Hear James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Read Unabridged & Set to Music By 17 Different Artists

If you want a guide through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—the mod­ernist author’s “wordi­est aria,” writes Kirkus Reviews, “and sure­ly the strangest ever sung in any language”—you’d be hard pressed find a bet­ter one than nov­el­ist Antho­ny Burgess. Not only did Burgess turn his study of Joyce to very good account in cre­at­ing his own poly­glot lan­guage in A Clock­work Orange, but he has “taste­ful­ly select­ed the more read­able por­tions” of Joyce’s final nov­el in an abridged ver­sion, A Short­er Finnegans Wake. No doubt “pedants will object,” writes Kirkus, but if any­one can edit Joyce, it’s Burgess, who has writ­ten a thor­ough intro­duc­tion to Joyce’s lan­guage, a guide to Joyce “for the Ordi­nary Read­er,” and the most com­pre­hen­sive sum­ma­ry of Joyce’s last nov­el that I’ve ever encountered—proving that it can be done. Finnegans Wake makes sense!… sort of…

But not, how­ev­er, as any straight­for­ward sto­ry; after all, writes Burgess, “What Joyce is doing… is to make his hero re-live the whole of his­to­ry in a night’s sleep.” And what Burgess does is show us the com­plex scaf­fold­ing and sym­bol­ism of that dream. What he does not do is explain away the music of Joyce’s novel—for it is, after all, not only one long dream, but one long song, the “strangest ever sung.” We can hear Joyce him­self sing from the nov­el­’s Anna Livia Plura­belle sec­tion in the video at the top (accom­pa­nied by sub­ti­tles and a very cool ani­ma­tion, I must say). His lilt­ing tenor enthralls, but his is not the only way to sing Finnegans Wake. Indeed, the nov­el, though very odd and very dif­fi­cult, is Joyce’s invi­ta­tion to the world.

And the world has respond­ed (“Here Comes Every­body!”). Last year, Way­words and Mean­signs, a Joyce project co-found­ed by Derek Pyle, brought togeth­er artists and musi­cians from around the globe to sing, read, and set to music the words of Finnegans Wake. Open Cul­ture’s Ted Mills wrote a post describ­ing the “stag­ger­ing 30+ hours” of Joyce inter­pre­ta­tion, and con­clud­ed, “Those who read this and feel they’ve missed out on the cre­ativ­i­ty of tack­ling Finnegans Wake, don’t wor­ry.” The project was then solic­it­ing con­trib­u­tors for a forth­com­ing sec­ond edi­tion, and now it has arrived. You can hear it in full above, an answer to the ques­tion “How many ways are there to read James Joyce’s great and bizarre nov­el?”

Sev­en­teen dif­fer­ent musi­cians from all around the world, each assigned to ren­der a chap­ter aural­ly. The only require­ments: the chap­ter’s words must be audi­ble, unabridged, and more or less in their orig­i­nal order.

We begin with pages 3–29, “The Fall,” read in a rapid dead­pan over avant-garde free jazz by Mr. Smolin & Dou­ble Naught Spy Car. Next, we have “The Humphri­ad I: His Agnomen and Rep­u­ta­tion,” read by pro­duc­er David Kahne against a back­drop of min­i­mal­ist synths, tin­kling key­boards, and waves of bur­bling elec­tron­ic noise. Per­haps one of my favorite musicians—whose song­writ­ing has always struck me as par­tic­u­lar­ly Joycean—Mike Watt of the Min­ute­men and fIRE­HOSE promis­es to deliv­er his musi­cal con­tri­bu­tion for “Shem the Pen­man” very soon. In its place is a mes­sage from Pyle, who urges you to sign up for the Way­words and Mean­signs mail­ing list for updates. After his mes­sage is a brief excerpt from con­ver­sa­tion he had with Watt on the bass play­er’s pod­cast.

Finnegans Wake, says Watt, “shares with Ulysses the idea of want­i­ng to try and talk about every­thing.” Joyce, Watt goes on, want­ed to “tran­scend” in his writ­ing the cir­cum­stances of his trou­bled fam­i­ly life, fail­ing eye­sight, and finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties; and he was also just “hav­ing some fun.” That’s also a good descrip­tion of the var­i­ous ren­der­ings of Joyce rep­re­sent­ed in this com­pi­la­tion as these artists try to tran­scend ordi­nary ways of read­ing great lit­er­a­ture, and clear­ly have lots fun in the doing. See the Way­words and Mean­signs web­site for pro­duc­tion cred­its and a com­plete track­list­ing indi­cat­ing the spe­cif­ic pages, chap­ters, and sec­tions of each read­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Read Aloud & Set to Music: 31 Hours of Free Unabridged Audio

Hear Joey Ramone Sing a Piece by John Cage Adapt­ed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

James Joyce Reads ‘Anna Livia Plura­belle’ fromFinnegans Wake

See What Hap­pens When You Run Finnegans Wake Through a Spell Check­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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