Artwork: Heather Ryan Kelley

Waywords and Meansigns – Recreating Finnegans Wake (premiere)

Mercury Rev, Schneider ™, and more pay tribute to James Joyce by setting Finnegans Wake to music.

Music’s history with James Joyce has at times been exciting and at others mystifying, but the wide range of artists Joyce has influenced is downright awe-inspiring. Some, like Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, began their musical career writing Finnegans Wake-referencing compositions, while others, like John Cage with his 1979 composition Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake, have paid their respects to Joyce far into a well-established career. Some have been idiosyncratic (see Therapy?’s 1992 song “Potato Junkie”) in their approach, while others shower Joyce’s words with striking reverence, a recent example being British poet and hip hop artist Kate Tempest, who claims Joyce to be as much of an influence on her work as Wu-Tang Clan.

All this endless Joyce devotion may make it seem quite unsurprising that Waywords and Meansigns is now on its third turn of setting Finnegans Wake to music. The project, which was started by Derek Pyle in May 2015, aims to make the notoriously esoteric novel more accessible to present-day readers while also functioning as a hybrid between an audiobook and musical adaptation. A second edition debuted on February 2nd, 2016, to coincide with Joyce’s birthday.

In a departure from the first two editions, which assigned a different contributor to each chapter, this most recent rendering focuses on passages that are a mere page or two in length. Despite the reduction in focus, the approaches the project’s contributors take to the passages shows little decrease in creativity. The five tracks highlighted here range from a truly trippy recitation backed by field recordings and dementedly mirthful piano (care of the Mercury Rev and August Wells-featuring Old Fiends), to icy android readings (Schneider ™), a straightforward narration backed by blips, bangs and simple beats (Peter Chrisp and the box sets), the borderline ambient “Question 5” by Coldharbourstores, to the eerie folk of Jon Wahl.

Regarding his contribution, Kenneth Griffin of August Wells told me, “God only knows, and maybe a few deep scholars, whether it literally means anything, but when you just let go and read Finnegans Wake aloud there is a melodic musical notation to the words. I found myself reading it fast, and it was like playing a solo.” Whatever the meaning, Waywords and Meansigns should have both readers and listeners agreeing that the well of inspiration springing from Joyce’s words is thrillingly infinite.

Waywords and Meansigns may be listened to in full here here. To offer your contribution to the project, please send a brief biography, and, if relevant, a few audio or video samples of your work to [email protected].