Waywords & Meansigns – The British Take on Finnegans Wake

Waywords and Meansigns is a large-scale project setting the Wake to music unabridged, with each chapter set to music by a different person or group. While the project features readers and musicians from around the globe, a large number of the contributors are British.

Neil Campbell, a mainstay of British fringe and experimental music scenes, has received a good deal of attention for his engagement with Waywords and Meansigns. Earlier this month, British music magazine The Wire reviewed Campbell’s contribution to W&M, admiring his chapter’s “astounding structural tension… The fabric of pink noise, phasing silver facets of synthesizer and sparse field recordings from which he surround the central voice reading the text have a low but finely calibrated intensity…”

The Conspirators of Pleasure, also known as Poulomi Desai and Simon Underwood of London’s experimental Usurp Art Gallery also took on a chapter for Waywords and Meansigns. Underwood is also known as the former bass player of seminal punk bands The Pop Group and Pigbag. Their contribution to W&M weaves a tapestry of found sound, static, muted echoes and modified instruments around Joyce’s words, creating a remarkable field of aural textures.

Liverpool theatre director Rio Matchett offers a confident and well, theatrical, reading of chapter four. Accompanied by choral singing and subtle synthesizers, Matchett’s chapter gives the listener a revelatory sense of ever-rising, rising into the Wake. Full of inflection and movement, her reading is offset by the distant chorus, effectively creating a dynamics and counterpoint. While many Waywords and Meansigns contributors are not necessarily invested in the academic study of Joyce, Matchett is currently studying the author in her Masters degree.

Also studying Joyce is contributor Ollie Evans, who recently completed his PhD at University of London with a dissertation focused on performativity and Finnegans Wake. In his studies, Evans focused on the Wake’s tenth chapter, “Nightlessons”, subsequently working on the chapter with collaborator Steve Potter for W&M. In “Nightlessons”, Joyce departs even more than usual from the novel’s traditional form — the chapter is filled with annotations and footnotes, typically understood as commentary from the Earwicker children, Shaun, Shem and Issy. Evans and Potter enlisted a number of fellow students and friends to narrate the chapter, a rather creative way to approach the chapter’s array of voices. Listing to the narrative choices employed by Evans and Potter, it is clear to the listener that these guys have really done their homework.

Daniel Bristow, another contributor to W&M, teaches Joyce at the University of Manchester. Recording under the moniker Aleorta, Bristow is a master of ambient soundscapes, creating aural jungles and rain storms that lure the listener into unconscious worlds. Occasionally birds cries and haunted Wake-words leap out from the recording, startling the listener like unexpected moments of clarity within Joyce’s fog.

SIKS is a British-Scottish group with a rather mysterious artist bio:  “composed of geologists, journalists, DJs, and dog walkers — SIKS may never see the light of day”. Led by Simon Ross, SIKS create a warm environment of ghostly piano, found sounds, long and bending notes, and a spacious reading filled with vocal delay.

The British contributors to Waywords and Meansigns has some surprising overlap in terms of sound, often focusing on textures rather than melody or rhythm, and with an emphasis on on close textual reading. The Italian group Janken’s Henchmæn have much in common with them. Composed of Jemba Gian and Ale Colini, Janken’s Henchmæn appropriate Joyce for the digital age by utilizing text to speech synthesis during parts of their reading. Their chapter builds slowly, through a series single notes that seem almost random, but cumulatively create a growing sense of attentiveness and momentum.

No doubt the momentum for Waywords and Meansigns is building. Premiering 2 Feb, all audio from the project will be distributed freely via waywordsandmeansigns.com.

Guest blog by Derek Pyle, Director of the Waywords & Meansigns Project.