CAMBRIDGE — It takes a brave man to set "Finnegans Wake" to music. James Joyce's 1939 punfest is a dream, a poem, a word world — it's been called "verbal soup." Its seed is the Irish ballad "Finnegan's Wake," in which hod carrier Tim Finnegan falls from a ladder and is declared dead, only to rise at his wake, after whiskey has been spilled on his corpse, and join in the celebration.
In a way, the book is its own music. Nonetheless, Martin Pearlman, music director of Boston Baroque, has been working on a musical setting of the first five of Joyce's 626 pages. Sunday evening at Longy School of Music, in the debut installment of Boston Baroque's "New Directions: Chamber Music From the Baroque to Carter and Pearlman" series, he presented "Finnegans Wake: An Operoar" as a work in progress.
Pearlman's first decision, a good one, was not to have Joyce's text sung. Instead, he found an actor, Adam Harvey, who has presented entire chapters of "Finnegans Wake" from memory, to speak the words, which Pearlman notated rhythmically to line up with his music. Another good decision was to have Harvey and the chamber orchestra — violin, viola, double bass, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, and percussion — perform the 30-minute "Operoar" once, then engage in a discussion with the audience, then perform the piece again.
Not everything worked, first or second time. Harvey's American accent was unsettling, and when he spoke over more than one instrument, the words weren't always audible. Pearlman's highly allusive writing — a highly appropriate approach for Joyce — was recondite to a fault; references to Wagner and Beethoven and Irish popular tunes were hard to spot. But the biggest problem with "Finnegans Wake" as an aural presentation is that its polymorphous puns are visual. You really need to see a phrase like "violer d'amores" to register it as both "violator of loves" and "viola d'amore."
After a 15-minute intermission, Pearlman fielded questions from the audience: about the instrumentation for the piece, and Harvey's accent, and the intelligibility of the words. He then sang, with evident affection, some of the Irish popular songs his "Operoar" alludes to: "Little Annie Rooney," "Phil the Fluter's Ball," "Miss Houlihan's Christmas Cake."
Some of this fell into place the second time: "Little Annie Rooney" at "little Anny Ruiny," and "Miss Houlihan's Christmas Cake" where Joyce parodies it, at "There was plumbs and grumes and cheriffs and citherers and raiders and cinemen too." There was an echo of Wagner's "Tristan" chord where Joyce mentions "Iseut" (Wagner's Isolde), and perhaps of Beethoven's "Fidelio" at "the dusty fidelios."
Pearlman's sound picture did seem cool and postmodern, music of doubt rather than effusive embrace. It was redolent of Stravinsky, especially "Histoire du soldat" and "Le sacre du printemps," where one might have expected multiple layers à la Charles Ives.
He was most effective when his instruments commented on the overloaded text rather than competed with it. A spare snare drum underlay "Of the first was he to bare arms and a name." A double-bass solo presaged the doom of "What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business?" A questing flute preceded the final "Her hair's as brown as ever it was. And wivvy and wavy. Repose you now! Finn no more."
That last sentence is one of Joyce's innumerable little jokes: "Finnegans Wake" is Finn again and again and again. The book doesn't give up its secrets easily, and neither does "Operoar." Still, Pearlman is an ingratiating explicator of his work, and at Longy there was, as the chorus of the ballad puts it, "Lots of fun at Finnegan's wake."
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.