Scoring Finnegan's Wake or 'A river runs through it.'

Interview with Alma Kelliher, sound designer for 'riverrun'
Written for Sinfini

The writer James Joyce was also a highly skilled musician. Music threads its way through his work, from his early poetry collection Chamber Music to his final novel, Finnegans Wake. An adventurous stage adaptation, riverrun, features a soundscape by composer Alma Kelliher. She discusses the production with Miriam Gillinson.


Can you describe riverrun?

It's a one-woman show adapted and performed by Irish actress Olwen Fouéré. It’s written from the perspective of the river that runs through Joyce’s lyrical novel and has been described as an ‘avalanche of voice, movement and sound’.

Finnegans Wake is a notoriously tricky novel. How does Olwen Fouéré’s adaptation tackle it?

riverrun focuses on the last part of Finnegans Wake and follows the journey of the River Liffey from source to sea. It isn’t just the river, though. It is the journey from birth to death, from beginning to end, from morning to night. It’s the universal journey.

Can you tell more about what happens in the production?

We’re visualising the journey of the river. Olwen is a molecule of water in that river – and so is every member of the audience. With my music, I provide the feeling of the river, so that you feel submerged. You know when you put your hands over your ears and there’s a closed warmth? That’s what we are trying to emulate.

You’re credited as composer and sound designer for riverrun...

What I've created is more of a soundscape. I consider myself both a sound designer and a composer. I have difficulty distinguishing between the two anymore. A lot of my music is very sound-based and a lot of my sound design is very musical. I’m somewhere in between both those worlds.

What types of sounds do you use?

They’re long-range sounds. You won’t hear fiddly changes but you will feel a shift in tone. The sounds are mostly made up of different winds, rumbles and flowing water. They’re also mixed with Gene Austin’s 'The Lonesome Road' – a beautiful song about death. I took that song, stretched it and embedded the sound of a light breeze in it.

What role does the microphone play in your soundscape and the production?

The microphone is Olwen’s anchor. We’ve even had a special stand made, which curves with the shape of the river. 

Does your soundscape remain constant or does it change from one performance to the next?

There are differences, and they’re mostly dynamic. If Olwen’s energy is really big and loud and bombastic then I will follow that. If she is being quiet and still, I’ll want to stay quite calm. Some nights, one section might be solemn, other nights it might be energetic. There are always three or four sounds playing on the computer at any one time. I work the faders and manipulate the blend according to Olwen’s mood.

How do you think people should encounter Joyce's works?

For me, the best way to absorb Joyce’s work is to hear it read out loud by someone else. Often the true meaning of the words is in the silent joining of two words. There is a hidden meaning in things. You have to look at Finnegans Wake out of the corner of your eye to really understand it.

What aspects of Joyce’s writing do you and Olwen hope to bring out with riverrun?

The playful and humorous side. If you get too bogged down in the academic side of it, you forget that half the time Joyce was having a laugh or being filthy. He could be winking at you, and Olwen really embodies that.

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