Monday, 4 May 2015

Finnegans Wake set to music!

Today is the 76th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake!  The big celebratory event is the publication, online and free, of a musical recreation of the Wake, 'in its whole wholume' by Waywords and Meansigns.

Waywords and Meansigns, based in Canada, was created by Derek Pyle, who explained in an interview with Bibliokept that the idea came to him exactly a year ago today:

'In 2014 I organized a party to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake. To celebrate we decided to listen to Patrick Healy’s audiobook recording of Finnegans Wake, which is 20-odd hours long. The party, as you can imagine, lasted all weekend — we actually listened to Johnny Cash’s unabridged reading of the New Testament that weekend too. There was very little sleep, and fair amount of absinthe....During the party I started wondering about other ways you could perform the text, and that’s when I came up with the idea of approaching musicians to create a new kind of audiobook.

As it turns out, a lot of people seemed to think my idea was a good one. We’ve had no shortage of musicians willing to contribute, including some really cool cats like Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth and bassist Mike Watt, who currently plays in Iggy Pop’s band The Stooges.'

So the book's seventeen chapters were each assigned to a different musician, given complete freedom, apart from the rule that 'the chapter's words must be audible, unabridged, and more or less in their original order'. 

As you'd expect, there are many different styles of performance, ranging from the Western Mass art punk band, Dérive, who give us an edgy rendition of 'the washers at the Ford'  to the New Zealand saxophonist, Hayden Chisolm, who provides a much more restful, and almost hypnotic, version of the pub chapter.

I love Peter Quadrino's reading of the Yawn chapter, whose recording he's described on his Finnegans, Wake! blog: 'I chose this chapter because it's always been one of my favorites. The opening finds a giant sleeping figure, Yawn, whose yawns and sleepy groans create huge gusts of wind.' 

Have a listen to the wonderful way that PQ creates those gusts of wind in his reading of 'Yawn in a semiswoon lay awailing and (hooh!) what helpings of honeyful swoothead (phew!)' 
The book's closing and opening chapters, connected by the unfinished sentence, have been given to the same performersMariana Lanari and  Sjoerd Leijten, from Amsterdam. This means, that, for the first time, you can listen to a continuous reading of the 'A way a lone a last a loved a...' sentenceFor the first chapter, they have also sampled pieces from the other musical performances, to indicate how the opening foreshadows what follows.


There's an interview with PQ and Steve 'Fly' Pratt, who's recorded the Jaun chapter, on the RAWIlluminations site. They have some great advice about reading the book aloud: 

PQ: 'The experience certainly confirmed the text's inherent musical rhythms, it really comes to life when read aloud. And last but not least, it's often said Finnegans Wake is a book for the ear but it's also a book for the mouth. You'll never utter anything like it.'

FLY: 'Perhaps think of the text as-if it were an interactive word game. Something you play. And to repeat, read it aloud and discover the tongue-twisting turns in every line. Take it slowly. Jump to any page, get your kit off and dive in. If that does not turn you on, the next time you get totally trashed, or feel a case of the giggles coming on, pick up the good book and prolong the enjoyment. Simple.'

PQ: '
Build up a passion and interest for it first. Read some books about it, get to know how bizarre and irrational it is. You can't try to just slog through it like any other big book. It's designed to shatter your logical mind and drown you in a variegated cacophony of lingual sounds from dozens of languages. Also, yes it's difficult but with enough time you will find the book will teach you how to read it.' 

Joyce with his guitar in 1915



Finnegans Wake is the perfect book for this project, because Joyce, a gifted musician, wrote it as if it was music. For example, he described the Anna Livia chapter, which he recorded, as 'an attempt to subordinate words to the rhythm of water.' 

Joyce's title for his great dusk piece was a musical one 'A Phoenix Park Nocturne'.

He uses many musical techniques, such as the Wagnerian leitmotif, a short, recurring phrase, associated with a particular person, place or idea.  So the Anna Livia chapter ends with the phrase 'Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!' (216.04). This is an Anna Liffey river lietmotif, echoed six other times:

'wasching the walters of, the weltering walters off. Whyte.' 64.20
'and watch her waters of her sillying waters of' 74.29

'And his dithering dathering waltzers of. Stright!' 245.22 
'arride the winnerful wonders off, the winnerful wonnerful wanders off' 265.15
'baffling with the walters of, hoompsydoompsy walters of. High!' 373.06
'Amingst the living waters of, the living in giving waters of. Tight!' 462.04

Finnegans Wake is named after a song, and is full of hundreds of other songs, whose rhythms and lyrics Joyce plays with. The book even includes this song written by Joyce himself.

Setting the whole of Finnegans Wake to music is a mighty achievement.  Even more impressively, Waywords and Meansigns are planning to do the whole thing again later this year with different contributors! Here's how you can get involved.

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