The Shem Project

It’s been a year-and-a-half since the last JoyceGeek blog, but not for want of JoyceGeek activity. Sometime back in 2015, Derek Pyle, the project director over at Waywords and Meansigns, introduced me to punk bassist Mike Watt of ‘Minutemen’ fame, and the three of us embarked on a journey which, after much hard but wonderful labor (and at the expense of what would otherwise probably have been more JoyceBlogging) is at long last ready to be shared with the general public.

It’s a verbo-musical rendering of the entire seventh episode of Finnegans Wake, commonly referred to as ‘Shem the Penman’, and it is now available for free download at Waywords and Meansigns. The piece in its entirety is 75 minutes long, which may be a lot to take on for some, so I’ve made a ‘teaser” of sorts – a short five-minute film depicting the first page-and-a-half. I hope to eventually animate the entire chapter and present it in full-length, but animation is really time-consuming work, so we’ll all need to be patient. In the meantime, enjoy what I’ve done so far:

If you like what you see and you have 75 minutes to spare, you might enjoy listening to the whole chapter:

So why a film? After nearly twenty years of performing Finnegan live, I’ve come to realize that people need all the help they can get. Not to overstate the obvious, but Finnegans Wake is an extremely difficult book to read even when – as in the ‘Shem’ chapter – the language is comparatively simple. Much has been said about the importance of hearing the Wake read aloud, and while it’s true that a great deal is lost if a reader can’t at least create some kind of aural experience – with audiobooks or even imaginatively – for herself as she reads it, it’s equally true that the reader who relies solely on audio versions without a visual text to consult is likely to lose even more. Spoken word and printed word are the yin and yang of understanding Finnegans Wake – readers ultimately need both.


As the project grows, there is much to celebrate and there are many to thank:

Derek Pyle – I don’t know how he does it, but the man is a social network unto himself, and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for hooking me up with Mike Watt. Derek also gave some badly needed beta-testing input last year at a time when the audio mix was finally starting to take its proper shape.

Mike Watt – I still can’t believe I’m typing that name. This initially started as his project, and when Derek introduced us, my proposal to him was simply to offer my help with stuff like pronunciation and the like. Watt’s no-caps reply was “wanna do the spiel?” – and off we went. So I have that to thank him for, but so much more than that – the music he wrote, that simple, minimalist bass-line – a total of twenty bars looped into a river of sound – I’ve been working with it for over a year now, and I never tire of listening to it.

Jono Manson – His vast pro-tools knowledge and truly good nature made working on what was supposed to be the “tedious” stuff a real and absolute joy.

Everybody Else – David Beron, Grant Franks, Deco Freeman, Ord Morgan, Martha Franks, Charlie Keleman, Carla Cooper, Howard Schwartz, Ann Lacy, Vince Ciotti, John Mugford, Max Walukas, John Burciaga, Joan Harvey, all the members of JoyceGroup Santa Fe, and so many more – you all know who you are. Thank you.

One comment on “The Shem Project

  1. hullabaloo44 says:

    This is so great! Congratulations. I would love to see/hear/sense much more of this but

    now patience; and remember patience is the great thing, and above all things else we must avoid anything like being or becoming out of patience…

    Please keep this up!

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