Four CT Artists Part Of Global Effort To Set 'Finnegans Wake' To Music, Poetry

Read these words out loud: Yogibogeybox. Mrkgnao. Peloothered. Mumchanciness.

Now use "sausage" in a sentence. As a vowel.

You've got it, you're there, you're soaking in it: The sound-world of "Finnegans Wake," the mind-expanding, dense, absurdist, arguably narrative-free 1939 novel by James Joyce, a feat of spaghetti-strand wordsmithery that took nearly two decades to complete.

"I look at 'Finnegans Wake' like a poetry book," says New Haven poet Karen Ponzio. "If you try to read it in a linear fashion, it gets frustrating."

For the uninitiated, "Finnegans Wake" is a tsunami of smashed-together words, sounds and puns, a celebration of language that largely forgoes plot and character development.

"It's a linguistic puzzle that James Joyce put his blood, sweat and tears into, to be confounding, in a lot of ways," says Shelton musician Lys Guillorn. "It's not meant to be wholly narrative, like a regular novel."

So why not put it to music?

"Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake in its Whole Wholume," co-founded by Derek Pyle and Kelley Kipperman in 2014, is a massive endeavor to transform all 628 pages of "Finnegans Wake" into songs, experimental readings, sound collages and artworks.

They've solicited contributions from more than 100 artists in 15 countries, including punk musician Mike Watt, composer David Kahne and Railroad Earth's Tim Carbone. (Kipperman departed in 2015; Pyle has remained on as project director.)

"By inviting people to record their own interpretations of the Wake, we hope to offer a version of Joyce's work that is stimulating, accessible, and enjoyable to casual as well as dedicated readers and listeners," reads a statement on the "Waywords" website.

The first and second editions of "Waywords," released in 2015 and 2016 respectively, assigned each of Joyce's 17 chapters to a different artist. A third edition, focusing on smaller passages of text, drops on May 4, the anniversary of the book's original publication, on the project's own independent digital platform.

The third edition includes submissions by Ponzio, Guillorn and two other Connecticut artists: Adam Matlock and Conor Perrault, who works with New York-based musician Gregory Paul in the duo Human Flourishing.

Matlock read about "Waywords" in a Hampshire College alumni newsletter (Pyle also went to Hampshire), just as the mainstream press was starting to pick up the story. A Joyce fan, he participated in a performance organized by Pyle, "just various musicians and performers, a couple of current Hampshire students," Matlock says.

Pyle sent Matlock a passage of text (pages 500-501). Accompanying himself on the piano, Matlock recited Joyce's words six times before something stuck; later, he excised parts he liked and overdubbed additional voices. Matlock's finished composition reflects his love of improvising; it's fresh and surprising, with one foot firmly planted in the musical language of European art song.

Last Bloomsday — June 16, a worldwide celebration for Joyce fans, who act out the events of June 16, 1904 (the day on which the 1922 novel "Ulysses" takes place) — Guillorn staged an event at Best Video in Hamden (with Courant staffer Chris Arnott).

When Guillorn learned about "Waywords" through Matlock, she was already familiar with the process; occasionally, when her own lyrics aren't song-ready, she'll set other people's poetry to music.

"I'm always up for a challenge," she says. "This was an extension of that."

Guillorn's "Finnegans Wake" passage (pages 254-255) is marked up with vertical pencil lines, where line breaks suggested themselves. Above certain words, she squeezed in chord changes. Joyce's odd phrase-lengths and disregard for rhyme schemes didn't faze her; she ended up with a three-song suite, for voices and guitars, in a folk-rock language that's likely familiar to her fans.

"Some of my songs also don't repeat or have choruses, or they climax in weird places," Guillorn says, "or at the end, where you're not expecting something. I used [the text] the way I use my own lyrics. The way I sung through it, it felt like three chunks."

Word of "Waywords" spread through Facebook to Ponzio, who messaged Guillorn and Pyle: "Should I do it? I'm not a musician." (Their unified response: "What's a musician?")

Ponzio, too, dissected the text (pages 181-182) into smaller fragments, feeling out natural pauses. "If you look at the piece, it's only this big in the book," Ponzio says, angling her thumb and forefinger. "These pieces aren't long, when you straight read them."

On her spoken-word composition, Ponzio's voice slopes downward at the end of each burst; intensity builds slowly, from start to finish, like short, steady strides up a mountain. She creates meter, almost like a steady groove, where there is none.

Patrick Dalton, a member of New Haven band the Proud Flesh, processed Ponzio's voice and added sounds. "We talked about what I wanted and what he could do," Ponzio says. "I wanted the sound to start quiet and build. I didn't know how to create that myself, so he helped me."

Multiple Challenges

For years, Perrault's copy of "Finnegans Wake" lived in his bathroom. Having kids, he says, "made leaving anything out an invitation for destruction."

Nearly every word of Joyce's text, Perrault says, is "an amalgamation of multiple words, often from multiple languages. The first line of the book is the ending of a sentence that begins at the end of the book. It's cyclical, in a way."

Perrault and Paul spun their passage (page 499) into a sort of radio drama, surrounding bits of dialogue with layers of banjo, percussion, toy accordion and other ambient sounds. Paul's character speaks with aggression and authority; Perrault reads the part of Shaun the Postman, one of three children in the Earwicker family, which stands at the center of Joyce's text.

If the presence of specific characters — Shaun, his brother Shem the Penman, his sister, Issy, their parents, and others — in "Finnegans Wake" suggests a narrative, Perrault (like Ponzio) doesn't recommend straight ahead, cover-to-cover reading.

"I know someone who read 'Finnegans Wake' from start to finish," he says. "He was the grouchiest person I've ever met."

To prepare, Perrault read several pages around his passage, "just to get a better understanding of it. I understood where it fits, plot-wise." I stopped him at "plot-wise."

"There's a plot of a kind," he says. "There's a weird dream-logic to it."

Setting Joyce's language to music, all four artists agree, makes his work more accessible to non-nerds, if that's your goal. "The words have a musicality to them," Perrault says. "Joyce was a big fan of music. You get more meaning out of the book when you read it out loud, just because of the sound of the words."

Matlock stresses the importance of hearing Joyce's language. (Joyce, he points out, dictated much of "Finnegans Wake" into a dictaphone, then transcribed the recordings.) The "Waywords" experience affected how he now approaches words — all words.

"There are so many layers: the sound, how they look, the multiple meanings, things that are happening in different languages. That part is really cool to me. It's viral. It plants itself in your brain, and it changes the way you look at other things."

Last Tuesday, in a studio at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, Ponzio read her passage aloud, as Guillorn and Perrault improvised, subtly, on acoustic guitars, weaving lines and strumming loose tone clusters. Matlock sustained high pads on the accordion, then clicked the keys percussively, like typewriter. For a spontaneous performance, it sounded polished, as though it was being tugged directly from the fabric of the text.

When it ended, I shook my head: how difficult it seemed, setting Joyce's words to music, and how well each artist pulled it off.

Guillorn's response was quasi-Joycean: "I double-dog-dare you to try it."

Access the Opendoor Edition of "Waywords and Meansigns" at the project website beginning on May 4. waywordsandmeansigns.com

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
29°