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Setting the Puzzling Language of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to Music

Over 100 contributors to the project Waywords and Meansigns are setting James Joyce’s experimental 1930s book Finnegans Wake to music.

James Joyce playing a guitar (1915) (via Cornell Joyce Collection/Wikimedia)

“The things that make the Wake hard to read are the same things that make the book so much fun to interpret musically,” Derek Pyle, cofounder of Waywords and Meansigns, told Hyperallergic. The project was organized in 2014 to set James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, arguably his most complicated book, to music. “You can hear the text in so many different ways — there’s German and Gaelic, catechisms and Vedic sutras, all embedded in the text, and you can pull out whatever elements catch your fancy.”

The 2017 album art by Heather Ryan Kelley for Waywords and Meansigns (courtesy the artist)

The first edition of Waywords and Meansigns was released in 2015, and a second in 2016, with chapters divided into tracks. Now on, May 4, the anniversary of the book’s first publishing in 1939, a third album will be released, concentrating on passages instead of full chapters. All are shared under a Creative Commons license, with over 100 contributors from 15 countries to date. Visual art will accompany the album (including work by Raymond Pettibon), and curious contributors are still welcome to get involved.

“By setting the book to music, and also by giving away all our audio online, we definitely hope to make the work more accessible,” Pyle explained. “I think people are more likely to listen to music in a foreign language, that’s not too uncommon, and much easier than reading a book in some language you don’t understand.” He added that the book is, if not a foreign language with its made-up words and scramble of over 60 languages, “a really weird dialect of drunken and cosmic English.”

For instance, the first page includes the word “Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnt-rovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!,” a thunderclap onamonapia for Eve and Adam’s fall from the Garden of Eden. Other sections have an experimental narrative flow: “And you’ll miss me more as the narrowing weeks wing by. Someday duly, oneday truly, twosday newly, till whensday.”

Art by Sara Jewell for Waywords and Meansigns (courtesy the artist)

Pyle said that while they “definitely attract people who lean towards experimentation” in music, they’ve had contributions from jazz, punk, classical, and folk artists. They include amateurs, as well as professional musicians, like bassist Mike Watt, former Mercury Rev members Jason Sebastian Russo and Paul Dillon, Irish pianist John Wolf Brennan, and electronica artist Schneider TM.

Some contributors are just Joyce-obsessed, like Adam Harvey who has memorized whole chapters. The main requirement is that the lyrics have Joyce’s unabridged words, and that they be audible. The project isn’t the first to respond to Finnegans Wake with music — John Cage’s 1979 Roaratorio was inspired by the book — or to attempt to unravel its meaning artistically (such as the 2014 Folio Society release with illustrations by John Vernon Lord), but its shareable and collaborative nature makes it a distinct digital-age experiment. Joyce himself was a singer, and played the guitar and piano, so in a way creating a rhythm for his words is a fitting tribute to the author’s perplexing prose.

While the full audio for the third edition will be available May 4, you can listen to the 2016 release (care of the Internet Archive) below:

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