Clever, Very: Derek Pyle

A drawing of James Joyce atop a red-orange background covered in text from Finnegans Wake.  Joyce is facing the viewer and wearing headphones.  His glasses are white.  The left lens of his glasses depicts a ear receiving sound waves, and the right lens has a question mark on it in black.
“Waywords and Meansigns” by Robert Berry

For this edition of “Clever, Very”, we spoke with Derek Pyle. Mr. Pyle heads the Waywords and Meansigns project, which seeks to recreate Finnegans Wake to music “in its whole wholume”, a task completed in two 2015 and 2016 editions. Waywords and Meansigns is in the process of taking submissions for a third and final “incomplete edition” to be released in 2017.

James Joyce Quarterly: What inspired you to set Finnegans Wake to music?

Derek Pyle: In college, we hosted these wild all-night listening parties, where we’d stay up for 24 hours listening to an audiobook and making collages. I was a Resident Assistant at Hampshire College, and one of my semi-official roles was showing kids how to alter consciousness–how to have a ton of fun, get really high, even talk to God–without the use of drugs. Finnegans Wake was one of the books we would listen to, and the idea eventually grew out of those experiences.

JJQ: Why did you choose Finnegans Wake for this project as opposed to other works that Joyce wrote?

DP: Finnegans Wake is a Mount Everest of literature. You could climb one of the neighboring peaks, but wouldn’t you always wonder about that big mountain? Plus, Finnegans Wake lends itself to our approach, more than other texts by Joyce. To read it requires a lot of imagination. Since so many people are curious about the Wake, but find it understandably hard to read, maybe our music makes the book more accessible.

We hopefully make the book more fun–Ulysses doesn’t need to be more fun, Bloomsday is good for that–but the exciting parts of the Wake are sometimes lost, like when the book is positioned in a really rigid academic context. We want to step outside that. Certainly some of our contributors are scholars, some of our recordings reflect deep textual analysis, and the audio does work as a teaching tool. But pandering to the scholarly sensibility is not our primary focus. If anything, we’ve created a homing beacon for those people rejected by traditional academia, the people told their love of Joyce is not whatever enough. I’m proud to be on that side of the coin.

JJQ: From the beginning, this project has been collaborative. Why did you structure the project in this way?

DP: That’s another thing the text calls for, evokes, and inspires within the reader. When a medieval scholar reads Finnegans Wake, they get a ton of medieval references. When an Irish speaker reads it, they find Irish. When a Catholic reads it, they find liturgy. Likewise, when a jazz musician reads it, they find jazz, and punk rockers find punk rock. By making our project so collaborative–a couple hundred people have been involved, in big and small ways–we’re able to express, and create, a wonderful range of voices. You might call it the parallax and multiplicity of “Here Comes Everybody”.

JJQ: What part of this project was most enjoyable for you?

DP: The collaborations! I got to meet and work with so many amazing people. The dedication and enthusiasm of everyone involved is astounding. And knowing everyone did this just for fun–we have no operating budget, no one has profited off this, we give all the audio away for free. That’s pretty remarkable.

JJQ: How has setting Finnegans Wake to music twice affected your reading of other Joyce works?

DP: To be honest, I haven’t re-visited Joyce’s other works since beginning this project. What first got me into Joyce was the way he wrote about childhood sexuality, the simultaneous experiences of curiosity, prohibition, repression, even danger–like in “An Encounter” and the beginning of Portrait. It struck on parts of my own growing up, stuff I’d rarely heard others talk about, never mind actually recreating those experiences through prose. But I haven’t read that stuff in a number of years. I’m too busy drowning in the Wake.

JJQ: You’ve recently opened up a call for contributors to a final “incomplete edition” of Waywords and Meansigns. How can JJQ readers participate? Are there any guidelines our readers should follow if they wish to contribute?

DP: We initially focused on rendering the book unabridged, “in its whole wholume”. It felt important to capture the book in its intensity, undiminished. Now it feels important to explore further the book’s call for multiplicity. Basically, we’re inviting anyone and everyone to record a short passage – a page or a few pages–to set to music.

On the website we have some basic guidelines, but really we’re interested in contributions from all kinds of people–musicians, artists, poets, scholars, weirdos, passionate Wake-heads, those totally ignorant of the Wake, and anyone generally adventurous.

Even the term “set to music” is defined loosely–whatever you do aurally is up to you, provided the words are unabridged, audible and more or less in their original order. Likewise, a range of recording styles and methods is no problem. Although I will say, I’m hoping for a few more genre-specific musical choices this time around. A lot of our music thus far is understandably experimental–but wouldn’t it be cool to have heavy metal with Finnegans Wake as the lyrics? Or Justin Bieber-type pop songs? What about some salsa, hip hop, and Nashville country?

But really, like I said, anyone and everyone is encouraged to get involved and please spread the word! If people want more information, they can check our website at or just write directly to me at

JJQ: What are your plans after you release this final edition of Waywords and Meansigns?

DP: I hope to spend less time on the Internet, and pursue a few more personally-oriented creative projects. Of course I’ll continue to maintain the Waywords and Meansigns site, and do whatever else the project might demand, but I don’t anticipate initiating any more group releases. A lot of my role in Waywords and Meansigns has been geared toward promotion and publicity, because I wanted the contributors to feel like their amazing work has been received and valued–despite being a rather unusual, totally independent endeavor–to gain some recognition and amass listeners. The loftiest goal has been that anyone who considers reading Finnegans Wake would at least know our audio exists. Should they choose to listen, I don’t really care, but that they would be aware of the option. We haven’t achieved that, of course, but some 80,000 people have actually listened to the audio. For Finnegans Wake, that seems like a lot!

But it’s also pretty tiresome to focus constantly on how you’re received by others, whether in the press or otherwise, so I look forward to doing some stuff that isn’t geared toward that. My background is actually in service work–hospice, youth work, helping people navigate extreme psychic states, drug and alcohol harm reduction. I drifted away from all that the last few years, but I look forward to returning. In the meantime though, I keep getting hired to work on web development and marketing. I’m just trying to stay out of trouble.

This interview was conducted by Marie Sartain via email October 24, 2016.