Joey Ramone Sings Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in Homage to John Cage
A great 20th century cultural mix featuring three musical maestros that uses words from Finnegans Wake in a song.
James Joyce’s imagination seems to have been the same as a composer’s. Musical reality lies in all of his works and is evidenced at all times as a kind of symbolic language that envelops us in dream-like landscapes destined to be spoken and, in some cases, sung. Finnegans Wake, described as one of the most complex modernist works, has musical references that help us understand the codes of its verses and its multidimensional narration.
In 1942 (the year after Joyce’s death), experimental composer John Cage made a recording inspired by Finnegans Wake and built around it a series of lines spoken and sung by the artist. The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs is the result of this experiment, sung by soprano Justin Fairbank. The piece in itself cannot be considered a song, if referring to an instrumental composition: there are no harmonious sounds that accompany the sublime tenor and there are only a few taps on the piano lid as subtle simulations of percussion behind the powerful voice. Nevertheless, it is still a piece that captivates us through the pure nature of the singing, a sonic vibration that, more than instrumental, would be sentimental. The very fact of involving an opera singer fulfills one of Joyce’s dreams: to have his verses one day converted into songs for opera. Cage, an obsessive and faithful admirer of Joyce, eventually put together a progression of five pieces based on his readings.
Later, the Welsh producer and multi-instrumentalist musician John Cale would produce an experimental compilation in honor of Cage. Caged/Uncaged—A Rock/Experimental Homage to John Cage. It was recorded in Italy in 1993 and included the participation of David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed and Lee Reenaldo, among others. On that tribute there is once again “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs”, this time sung by one of the gods of American punk, Joey Ramone.
The fascinating thing about this piece of music, more than Joey’s vocals, is the grandiose 20th century cultural mixture: Joyce from the beginning of the century, Cage from the middle and Ramone from the end. An allusion to the eternal return of the riverrrun in Finnegans Wake, of knowledge flowing like a river and creating a cycle of water or, in this case, a cycle of musical harmony from performer to performer, that does not stop and cannot be deciphered.
The musical reality is immanent like dreams, like the negation in French révérons pas (we will not dream) that Joyce’s “riverrun past” could allude to; a negation, perhaps, of the possibility of thinking that reality in the story is a dream. “We live, in a very deep sense, in the moment of Finnegans Wake“, Cage said.
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