Jam Bands, Experimental Music, and James Joyce: Finnegans Wake Set to Music, Unabridged

Article Contributed by Waywords and M… | Published on Friday, March 27, 2015

The Grateful Dead are widely considered the first “jam band.” Within the world of rock and roll, jam bands are noted for their extended improvisations and even experimental departures from traditional song structure (think Dark Star, Drumz & Space, and of course, Seastones). Many jam band fans, however, are unaware that the Grateful Dead--and therefore the whole jam scene--had roots in the much larger world of experimental music. A new musical project, Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake [in its whole wholume], re-reveals some of the overlap between jam bands, experimental music, and avant jazz.

Waywords and Meansigns is a global collaborative project, setting James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake to music, unabridged. Finnegans Wake is a highly unusual book written by James Joyce. It is the literary equivalent of an extended Playin’ in the Band; there is an extreme departure from traditional narrative with seemingly nonsensical words and puns in dozens of languages.

Each musician who participated in the Waywords and Meansigns project was assigned their own chapter to set to music and record. The only requirements were that the words be unabridged, audible, and more or less in their original order.

Tim Carbone, the fiddler from Railroad Earth, took on a chapter, which he described as "one of the most challenging projects I've ever undertaken. The language alone is incredibly hard to grasp and the amount of music needed to be created (an hour plus) on top of it all has been frightening and amazing at the same time." Tim’s chapter also features Railroad Earth bandmate Andy Goessling playing zither.

Project director Derek Pyle is no stranger to jam bands either; he grew up seeing members of the Grateful Dead perform. “I actually got interested in experimental music through listening to the Dead,” he explained. “If you just trace the Dead’s influences, there’s a lot of really out there stuff. Phil [Lesh] especially was inspired by some wild music.”

In fact, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh began his musical career studying experimental music composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, studying with renowned composer Luciano Berio. Berio was also interested in Finnegans Wake, and in 1959 Phil Lesh wrote and conducted a big band piece called “Finnegan’s Awake.” David Nelson and Phil Lesh actually met because in 1962 David approached Phil about a book the latter was reading: Finnegans Wake.

The Waywords and Meansigns project also features keyboard player Parker McQueeny, an up-and-coming musician who has one foot in experimental music and the other foot in the jam band scene.

Waywords and Meansigns: Recreating Finnegans Wake [in its whole wholume] will debut May 4, 2015. All audio will be freely distributed via waywordsandmeansigns.com. Excerpts selections are currently available.

Press contact: Derek Pyle, [email protected]