Founded in 2014, Waywords and Meansigns began with a question: How many ways are there to read James Joyce‘s great and bizarre novel, Finnegans Wake?
To answer the question, as Project Director Derek Pyle explains, “we gathered a host of musicians and writers, artists and scholars, weirdos and generally adventurous people. We decided to set the book to music, creating something that is simultaneously an audiobook as well as musical adaptation.
“Not wanting to create a mere homage to Finnegans Wake, we set the entire book to music. We did it once, all 628 pages, and then did it again with a whole new cast of musicians and readers.”
This May 4, 2017, they will release the third edition, this will be the final group release (although individual contributions will continue).
To celebrate the release we spoke with Derek about the project who also kindly agreed to give Folk Radio UK an early glimpse of five tracks featuring:
Derek Pyle Interview (Waywords and Meansigns Project Director)
In terms of our contributors, Joyce and Finnegans Wake has been a secret influence on a lot of musicians. This goes back to the avant-garde classical musicians like John Cage and Luciano Berio, but during the 1960s there were a number of musicians in the counterculture and psychedelic scene interested in Joyce, like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Syd Barret.
The punk and indie scene got really into James Joyce too, like Mike Watt of Minutemen, SST Records artist Raymond Pettibon, and The Pogues. Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Joey Ramone also have references to Joyce in their work. Fire Records put out a compilation album a few years ago, of musicians setting Joyce’s poems to music, which is perhaps the best testament to this influence. There’s also a thread within the folk scene, of people like Leonard Cohen, Martyn Bates, Josephine Foster, and Joanna Newsom, who have also drawn from Joyce in their work.
So, on the one hand, we tapped into that wide-ranging group of musicians — and I did a lot of research to figure out just who those musicians are, because often that Joyce connection isn’t advertised anywhere. ( Along the way, I’ve put together this chronology of “Joyce in Music”, although I’ve got a few dozen entries which are not yet updated in there http://www.waywordsandmeansigns.com/about/joyce-in-music/ )
On the other hand, we also attracted a lot of musicians who were just up for something different, to shake up their creative process — like Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth wasn’t particularly familiar with Finnegans Wake but he has a great sense of adventure, and he used to host a public radio show reading science fiction short stories atop avant-garde classical pieces.
Initially, I didn’t anticipate how large the project would become. We started with an underground kind of ethos, where you do and make things with and for your friends, simply because it’s fun. What’s emerged is an international community of sorts, but I think we’ve stayed true to those original underground or DIY roots, in part large because we continue to give all the audio away for free. We haven’t had to deal with the complications that sometimes accompany money and commodification. Plus I wanted the music to make Finnegans Wake more accessible and the online platform with Creative Commons licensing definitely emphases accessibility because it’s something anybody with access to a computer can enjoy.
I’m particularly pleased and surprised with the melodies people pull out of the text. Like the demented opera Steve Gregoropoulos did in the second edition, and then to hear Jon Wahl record a section of that same chapter, in a totally new but equally compelling way. I really like the country singing and flat picking of Tenement and Temple in this new edition too.
Scale of Task
The second edition wasn’t much work — because of the first edition, I was already in contact with a number of people who wanted a go at the project. This new release though, which features over 100 individual recordings, has been a lot of work to organise. The sheer number of emails I have to send and receive is pretty unbelievable. Plus I want everyone to feel appreciated for their work, so I’m trying pretty hard to get the word out about each and every track, not just the “big names” or whatever — but promoting 100 tracks for simultaneous release is a pretty big task. Luckily it’s a lot of fun still, and I’ve gotten to know some really cool people along the way, which makes it all worth it.
Finnegans Wake is a weird book, and a difficult book. Joyce basically invented his own language in writing the book, and there is no obvious decoder to translate the text. Yet the book can also be quite fun.
By inviting people to record their own interpretations of the Wake, we hope to offer a version of Joyce’s work that is stimulating, accessible, and enjoyable to casual as well as dedicated readers and listeners.
Find out more about the project here: http://www.waywordsandmeansigns.com/
Credit: Album Cover by Heather Ryan Kelley