One of the arguably most important books in literary history is one that almost nobody in the general public has read. Derek Pyle wants to change that.
Pyle’s new project, “Waywords and Meansigns,” is a musical adaptation of James Joyce’s 1939 novel “Finnegans Wake.” The novel is often considered impossible to read, because of its confusing language and obscure references.
The project that Pyle directed, released on his website under a Creative Commons license on Feb. 2, is a 31-hour audio piece in which different musicians from all around the world recorded the complete text of the novel. Each of the 17 chapters was assigned to a different musician, who was then given free reign on what they wanted to do with it. Pyle’s goal was to make it possible for more people to experience the book.
“We’re not making a ‘Finnegans Wake’ for dummies,” he says. “It’s for newcomers and Joyce freaks alike.”
Blast Magazine’s Trea Lavery spoke with Derek Pyle about “Waywords and Meansigns,” and what it was like to create.
How did you get the idea for the project?
Initially I got interested in “Finnegans Wake” and organized a 24-hour event where we listened to an audiobook of it in a single sitting, the idea being that the book is hard to read and it would be a more immersive experience. I was struck by the different languages- Joyce invented his own language using different languages. Because of that different listeners have different experiences: Medievalists would be aware of those references, Irish Gaelic speakers would be aware of those references, different people get different references, and I wanted to explore that. I had different musicians explore the book and they all had different responses. The book is about different voices and different kinds of people exploding together, so we got different interpretations together.
What was the process like, with so many different people all over the world?
Really fun, actually. At first it was a few groups we knew, mostly from the Western Massachusetts underground music scene, then I did research on what musicians had done interpretive works related to Joyce. I was doing a lot of outreach, but at some point that flipped and people started reaching out to me. The internet is so cool. I’ve gotten to meet and collaborate with people from Australia, Germany, Poland… It’s been so cool, and I’ve gotten very aware of how this is a 21st century endeavor. It never would have happened before.
How did you choose from all of the people who reached out to you who would be part of the project?
Whoever was odd enough, and up for the challenge. Some incredibly talented and well known folks have been involved. The idea wasn’t to get people with Wikipedia pages, and we’ve also gotten people who will never be on Wikipedia, so there are some really different people. Nobody has set the book to music unabridged, so we’re not competing with anyone remotely, so anybody interested can be invited to participate in some way. It’s a great business model, really.
So why did you choose to release it under Creative Commons, then?
Part of the idea of “Finnegans Wake” is that many people bought the book but few read past the first few pages. The goal is to make it more accessible. We also bypassed all questions for how much to sell a 31-hour thing for, and who’s going to buy that. Releasing it for free also had an appeal because it became a labor of love, not financial gain, which is good because any mainstream commercial viability it might have is questionable.
What’s the experience you’ve had producing and listening to the project?
I’ve been working on the project for 18 months pretty much full time. Some point about a year into it I had an interesting idea that what I’ve been doing is similar to what the book’s about. I’ve been learning a ton about the world through the project. When you sit back and think on how small knowledge and consciousness is and how little I know in the grand scheme of things there are to know, it’s very small. When you read [“Finnegans Wake”], you’re confronted with the experience of ignorance, confusion, bewilderment, and you have to step out of perspective to see you are learning new things. There are two groups in Boston that I know of that get together on a weekly basis and read the book word by word. One time at the Boston College group there was a woman who’s doing a dissertation on Shakespeare, and there was a word and she said, ‘That’s a pubic hair wig that prostitutes would wear when they lost their hair because of syphilis in the 1800s.’ There’s an astoundingly good group collective knowledge of weird bizarre things and you learn a great deal from the book. The process of running the project is incredibly rewarding. I meet and collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds that are brilliant, fun, funny, and interesting, and I get to explore my own world.
Do you think someone who has never read “Finnegans Wake” before would have this same learning experience from listening to the project?
It depends. I’ve heard of people reading the entire book while listening, which is awesome. One contributor who blogs about “Finnegans Wake” says there are two ways of reading it, horizontally and vertically. Horizontally is digging into the book and nerding out on the meaning, and vertically is just riding the waves. It’s either extremely meaningful or a bunch of nonsense, but it’s fun. I tell people, if you don’t like one chapter, listen to a different one, because they’re all totally different.
This release is the second time you have directed a project just like this, the first being released on May 4, 2015, with a completely different roster of musicians. How else is the second edition different from the first edition?
We got some bigger names with the second edition. I learned a lot between the first and second editions, like how to promote it. A weird thing that didn’t occur to me on the first edition was when seeking reviewers, I was trying to find someone to review the whole thing, which is a pretty big undertaking. I didn’t realize I could have standalone chapters reviewed. I got feedback from some of the contributors that they didn’t get enough attention. The two editions are as different as the chapters are different.
Would you ever do a third edition?
There will be more, but it will be different. I need to redesign the site. The simple layout worked well to display it, but as it’s grown, people have done artwork, more music, we’ve written articles, and it doesn’t work with the simple design. I want to break up chapters into smaller passages to open it up to more voices. I want to open it up to be ten minute things, so you could look up a passage and see five different things. I’d love to have a metal band doing a ten-minute chunk, a K-pop band doing a ten-minute chunk, really bring in a whole new array of voices.
So the new website would be a place where artists could upload music, and a listener could find a bunch of different interpretations of each chapter?
Yes. I’m not sure yet how to make the interface easily navigable while giving access to tons of content. It’d be like a maze, or even like “Finnegans Wake” itself. You’d be overwhelmed with information. We’re also doing live events, like in LA.
Would live events be the musicians playing their chapters live?
It could be something like that; in LA that’s what we’re doing. The imagination is the limit. If you want to play the recording to a bunch of earthworms, then whatever, great. If you want to get a visual representation of the sound waves tattooed on your back… The sky’s the limit.
Would you ever do something with visual art related to “Finnegans Wake”?
We’ve got a dream of doing some exhibit and having installations of the audio paired with various “Finnegans Wake” art. It’s still in the dream phase, but we’ll do it at some point.
Is there anything else you want readers to know?
If people want to do a ten-minute chunk with their metal, hip hop, or K-pop group, they should write me. Just holler.
You can listen to the first and second editions in their entirety at www.waywordsandmeansigns.com.