Friday, March 20, 2015

Yawn Wails

Illustration for "Waywords and Meansigns" by Robert Berry

For the past two months I've been working on an experimental recording of the 3rd chapter in Book III of Finnegans Wake, known as "The Inquest of Yawn", for the Waywords and Meansigns project. The first snippet of that recording was recently released, you can listen to it here.

I chose this chapter because it's always been one of my favorites. The opening finds a giant sleeping figure, Yawn, whose yawns and sleepy groans create huge gusts of wind. His Brobdingnagian sleeping body is also an enormous, otherworldly mountain. Four chroniclers (and their donkey) approach the mountain-body, braving treacherous winds and an impossible ascent, "traversing climes of old times gone by of the days not worth remembering" (FW p. 474), and screaming in fear (in seven different languages) at the imposing, astronomical size of Yawn. "His bellyvoid of nebulose with his neverstop navel... his veins shooting melanite phosphor, his creamtocustard cometshair and his asteroid knuckles, ribs, and members... His electrolatiginous twisted entrails belt." (p. 475)

The purpose of their journey is to "hold their sworn starchamber quiry on him" (p. 475), conducting an odd examination on this windy, thunderous mountaintop. Out of this sleeping mountain-body the four questioners summon the voices of history like a séance, using some mysterious combination of electromagnetic radio waves and wireless telephony. The sleepy Yawn is resistant to their efforts, but they persist with hypnotic, psychological techniques and eventually summon out the voices of all of the Wake's characters, speaking through the medium of Yawn.

It's a fun chapter to read but, as I discovered, a very difficult one to recite and record. It consists mostly of a dialogue between the 4 questioners and Yawn, with all of the quotations unattributed. FWEET was a huge help, of course, and I brought in a couple friends to help out with doing the other voices, one of whom is a professional actress with experience doing NPR recordings. I also was lucky enough to be linked up with a fantastic audio engineer, Jake Reading, who was open-minded and willing enough to take on this daunting, experimental project. Jake's contribution to this project has been immeasurable. (Devoted Wake head Evan James also deserves immense thanks for his help.)

When it began, I naïvely thought I could recite the whole chapter over a couple marathon sessions and then we'd make edits and add musical effects accordingly. All could be done in a week, I figured. Instead, the 77-page chapter took many weeks to record, followed by a few sessions of editing, and now we are still in the midst of adding on music and sound effects to the 2+ hour recording.

The process has been both extremely fun and immensely challenging. It took so long just to record a reading of the text because to zip through a recitation of Wake pages without any mistakes is the equivalent of maintaining balance on a surfboard while riding a huge wave. Like I said: very fun but very challenging. Over and over again, I'd get through a couple paragraphs only to go flying violently off the surfboard when it became too challenging to read yet another unconventional Wake word.

As someone who's never participated in any kind of recording before, another challenge involved with all of this was getting used to the sound of my own voice. Like most people, I've always hated the sound of my voice and at first it was excruciating to hear myself navigating Joyce's odd language. Eventually I did get used to it, though, and came to really enjoy hearing the music of the Wake, it really does come to life when read aloud. Or, as the Wake emphatically puts it: "Lung lift the keying!" (FW p. 499)

With the reading now including lots of different music and effects in the background, it's really starting to sound like something special (I think). Can't wait to get it all finished up. The effect promises to be some odd combination of magic and music, what the Wake refers to as "the mujic of the footure" (p. 518).

Look for the fully finished product to appear on May 4th.