurried movements give the place its own special time flow. (60)

Mari is no longer here. Neither is anyone else. Music continues to play from the ceiling speaker. A Hall and Oates song now: "I Can't Go For That." A closer look reveals that Mari's image is still reflected in the mirror over the sink. The Mari in the mirror is looking from her side into this side. Her somber gaze seems to be expecting some kind of occurrence. But there is no one on this side. Only her image is left in the Skylark's restroom mirror.

The room begins to darken. In the deepening darkness, "I Can't Go For That" continues to play. (63)


1Q84 (2009, 2011)

The taxi's radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janacek's Sinfonietta — probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn't seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music. (3)

The Well-Tempered Clavier was truly heavenly music for mathematicians. It was composed of prelude and fugue pairs in major and minor keys using all twelve tones of the scale, twenty-four pieces per book, forty-eight pieces in all, comprising a perfect cycle. (206)

When she woke, the hands of the clock were pointing to four-thirty. Using the food still left in the refrigerator, she made herself some ham and eggs. She drank orange juice straight from the carton. The silence after her nap was strangely heavy. She turned on the FM radio to find Vivaldi's Concert for Woodwinds playing. The piccolo was trilling away like the chirping of a little bird. To Aomame, this sounded like music intended to emphasize the unreality of her present reality. (375)

"Remember how the old song goes, 'Without your love, it's a honky-tonk parade'?" He hummed the melody. "Do you know it?"
"'It's Only a Paper Moon'."

"That's it. 1984 and 1Q84 are fundamentally the same in terms of how they work. If you don't believer in the world, and if there is no love in it, then everything is phony. No matter which world we are talking about, no matter what kind of world we are talking about, the line separating fact from hypothesis is practically invisible to the eye." (463)

Spinning on the turntable just then was Louis Armstrong singing "Chantez les Bas," a memorable song. It reminded him of his girlfriend. They had often listened to this one between bouts of lovemaking. Near the end, the trombonist, Trummy Young, gets carried away, forgets to end his solo at the agreed-upon point, and plays eight extra bars. "Here, this is the part," his girlfriend had explained to him. When it ended, it was Tengo's job to get out of bed naked, go to the next room, and turn the LP over to play the second side. He felt a twinge of nostalgia recalling those days. (506)


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
(2013, 2014)

As they listened to one piano recording, Tsukuru realized that he'd heard the composition many times in the past. He didn't know the title, however, or the composer. It was a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme that played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations. Tsukuru looked up from the book he was reading and asked Haida what it was.

'"Franz Liszt's 'La mal du pays.' It's from his Years of Pilgrimage Suite 'Year One: Switzerland.'"

"'La mal du…'?"

"'La map du pays.' It's French. Usually it's translated as 'homesickness,' or 'melancholy.' If you put a finer point on it, it's more like 'a groundless sadness called forth in a person's heart by a pastoral landscape.' It's a hard expression to translate accurately." (68-9)

Midorikawa hesitantly began playing "'Round Midnight." At first he played each chord carefully, cautiously, like a person sticking his toes into a stream, testing the swiftness of the water and searching for a foothold. After playing the main theme, he started a long improvisation. As time went by, his fingers became more agile, more generous, in their movements, like fish swimming in clear water. The left hand inspired the right, the right hand spurred on the left. Haida's father didn't know much about jazz, but he did happen to be familiar with this Thelonious Monk composition, and Midorikawa's performance went straight to the heart of the piece. His playing was so soulful it made Haida forget about the piano's erratic tuning. As he listened to the music in this junior high music-room deep in the mountains, as the sole audience for this performance, Haida felt all that was unclean inside him washed away. (86)

"Three years ago I was invited, as the top salesman in Japan, to attend a conference in Las Vegas for U.S. Lexus dealers. More of a reward for my performance than a real conference. After meetings in the morning, it was gambling and drinking the rest of the day. 'Viva Las Vegas' was like the city's theme song — you heard it everywhere you went. When I hit it big at roulette, too, it was playing in the background. Since then that song's been my lucky charm." (180)

 
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor and film and television critic for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticPOLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.

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