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The Music of Joyce's Vernacular Voices

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 2, April 2009
pp. 377-382 | 10.1353/mod.0.0101

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In the this issue of *Modernism/Modernity* (16.2, April 2009) the titles of the essays by Margot Norris (pp. 377–382) and Maud Ellmann (pp. 383–390) were inadvertently switched—in the table of contents as well as in the essays themselves. The correct title for Margot Norris’s essay is “The Music of Joyce’s Vernacular Voices”; and the correct title for Maud Ellmann’s essay is “Joyce’s Noises.” We regret this error.

This error has been fixed on the Project MUSE HTML version of the article.

"[M]aybe the most beautiful extant recording of an unaccompanied speaking voice." That is how Douglas Wolk in a January 21, 2004 article in The Seattle Weekly describes the famous 1929 recording that James Joyce made of a section of "Anna Livia Plurabelle." He goes on to say, "For eight minutes, a liquid-voiced Joyce impersonates the sound of the world talking to itself: Two washerwomen chat on the banks of a river as night falls, and they turn into a tree and a stone. His Irish accent, in fact, is so thick that it's hard for an American, 75 years later, to hear the crackling recording as language, rather than as water and music."1 This description of Joyce's prose language as sonic, as simulating the sound of music, has, of course, inspired a huge number of composers to transform it into musical compositions. Scott Klein in a superb essay on "James Joyce and Avant-garde Music" points out that Joyce's influence, as an author, on the world of modern music may be unprecedented.2 The early works, especially Joyce's poems, stimulated tonal and Romantic arrangements, and Klein cites Myra Russell as counting 140 composers who have set the poems to music. Samuel Barber not only set such poems as "I Hear an Army" to music, but in 1947, eight years after the publication of Finnegans Wake, he produced Nuvoletta, inspired by the sounds of the Wake. However, as Klein discusses at length, Finnegans Wake chiefly influenced avant-garde composers, and John Cage's Roaratorio, An Irish Circus on 'Finnegans Wake' produced in 1979, is clearly the most famous of these productions. But I would like to point to a different feature of that beautiful Finnegans Wake passage Joyce recorded in his thick Irish accent in 1929, and relate its aural qualities to an entirely different set of early twentieth-century poetic practices and aesthetic concerns. Like Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, the dialogue of the washerwomen in "Anna Livia Plurabelle" underlines the aesthetic qualities of ordinary conversational speech, that is, the beauty of vernacular language. And in its heavily accented Irish tones, this female speech is inflected with a working class idiom and with Irish ethnicity. This semantic aspect of the sonic quality of the vernacular speech in Joyce's later work may be fruitfully related to a poetic consciousness and a poetic practice occurring across the Atlantic in Joyce's day, in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.

Modernist studies in the last decade or two have begun to attend to the importance of looking at high modernism in relation to vernacular discourses. A 2004 University of Pennsylvania dissertation by Matthew Hart titled "Synthetic Vernacular Poetry and Transatlantic Modernism 1922–2002" treats twentieth-century vernacular poetry with its attention to race, region, and nation as a response to the privileging of the internationalist current in high modernism.3 And Michael North's 1994 study The Dialectic of Modernism: Race, Language, & Twentieth Century Literature draws attention to the "linguistic mimicry and racial masquerade" already in practice in the discourses of high modernists such as Eliot, Pound, Stein, and William Carlos Williams.4 These studies complicate T. S. Eliot's problematic positioning of vernacular speech—and particularly of its class markers—in the famous pub passage in The Waste Land. "When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said—/I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself [. . . .] Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart./ He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you/ To get yourself some teeth" (34...

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