(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.
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 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.
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 naïve, 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.