Sunday, May 31, 2015

Waywords and Meansigns: Finnegans Reawakening as Music

(This review was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, on Sit Down Listen Up: One Album.)

Now this is an interesting idea: the “whole wholume” of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” set to music by various musicians, not as a set of songs or an opera but as a single day-long composition. I’ve listened to about two-thirds of it so far, and it promises to be something greater than the sum of its parts. It is available for free download or streaming audio at Waywords and Meansigns.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, FW is an epic (some would say impenetrable) stream-of-consciousness dream narrative with the barest thread of a plot. A man, H. C. Earwicker, or just HCE, is sleeping. In his dream, he becomes a landscape on which is reenacted the fall of man, symbolized by Humpty Dumpty’s fall and the fall of Tim Finnegan from a ladder. Later in the dream, Earwicker commits an uncertain crime, and is put on trial. Anna Livia, or ALP (probably Earwicker’s wife in his non-sleeping life), presents a letter which will maybe exonerate him; but the letter is either lost in a chicken coop or just unreadable, and is mocked instead. The dream then shifts to three other characters, either Earwicker’s children or fragments of his own psyche (or both): the lowlife Shem the Penman, the heroic Shaun the Postman (aka Juan and Yawn), and the flighty Issy (aka Izzy, Lizzy, and Tizzy). These three regress to their childhood – and while growing up again, Shaun proves to be Earwicker himself. The meaning of “wake” shifts from Tim Finnegan’s funeral to the idea of “waking up” or resurrection, and (though the last monologue is given to Anna), Earwicker awakens and the novel abruptly cuts off – or loops back around to the beginning.

This unresolved fragment is hardly a storyline for a novel. (To be fair, the book is actually much more complex and has literally hundreds of minor characters who float in and out of the dream.) But it isn’t really about plot; it’s not really “about” anything. The interest comes in Joyce’s use of language: the entire tome is a vast puzzle on wordplay, shifting (and very complex) symbolism, and dream imagery.

In this recorded version of chapter one, interest is also created by the music and the readings. Acoustic, Irish-tinged repetitive minimalism (mostly on a mandolin) accompanies the first part; this later gives way (during the “Mutt and Jute” conversation) to electronic hums and whistles, and then more subtle harpsichord and scratchy strings (for the Prankquean sequence), then “retro” synthesizers (in the Japanese pentatonic scale) and Indonesian kacape. Though James Joyce was Irish, the voices don’t have a particularly Irish accent but they do sound European – adding, perhaps, another international layer to the already multifaceted text and music.

This works well with FW, of course, with its fractured stream-of-(un)consciousness. The music becomes another layer of the dream. …But I could imagine this as a new type of literature, made for and disseminated on the internet. Musicians and authors could work together, producing words with music that are not “songs” but something closer to films (but without the visual element!). There are precedents, of course. John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” (with David Tudor) certainly counts. I myself have occasionally read a poem or a chapter of a book that I’d written, at the Hugo House (Seattle), with music that I had composed specifically for the background. (I am also still trying to gather musicians to make a recorded version of the “Shervanya Nocturnal Music” that appears in my novel “Tond”.) I had thought of this type of activity, however, as a continuation of the live improvised music accompanying “Beat” poetry and thus perhaps a form of non-rhyming rap – I hadn’t thought of producing an extended composition that goes with (or is part of) an entire novel.

The second section (Book 1 Chapter 2) didn’t at first seem to be “music” to me, but simply an actor reading an audiobook. My opinion changed about two-thirds of the way through, where the “Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” begins – ambient synthesizers trail in from somewhere, unnoticeable at first, and then other voices (all spoken by the same actor) appear. As the ballad itself proceeds, with music partially provided by Mr. Joyce (there is a page of “sheet music” in the novel), it becomes something of a commentary on a nonsensical Irish song sounding as if in the middle of a Broadway musical. The spoken section at the beginning was merely an extended introduction to this.

The trial scene (Book 1 Chapter 3) is accompanied by alt-rock and circus music – perhaps a confirmation of the parody in this scene. Joyce, like Lewis Carroll in “Alice’s Adventures Underground”, was pointing out the absurdity of the court system of the time.

The least satisfying part so far (to me) is the long chapter which contains the “Mookse and Gripes” sequence. This is one of my favorite parts of the book, with its captivating surrealist imagery ripped right from our subconscious: the weirdly macho, armor-encrusted Mookse; the scruffy Gripes (sitting in a tree, made of grapes, and apparently fermenting as the narrative proceeds); their enigmatic but weirdly perfect insults to each other (“Uskybeak! Ungulant! Uvuloid!”); the shimmering cloud-girl watching them from above (she rains into the river after they depart); the “tears of dusk”; the woman “of no appearance with chills at her feet”, and so on. All very interesting, but the problem occurs with the narrator. He renders the entire chapter as the Mookse might, in both a snooty “posh” accent and quasi-drunken slur (with crowd sounds in the background), and it’s difficult to distinguish the characters – the pompous, professorial poohbah who pontificates the parable is particularly problematic to pin down. This could be a meta-comment on the Wake itself; as in most dreams, characters morph and mutate into one another – but in this audio version, it’s simply less interesting.

More successful are the character sketch chapters. Book 1 Chapter 5, a satire on Anna’s letter becomes, at some point, satire on the Book of Kells (Medieval Irish calligraphy) and then Finnegans Wake itself. The music to this section is a series of drones, gradually becoming a Celtic “slow air” and then an Indian raga, and it is very beautiful. The description of Shem the Penman and his ramshackle mansion is likewise delivered over minimalist string quartet music that v e r y slowly emerges from seemingly endless drones. In this case the voice is electronically slowed (slightly) and lowered (considerably), fitting for the effect of the dream. The last chapter of Book 1 is gossip about Anna, accompanied again by alt rock and circus music (and some freeform improvisation); this is a lively and pointed commentary on the ubiquity but immorality of wagging tongues.

Book 2, chapter 1 is the central part of the novel, and the beginning of the densest dream-language. This is presented as a triptych. The opening and closing sections are almost hip-hop, with sections of a heavy beat and samples from pop and rock (“…another one bites the dust…”, “call me maybe…”) and the Ride of the Valkyries. The middle section is rendered as Beatnik poetry (with a slight “Punk” edge) over jazz improvisations and cross-cut with fragments from probably more than fifty recordings of various types of music. The dream has expanded its borders into other times and places. Other chapters of Book 2 are treated similarly except for the “Nightlessons”. This is forty-plus pages of the gobbledygook that the adult worlds of history and mathematics must seem like to children, with equally incomprehensible footnotes by the three kids, some of which (the footnotes) are supposed to sound “intelligent”. Most of this chapter is sung by a single female voice, a capella – a masterstroke by the musician, Liz Longo; one thinks of it as Anna singing the lessons to her children.

I have not heard all of the rest of it yet. Obviously, the extreme length is an impediment to sitting down and giving one’s full attention to listening to this for any particular amount of time. The question arises: to what extent is this an “album”? To what extent is this even “music”? My answer to first question is perhaps obvious: It’s an “album” in that it’s a set of musical “numbers” that occur in a particular order and were intended to be heard (at least once) together; and it is (like the greatest “albums”) more than the sum of its parts. Most “albums”, of course, are between thirty minutes and an hour, appear on one or more recorded media, and can be listened to at one sitting. But there are much longer examples. Double albums such as the Beatles’ “White Album” are of course a little longer but still can be listened to at one sitting if one makes the time. The same with symphonies – I hear these as “albums” intended to be played live (though of course they can be found recorded too); again, most are between thirty minutes and an hour, but some are much longer. The Mahler Third, Bruckner Fifth, and Shostakovich Seventh are all around ninety minutes in length. Operas and musicals are longer still (these, at least in performance, have a visual element, but are again found recorded – music only) – the Mother of All is Wagner’s “Ring” – and here the idea stretches as to what can be experienced at one time. Sound installations and conceptual pieces such as John Cage’s “To Be Played As Slowly As Possible” are the longest of all – these can last for months, or years, or even centuries. (I myself have done a two-month installation.) Of course no one can listen to the whole of one of these; they are more an immersive experience that one can be a part of for as long (or short) as one wishes. But they are “albums” in that they are (sets of, not necessarily) musical “numbers” that are intended to be played together and are greater than the sum of their parts.

The second question, “Is it music?”, is to me at least, more subjective. On one level it’s meta-music: “Finnegan’s Wake” (with the apostrophe) is the title of an Irish ballad, the story of Tim Finnegan’s fall (and resurrection) – referenced in Joyce’s novel. The novel contains other musical references as well. On another level, it’s a discussion of the differences and similarities between music and speech: because much of the fragmented style of writing is not understandable on a literal level, the reader sometimes has to be content to listen to its melody, almost as one listens to the sound of a foreign language as music.

Dismissing all na├»ve, cultural-based ideas such as “music has a beat and chords”, my music teacher when I was in middle school defined music as “organized sound expressing emotion”. I would change it slightly to “sound, other than speech, made on purpose, as expression”. By either definition, this rendition of Finnegans Wake is music as much as it a reading of the novel. It joins musical compositions basedon the Wake, by John Cage, Stephen Albert, Toru Takemitsu, Benjamin Boretz, Witold Lutoslawki, Harry Partch, Samuel Barber, and scores of others (including a musico-dramatic “work in progress” version by my friend Neal Kosaly-Meyer – reviewed last December in this blog). What else it is, is up to the individual listener.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve, thanks for your thoughtful listening to our project! Listening to two thirds is an impressive feat. I look forward to hearing more once you've heard the whole thing.