Derek Pyle Discusses Waywords and Meansigns, an Unabridged Musical Adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

I recently talked to Derek Pyle about his project Waywords and Meansigns, which adapts James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake into a new musical audiobook. Derek worked for years as half of Jubilation Press. Printing the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thich Nhat Hanh, and William Stafford, Derek’s letterpress work can be found in the special collections of the New York Public Library, Brown University, and the Book Club of California. Derek co-founded Waywords and Meansigns in 2014 and became the project’s primary director in 2015. While living part-time in Western Massachusetts, Derek produces Waywords and Meansigns in eastern Canada.

Robert Berry copy
Image by Robert Berry

Biblioklept: What is Waywords and Meansigns?

Derek Pyle: Waywords and Meansigns is a collaborative music project recreating James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Seventeen different musicians from all around world have each taken a chapter of Finnegans Wake and set it to music, thereby creating an unabridged audio version of Finnegans Wake.

Finnegans Wake is an incredible book, but it’s notoriously difficult to read. One hope of the project is to create a version of the Wake that is accessible to newcomers — people can just listen to and enjoy the music. To maximize accessibility, we are distributing all the audio freely via our website. But the project does not only appeal to Wake newcomers — as we’ve seen so far, a lot of scholars and devoted readers are also finding Waywords and Meansigns an exciting way of interpreting and engaging with Joyce’s text.

Biblioklept: How did the project come about?

DP: 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.

A lot of people really rag on Healy’s recording, because it’s read at breakneck speed. I actually like it though — he creates a very visceral flood of experience, which is one way of reading, or interpreting, Finnegans Wake. But 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.

Biblioklept: Watt rules! I love the Minutemen and his solo stuff. He seems like a natural fit for this kind of project, as so much of his music is based around story telling. I imagine the musicians involved are composing the music themselves…are they also recording it themselves?

DP: Yeah, it’s very cool to have Watt on board. Turns out he’s a huge fan of Joyce — he recorded a track for Fire Records in 2008, for an album of various musicians turning the poems of Joyce’s Chamber Music into songs. Mary Lorson, of the bands Saint Low and Madder Rose, also played on that Fire Records album, and she’s collaborating with author Brian Hall for our project.

To answer your question, yes, all the musicians are recording their own chapters. Since we have contributors from all around the world — from Berlin to Amsterdam to British Columbia — it would be a logistical nightmare to figure out where and when to record everyone. Not to mention the cost of it. One of the really cool things, I think, about this project — for everyone, it’s a labor of love. No one is making a profit, off any of this. People are just doing it because they love Joyce, or they’re obsessed with Finnegans Wake, or it just seems like a fun challenge to think creatively in this unique way. Either way it’s a pursuit of passion. That’s why we will distribute all the audio freely. There’s this phrase in Finnegans Wake, “Here Comes Everybody!” We’re having fun with Finnegans Wake and everybody is invited to the party.

Biblioklept: What are some of the approaches the artists have taken?

Derek Pyle
Derek Pyle

DP: There’s a really cool range. One purpose of the project is creating an actual audiobook — albeit one that’s performative — so some of the chapters are more or less straight through readings of Finnegans Wake, with music as a way of creating atmosphere. On the other hand, the Western Mass art punk band Dérive played this really rocking set of music, that swings between noise rock and say, Miles Davis’s electric band. That’s something I would listen to just for the music.

Mariana Lanari and Sjoerd Lejten from Amsterdam, they really paid attention to Joyce’s text, and created music in response. In the first chapter of Finnegans Wake, it’s said that Joyce laid out all of the book’s major themes, like how a symphony begins with an exposition of themes. So Mariana and Sjoerd, they actually sampled sound bytes and borrowed other passages from the rest of the chapters, which is just such an inventive way to replicate Joyce’s method of developing intratextual meaning.

I also really impressed by Tim Carbone’s chapter. Tim is a fiddler in a well known “new grass” band [Railroad Earth], which is like the bluegrass musicians who play in the lineage of the Grateful Dead and other jambands. I knew his music would be on point, because he’s such a talented musician as well as producer, but I was blown away by what he was able to evoke on a literary level. I’m not sure how to explain it, except to say he really opened a portal into Joyce’s text.

Biblioklept: How would you respond to those who might say that listening to a musical version of Finnegans Wake is not “really” experiencing it?

DP: Well, I think there are many, many ways to read Finnegans Wake. That’s part of what makes the book so much fun. Our musical version is one way of doing it. That might not be for everyone, but then again, utilizing a few dictionaries and five or six secondary academic texts — such as Roland McHugh’s Annotations and Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key — also isn’t for everyone. I would hope that some people will read along with their book with listening to the music.

My friend Rebecca Hanssens-Reed, she’s translated this comment from Borges:  “[Finnegans Wake is] a book that so many will have bought and probably none will have read beyond the first few pages. It seems important to read it in one sitting, all at once. How one might do this is unclear. Perhaps God could accomplish such a task.” Of course, it would impossible to read the whole thing in one sitting. But could you listen to the whole thing, all at once? It’d be an extreme 30 or so hours, but yes, our music will make that a possibility. As someone who has listened to the whole thing, a couple of times straight through — that Patrick Healy audiobook, sans music — well maybe it didn’t put me in the realm of the gods like Borges suggests, but… all I can say, it’s worth it.

Beyond that, you know, I think Waywords and Meansigns showcases some of the different ways different people approach Finnegans Wake. In the Wake, Joyce was really interested in the writings of Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Italian philosopher. Joyce took his ideas to explore how plurality and multiplicity give rise to increased meaning as well as increased chaos. Take for example, the Tower of Babel. When the Tower crashes, you suddenly have an explosion of possible meanings; you have hundreds of people now speaking different languages. This multiplicity can lead to a real richness, because your possibilities for meaning have expanded tenfold. And yet you also have a great deal of confusion and chaos, because no one can communicate effectively in the other’s language. Of course, this is not just about mere words, but the idioms, cultural referents, histories and worldviews that are embedded within language.

Again, that’s the notion of “Here Comes Everybody.” Not everybody’s going to dig it, but that’s the way of the world — we don’t all get along, we don’t even understand each other, and a lot of the time we are so embedded within our own perspectives that we can’t even recognize our lack of understanding. Of course, that’s a position of extreme relativism, and there are those who see the world much more universally. Joyce is looking at the world universally — in the Tower of Babel he also sees Humpty Dumpty and all the king’s men who couldn’t put Humpty back together again, and he sees the Fall from Grace, and he sees Finnegan’s fall from the ladder — but he’s also exploring the extremes of relativism, where meaning becomes so individualized as to be totally idiosyncratic and therefore impenetrable. That’s the whole of Finnegans Wake of course, idiosyncratic and impenetrable, filled with meanings that we’ll never decipher fully.

One of my favorite assessments of the Wake comes from a letter to Joyce, written by HG Wells. Upon reading some of Joyce’s early drafts of the Wake, Wells wrote, “Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”  Wells doesn’t seem to hate Joyce’s book, however, he just isn’t interested in it. Which is fine. Some people won’t be interested in Waywords and Meansigns either — and knowing the contentiousness of academics, some may actually hate it. Wells, I think he’s aware of the irony, he closes his letter to Joyce with a couple of sentences that sum up the Wake perfectly: “I can’t follow your banner any more than you can follow mine. But the world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong.”

Biblioklept: When do you anticipate the completed project being released?

DP: So we’re actually doing two separate editions of Waywords and Meansigns; both will be unabridged, all 17 chapters. When we first put out the call for musicians, there were so many folks we didn’t want to turn away. So the first edition will debut very soon — 4 May 2015. Then the second edition will debut sometime during the coming winter, with a whole new cast of musicians.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DP: Ha, that’s a great question.

In the 6th grade my mom told me about this poet Allen Ginsberg. My mom was sort of a hippie, but not quite — she was a business woman into the human growth movement in the 70s — so she knew Ginsberg was cool, but I don’t think she realized how much of his writing is just softcore gay porn. Anyway, she said to check this cat out, so I got Howl from the local library. I was blown away. My dad had a Xerox machine back then — I photocopied the whole book.

Beyond that, I’m a little ashamed to think maybe I’ve never truly stolen a book. As a kid I stole a few dirty magazines… and in middle school I had a secret place for keeping the books my parents wouldn’t let me read. I was particularly fascinated by Marilyn Manson’s autobiography. But I think I paid for that.

7 thoughts on “Derek Pyle Discusses Waywords and Meansigns, an Unabridged Musical Adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake”

  1. Great interview! I’m looking forward to listening to this, although I doubt I’ll be able to hear it all in one long session (one must sleep occasionally).

    Pyle says, “Well, I think there are many, many ways to read Finnegans Wake. That’s part of what makes the book so much fun.” Yes! I often enjoy opening to a “random” page, blindly placing a finger on the text, and reading a passage: treating the book as a kind of divination system.

    Liked by 1 person

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