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July 29, 2010

Book Notes - Justin Kramon's Own Music for Finny

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

I have already expressed my adoration for Justin Kramon's debut novel Finny in my preface to his original contribution to the Book Notes series.

Today, Justin shares and discusses the music he personally wrote and recorded while writing this wonderful book.

The Financial Times recently wrote of the book:

"Imagine Charles Dickens had been bundled into a time machine, given a stack of Judy Blume novels to read en route to the 21st century, then asked to write a coming-of-age tale set in modern America. He might well have produced something along the lines of Justin Kramon's gently charming and slyly subversive debut novel, which combines old-fashioned, episodic storytelling with frank descriptions of modern love and sex."

In his own words, JUstin Kramon shares and discusses the music he wrote and performed for his debut novel, Finny:

I used to have the idea that it would be exciting to be a writer. I thought there were parties involved. I thought it was a license for socially-acceptable binge drinking. I thought you got some kind of assistant.

I don't know if my idea of the writer's life came from watching the movie Capote, but the truth, I realized, is that being a writer is actually very close to spending your life in a mental institution. I don't leave my room for more than an hour all day. I look ruffled and out-of-place when I do. In the world, people give me quizzical looks when I ask if they've read Proust. An exciting morning for me involves a choice of breakfast cereals.

For the longest time, I've been looking for another career that will have me. No one has called yet, but I haven't given up the dream. Once in a while, I get a chance to pretend I do something else all day, but the neighbors usually put a stop to it, especially if it involves cymbals or agricultural equipment.

So when the opportunity arose to record some piano music based on my novel, I jumped on it. I composed a few themes for piano, inspired by scenes or characters in my book, and used them as a bed for improvisation. The purpose was to capture some of the ideas or feelings in my book in a different cage, just to see what would happen.

Below are mp3s of the four tracks I recorded, along with descriptions of how they relate to my novel, Finny.

Justin Kramon: "Late Night, Early Morning"

Even though there's a lot of humor in my book – or maybe because of that – I didn't want to abandon the deeper feeling that had moved me to write the novel. When you're creating comic characters, it's easy to start making fun of everyone. But most people know what it's like to be around a very witty person who makes fun of everything: it starts out entertaining, but quickly becomes tiring.

I wanted my book to have a heart to it, and for people to feel comfortable in it, like they were being invited into a good friend's apartment. So I tried to keep in mind the generous type of humor that writers like Charles Dickens employ. There's a warmth to the way Dickens treats his lovably quirky characters, even though I'm sure there was also a lot of bitterness and anger and despair. He just never allows it to take over.

This piece – which was the first I performed at the recording session – was meant as a guiding force for all the recordings. The theme is simple: a partial scale, repeated and embellished over two chords, and a driving rhythm underneath it all. That's what I wanted in the book: simplicity, emotion, and momentum. The title of the piece comes from a scene late in the book, when Finny stays up late with a man she's not in love with, thinking about the man she would rather be with.

Justin Kramon: "Coffee Time"

One of the central characters in my novel is a man named Menalcus Henckel, a great pianist who also happens to be a narcoleptic. His sad history of falling asleep during performances has understandably gotten in the way of his performing career. When Finny meets him, he's a piano teacher, living with his son in a three-room bungalow in the middle of Maryland farmland.

In a lot of ways, Mr. Henckel is down and out, but Finny is charmed by his funny routines, and his almost childlike openness to the world. Finny takes piano lessons with Mr. Henckel in order to spend time with his son, Earl, whom Finny has begun a romantic relationship with. After the lessons, the three of them sit around the Henckels' kitchen table and drink coffee together, and these are among the happiest times in Finny's childhood.

In this piece, I wanted to capture the whimsy and fun of the Henckel house, and also the seriousness with which Mr. Henckel prepares the coffee and goes through all of his routines. The stride bass is meant to give a kind of old-fashioned feeling, which is part of Mr. Henckel's character – but I tried to also combine this with some more modern chords. That's really what I wanted to do in my book: bring a new point of view to a classic story.

Justin Kramon: "Fun in Paris"

Finny's first days in Paris with Earl are probably the most carefree of her life: they stroll around, drink coffee, sleep late, make love in the mornings, have big dinners with lots of wine. It's the easy, comfortable way she'd always hoped love with Earl would be. There are of course more difficult issues and allegiances they need to sort out, but for the time being all of that is suspended.

So this is a short, happy piece, entirely improvised, skipping from one chord to the next without any thought to structure or where it's all going.

Justin Kramon: "Finny in Love"

This was the first musical theme I thought of when I started to imagine this project. I loved the floating quality of these chords, the laid-back rhythm. I could imagine Finny looking out a window, and a sad-sweet feeling she might have if she were thinking about everything that happened with Earl.

One time in the book, as Finny waits for a planned meeting with Earl, I write: "It was a gorgeous, bright, cold afternoon, and Finny liked walking along the tree-lined road, the bare limbs of trees twitching in the wind. There was something Finny enjoyed about these days before Earl arrived, about the anticipation, but also the loneliness itself, like she was standing outside a house where a loud party was taking place...she realized she'd be okay if she were by herself. Not that she wanted to be. But that she could be. She hoped and intended to spend her life with Earl now that he'd come around, but if for some reason it didn't work out, she knew she wouldn't risk all this again. She'd be content with her walks and her studies and the small joys a lonely person experiences: the scent of laundry, sunlight filtered through leaves, dinners with friends, rain tapping on a window. It was enough to get you through."

The whole process of making these recordings was about translating the feeling behind a passage of writing, like the one above, into music, which was a fascinating experience for me – trying to use a new set of tools to express things that are hard for me to say.

I had no idea what I would do with the recordings when we made them, but later on, when Hello King was making my author video, the producer decided to use the piano music as a background for the video, which you can see here.

Justin Kramon and Finny links:

the author's website
the author's blog
video trailer for the book
excerpt from the book

The Book Lady's Blog review
Book Nook Club review
BookMarc Blogpants review
DailyCandy review
Financial Times review
GalleyCat review
Reading Local: Baltimore review
Sugar Lover Book Reviews review

Baltimore Sun profile of the author
Beth Fish Reads guest post by the author
The Book Lady's Blog guest post by the author
Five Chapters short story by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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