For a famously abstruse work of mordant experimentation long considered the most challenging text ever enshrined within the canon of English (more or less) literature, Finnegans Wake really should carry a tune. However seemingly nonsensical the endless stylistic flights of fancy employed by author James Joyce, nearly each sentence appears easier to sing than parse. The title itself references a popular 19th century folk ballad that’s still a crowd-pleaser of traditional Irish bands, though Lord help any Clancy Brothers fans chancing upon this website in hopes of twinkly Old Country jigs. Derek Pyle started up the Waywords and Meansigns project three years ago as means of furthering the book’s lapsed hold upon popular culture by twinning Joyce’s hyper-eccentric verbiage with musical accompaniment for a pair of unabridged volumes that featured different guests performing whole chapters.
Though seemingly destined to be shared among only diehard novel fans and Joycean scholars, which may as well be the same thing, the project was nonetheless successful enough for a newly-released third incarnation featuring more than a hundred artists (including members of the Pogues, Mercury Rev, and Railroad Earth) contributing 123 tracks. Told only to ensure the words come across undisturbed, the artists made efforts to maximize accessibility, though the term means something rather different within this context.
“A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” read the first words, here lilted by a female representative of the Here Come Everybody Players midst Celtic instrumentation before her compatriots follow along: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” The troupe, professional Joyce interpreters, veer from spectral tones befitting Lord Of The Rings narration past rough-and-tumble sea shanties to a place far weirder and darker than any audio book dare dream.
Seattle post-rockers Kinski unfurl a baroque psychedelia. Liz Longo tries jazzy cabaret. On “Shem the Penman,” punk legend Mike Watt contributes a sprightly guitar noodle beneath actor Adam Harvey’s lighthearted reading that might highlight a posh hippie library’s children’s storytime. The unnamed track from Old Fiends – a project-specific quasi-supergroup featuring Ken Griffin and Jason Merritt alongside former Mercury Rev members Paul Dillon and Jason Sebastian Russo – leans heavily on Dillon’s brogue swaggering against the beat of nightmare carnival keys as spooky atmospherics swarm. NW comic Cathy Sorbo’s theatrical intonation prances amidst twee synth-pop from The Science of Deduction for ‘70s Doctor Who radio serial effect.
It’s soon enough made clear that there are as many varieties of musical renderings as there are interpretations of its prose, which sparks the likely-unavoidable problem concerning the songs and the book they’re taken from and the ideas it (barely) contains – there’s just too damn many. Even those Finnegans Wake buffs regularly surrendering themselves to the polysyllabic spree couldn’t rightly be expected to down the novel in one sitting. In that vein, who would be expected to wade through this project’s 18+ hours save those post-grad students stonily cramming for finals? (Not the largest of demographics, perhaps, but surely a devoted one.)
This is, of course, only the third volume of Waywords and Meansigns.Though organizer Pyle has no plans to coordinate another formal installment, the process has been left open for further submissions, and, given the relative prominence of the last batch of contributors, one imagines the daft enterprise shall continue to gain momentum. Of course, much as we’d love to hear Selena Gomez twisting her way through the “commodius vicus of recirculation”, we shan’t soon expect Now That’s What I Call Joyce! hitting Wal-Mart shelves. Indeed, it’s genuinely startling how few renditions of this most modernist of texts feel even slightly, well, modern. There is a rhythmic soul propelling onward “a way a lone a last a loved a long”, and one hopes the project’s next iteration indulges Finnegans Wake as its author surely foresaw: the hip-hop reading deserves its day.