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July 3, 2012

Book Notes - Barbara Browning "I'm Trying to Reach You"

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Barbara Browning's debut The Correspondence Artist was easily one of my favorite novels of 2011.

I'm Trying to Reach You is another stunning work, one that smartly explores love and grief in a modern culture that often connects through social media.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Deftly blending highbrow intellectual concerns with the informality of Facebook-era communiques, Browning's newest is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking."

In her own words, here is Barbara Browning's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, I'm Trying to Reach You:

I always write with music in mind – and I often write about it. One of the great pleasures I take in writing fiction is being able to turn readers on to the art that makes me swoon. I actually burned CDs to give to a few friends with my last novel, The Correspondence Artist, so they could hear what I was talking about. If you were to listen to just one song I reference in that book, it would be Bill Evans's extraordinary rendition of the "Love Theme from Spartacus" on Conversations with Myself – which will forever more be, in my mind, "Love Theme with Tzipi Honigman."

My forthcoming novel, I'm Trying to Reach You, actually has a playlist. There's a series of twelve dance videos that one of my characters posted to YouTube as "clues" to the mystery. At least, that's the interpretation of my narrator. Six of these were choreographed to Erik Satie's "Gnossiennes." The other six are a seemingly random assortment of ukulele ditties, eccentric indie rock, and, in one case, a John Cage-like soundscape of feet and lungs. The grand finale is a rousing performance of "The Girl From Ipanema" by a collection of oddball musical genii playing in my bathtub. Really. They can be viewed (and heard) sequentially on my character's YouTube channel:

1) Satie's "Gnossienne 5" interpreted by Leo Lynx

This is pretty much where it all started, truth be told. A few years ago, my son Leo made a YouTube video of himself dancing like Michael Jackson to "Smooth Criminal." I thought it was beautiful: understated and tender. Of course, he later got embarrassed and took it down, but I was so moved by it I made this dance and dedicated it to him (check out the moonwalk at 0:33). I originally did it to Aldo Ciccolini's recording, but then I worried about copyright so I asked Leo to re-record it for me with alternative instrumentation (toy and upright piano).

2) "Shine On Harvest Moon" interpreted by Lord William of Kent

Perhaps you will have surmised that this is not the real name of the mysterious uke player and crooner in my bathroom. He proposed this code name to avoid embarrassment on the Internet. In my novel he goes by "Jimmy Stewart," to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. It was actually Jimmy's idea that he play a little something on the uke and I choreograph a dance to it in my bathtub. I suspected at the time that he was making a slightly lewd or at least suggestive joke, but I decided to play dumb and take up the challenge.

3) Satie's "Gnossienne 4" interpreted by Leo Lynx

Once again, this was originally choreographed as a gift. A Brazilian friend had asked me if I might teach him how to dance samba. I used to live in Brazil and in graduate school I made money teaching and performing Brazilian dance. Actually, my first (non-fiction) book was called Samba. Still, I thought it was funny for him to ask me that, so I made this dance which is a very abstracted, minimalist samba. When I looked at it, I realized that the sort of bump-and-grind elements looked very innocent, but the really obscene part was the balletic move of going up on pointe around 1:11 (it's actually half-pointe but you can't tell). The way the pubis waggles there. Again, I had originally used Ciccolini but I liked the way it sounded when Leo rerecorded it on our out-of-tune upright.

4) iPod Samba interpreted by me

I filmed this after a Silent Rave I attended in Union Square. Everybody was dancing to his or her own iPod. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. For much of it I was listening to batucada (high-energy samba percussion). I wondered what I had looked and sounded like so I filmed myself when I got home. The great revelation when I watched it was the music of my feet slapping the floor, and, beginning around 0:47, the air going in and out of my lungs. I was a little high, maybe you can tell. Though my rhythm is excellent.

5) Satie's "Gnossienne 6" interpreted by Lord William of Kent

I roped my colleague Ann into doing this dance with me, and I tortured Jimmy Stewart by making him play our tuneless piano over Ciccolini's phrasing. Oh, perhaps I should pause to say I pay all my collaborators, though I generally give them a choice between compensation with greater monetary, sentimental or intellectual value. Like, they can choose between $100 cash money, a cover tune of their choice recorded by me, or a novelty piece of swag. People usually take what they need. My son consistently goes for cash money. Ann got a Siegfried and Roy commemorative wristwatch for this. I think Jimmy got some piece of Jimmy Stewart memorabilia, but I surely owe him more for the serial humiliation. Did I mention that he is the main murder suspect in my novel?

6) "Natural Woman" interpreted by Viva DeConcini and Mary Feaster

Wow, you will say. You certainly know some amazing musicians. It's true. Viva is the Walt Whitman of the electric guitar, and this is how I have attempted to immortalize her in my novel. Mary also rocks. Please excuse my interpretive dance. I was overcome with pleasure.

7) Satie's "Gnossienne 3" interpreted by Leo and Viva

Toy piano and electric guitar. I love this melody. I had written, a few years ago, words for the first three "Gnossiennes." This one began, "You had said you found me / just a little melancholy - / not exactly solemn, / but distracted. I was thinking, / perhaps it was that I'd finished / my book, / because finishing a project always leaves a / person feeling just a little out of sorts - / I wonder." I wasn't talking about this novel, but it's true, a certain sadness always comes over me when I finish a project. Although this is only the seventh of the dance videos, it was the last one I recorded, and I was preparing myself for the sadness of finishing.

8) "Celebrate the Body Electric" by Ponytail

If you believe Wikipedia, this band broke up in September, 2011. I fell in love with them as soon as I heard them, and Leo did too. That's him dancing with me. For some reason, he didn't insist on taking this video down as he had with that Michael Jackson one. As you can see, he is the superior dancer. It was a happy coincidence for me that this band's most gorgeous and orchestral song invokes Whitman, who figures so significantly in my novel. One of the guitarists, Dustin Wong, seems to be establishing a solo career. But all four of the members of the band are very lyrical, special people.

9) Satie's "Gnossienne 2" interpreted by Viva and Mary

In this video, my dance collaborator, like Jimmy Stewart before him, chose to remain anonymous. I simply identify him as the "elegant older gentleman." I saw him dance like this, with his eyes closed, in a social setting, and I was moved by his sensitivity and grace, so I invited him to make this video with me. Whenever I show the dances to "real" dancers, they always ask about him. I love this musical interpretation very much.

10) "Elephant" by Pattern is Movement

This is another band I adore. They are two beautiful men from Philadelphia. I believe their new album is coming out any day now. They often use unusual time signatures – I have a thing about that. The narrator of my novel also has a thing about odd time signatures. This one's in 15, or you'd probably count it alternating measures of 7 and 8. When I posted the video, my dancer friend Yve commented, "It's a 7!" I thought he meant on a scale of 1-10, my choreography was a 7. I said, "Well, it's better than a 6!" He said, "Much!" Then I figured it out. A 15 is even better than a 7. The lyric is interestingly opaque, which is helpful when you're trying to create a sense of mystery as I was in this book. This dance is about the elephant in the room. Perhaps you can see it.

11) Satie's "Gnossienne 1" interpreted by Leo and Caetano

Well, this would be another one of those, "Gee, nice to have musical genii for friends" moments. I wrote this lyric and I love Caetano's fragile rendering of it. It's my story, although my narrator interprets it as being his story. That's okay, because my narrator is, as performance theorist Richard Schechner likes to put it, "not not me."

12) "The Girl from Ipanema" interpreted by my friends and family in my bathtub

This is where it all came together. The only performer here I haven't already mentioned is ReJimi, also known as James Metalarc, who generally explains himself as the second coming of Jimi Hendrix. He plays on the street in my neighborhood, which is where I met him, and we subsequently became friends. Jimi Hendrix is a part of the story that my novel is trying to tell about what it means to be an "American." So is John Cage. Beautiful, queer Walt and Emily are also in the mix – the two eccentric, iconic poets of our nation. You can still hear Walt's electric excess (hello Ponytail) and Emily's enigmatic spareness (hello Pattern is Movement) in our popular music. But in conversation with other parts of the world (France, Brazil...) because of course these things are fluid.

Barbara Browning and I'm Trying to Reach You links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
ukulele covers by the author

Publishers Weekly review
Slate review

NOISE interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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