James Joyce’s final and most difficult novel Finnegans Wake unlocks a lot of its secrets when read aloud, preferably in an Irish accent. In this way, Joyce’s multilayered wordplay makes sense aurally even if all the meaning might not be apparent on paper. (His brother, Stanislaus, called it “the work of a psychopath.”)
An audiobook version would be good—-and there is one by Patrick Healy from 1992 (listen online) —but one with music would be much better. This month, Waywords and Meansigns, a project co-founded by Derek Pyle, has released its version of the novel with each of its 17 chapters performed by a different group of musicians and readers. The full text is represented here in a staggering 30+ hours. (You can read along here.)
“Our hope was to create a version of Joyce’s book that would be accessible to newcomers, but still feel fresh and exciting for devoted students and scholars,” says Pyle.
As with all compilation albums, some tracks are better than others. Mariana Lanari & Sjoerd Leijten’s opening chapter chops and cuts various voices together with a hypnotic electronic backing, recreating the confusion of those opening pages and the barrage of influences and voices. They also perform the final chapter. (Lanari is part of the RongWrong Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Amsterdam.) Peter Quadrino, Jake Reading & Evan James take on Book 3, Chapter 3, with a mix of faux-Tom Waits and Martin Denny providing the backdrop. (Quadrino is leader of the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin, Texas) The jazzier the backdrop, by the by, does reveal Joyce’s connection to the Beat poets. Other tracks are dry and more straight-forward: face it, not everybody has the most beautiful reading voice. It is definitely a labor of love, and reveals how many FW reading groups there are around the globe.
Waywords and Meansigns have released the full project on Archive.org under a Creative Commons license. (Stream above or download all of the files here.) Those who read this and feel they’ve missed out on the creativity of tackling Finnegans Wake, don’t worry. The website is taking submissions for a second edition.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.