Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In Your Dreams: Dream music

By Geoffrey Dean

Last week, a student in a music class I teach mentioned the music of the 2001 Japanese anime film Spirited Away. I remembered that as I woke up today, with the feeling that I must listen to the film’s song, “One Summer’s Day.” When I discovered this song while in Osaka five years ago, I fell in love with the unabashedly sentimental music of Joe Hisaishi and the pure, heartfelt singing of Ayaka Hirahara. I hear this song with a nostalgia for something unreachable, far away:

On that trip to Japan, I also discovered the writings of Haruki Murakami, filled with so much loss and loneliness, yet strangely spiritual and uplifting. Music is a natural part of Murakami’s world, and musical images and leitmotivs abound in his fiction. At about the time last month that Moristotle posted two dreams, one involving piano playing and a second in which appeared a woman he had known many years earlier [“Attend your own funeral,”], I had just finished Murakami’s 2013 “dream” novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
    The title refers to Tsukuru’s spiritual and physical journey as he resolves years later to find out why his group of “colorful” high school friends shunned him after he left Nagoya to study in Tokyo. It also references a piano work by Franz Liszt, Années de pèlerinage. A piece from the score’s first book, “Le mal du pays” (“Homesickness”), is a symbolic link to Tsukuru’s former life and to feelings he can’t quite get in touch with. The friend who used to play it had later been murdered under mysterious circumstances, and the friend who had given Tsukuru a recording of it had also disappeared from his life. Listening to Alfred Brendel’s interpretation with another childhood friend, whom Tsukuru must leave Japan for the first time to see, allows him to find the clarity and closure he needs to move forward, to find his own color.
    Here’s a recording of Listz’s “Suisse” and “Le mal du pays”:

While reading Colorless Tsukuru, I happened to watch Ben Stiller’s version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, also from 2013. The original James Thurber (very) short story is about a man who incessantly daydreams of heroic doings, only to be brought back to his own not-so-heroic existence by his nagging wife. In the movie there is no wife, only a potential partner, a female coworker named Cheryl who becomes the main character in Mitty’s daydreams, which in the movie are interrupted by his boss calling, “Ground control to Major Tom.” Mitty apparently gets the reference to David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” which becomes (in an imagined performance by Cheryl) his inspiration as he embarks on a work-related journey that is also life-changing, on several levels. What looks like a mid-life “breaking free” as Mitty skateboards through Iceland and climbs the Himalayas is also a process of realizing that his own behind-the-scenes work as a photo archiver has been as meaningful in its own way as the adventures that he has now found the courage to undertake.
    David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”:

In Barack Obama’s beautifully-written first book from 1995, Dreams from My Father, Obama writes of his youthful struggle to understand his own heritage and find his purpose in life. In chapter five he comes to terms with the inadequacy of simply understanding, and accepts the challenge to look beyond himself and create change. Here Obama invokes music both as a metaphor for his new, enlarged mission, and to suggest a romantic interest in the fellow student at Occidental College (Regina) who had challenged him.
Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road…And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.

I’m a fool…to want you.
Such a fool…to want you.
    Regina had told it to him straight, that “your ideas about yourself – about who you are and who you might become – have grown stunted and narrow and small…You might be locked into a world not of your own making, her eyes said, but you still have a claim on how it is shaped. You still have responsibilities.” [pp. 110-11] As Obama considers Regina’s challenge, the Billie Holiday record continued to play: “I picked up the refrain, humming a few bars. Her voice sounded different to me now. Beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure – and make music that wasn’t there before.” [p. 112]

Copyright © 2016 by Geoffrey Dean


  1. Have you ever woken up with the feeling that you must listen to a particular song or piece of music? Cellist & music teacher Geoffrey Dean did recently.
        Geoff, I really enjoyed your column last week, listening to the Schubert selections was like listening to a playlist (except, of course, transitions to the next selection weren't automatic). Thank you!

  2. I know little about the music world but I always enjoy reading your articles. I also enjoyed the videos. Now for my second cup of coffee.

  3. I really want to follow up on this and the Schubert. I'm headed to Hawaii for a few weeks, alas. Will listen when I get back.