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

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:

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)

Read more: Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami


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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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