Waking up Finnegan to music

Mind-blowing, wild, nuts, impenetrable, odd, striking, cryptic, dense, obscure and baffling is only a short, inexhaustive list of adjectives commonly used to describe James Joyce’s literary anomaly, Finnegans Wake. The Irish author took seventeen years to write the book, and rumour has it he expected the reader to spend seventeen years reading it. Imitating a dream-like state, words are put together in a challenging way and are borrowed from dozens of languages, when not simply invented by Joyce:

“What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quáouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod’s brood, be me fear! Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms, appalling.”1

Reluctant to conform to a conventional approach, the text raises issues of connection to Joyce’s language: how is one to read Finnegans Wake? The 1939 novel, precisely, invites the reader to set out on an adventure with words, paving the way for many creative approaches. Whether through music, live shows or digital technologies, Joyce’s works have often been adapted to reach wider audiences. In May 2015 a new musical and collaborative project was launched, entitled “Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake [in its whole wholume]”.

In February 2016, a second edition of the project was released, bringing together both amateurs and professional musicians from all over the world. Each participant was assigned one of the seventeen chapters. Free to use whatever kind of music or sound effects they wished, the only requirement was that each artist should render all of the chapter’s words in an audible way, more or less in their original order. The outcome of this independent, non-commercial project is now freely available online. Over thirty-hour long, it offers an unabridged audio version of the Wake mixed with varied musical performances ranging from jam bands to rock and jazz.

“Waywords and Meansigns” thus challenges the view that Finnegans Wake is to be read by privileged academics only, using mass communication and web interconnectedness to renew one’s access to literary texts. After all, Joyce did not use words with their commonplace connections, but treated them as living things. Their charm was to be revealed notably by liberating sounds from their servile role, thus promoting the benefits of reading the book aloud.

Instead of simply scanning the page without actively engaging with the literary fabric, attempt to pronounce the Wake’s onomatopoeias or phonetic distortions. It offers a challenge to the tongue: stimulating one’s relation to the text, these strange sounds and rhythms actualize the music of the book. “Waywords and Meansigns” also offers an opportunity to take part in future multimedia projects, allowing one to actively interact with works like Finnegans Wake and as Joyce would put it, to let oneself be affected by the linguistic phenomenon.




1   Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. England: Wordsworth Classics, 2012, p. 4.

Picture By : c. Khemiri & M C Morgan

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