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GUY RAZ, host:

If he were alive today, the Irish writer James Joyce might just feel hip enough to hang out in the club that played this:

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SWEET TRIP (Singer): (Singing) Lightly common, lightly go. Though thy heart presage thee woe…

RAZ: These lyrics, lightly common, lightly go, though thy heart presage thee woe, they were written by James Joyce. He published them in 1907 in his book of poetry called "Chamber Music." The song you're hearing is by the San Francisco-based band, Sweet Trip. It's a track off a new album of electronic, folk and pop interpretations of James Joyce's poetry. It features 36 artists, including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and more obscure names like the Chicago-based indie rockers, Puerto Muerto.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PUERTO MUERTO (Singer): (Singing) Ah, could they ever hold me there, gladly were I a prisoner…

RAZ: The words in this song come from Verse 22 of James Joyce's chamber music poems. The album - it's also called "Chamber Music" - is the brainchild of British record producer James Nichols, who joins us now from London. Mr. Nichols, I want to read a quote from a letter James Joyce wrote to his brother Stan Islaw(ph) in 1907 about this poetry.

He writes: some of the verses are pretty enough to put to music. I hope someone will do so, someone that knows old English music such as I like. Now, Mr. Nichols, it's certainly not old English music but would James Joyce appreciate this album?

Mr. JAMES NICHOLS (Record Producer): It's a very difficult question to answer, but I think he would have because he was quite a rebel himself. And a lot of these artists on the project come from the avant-garde and that they're sailing in the opposite direction from the mainstream. So, I think he would've appreciated it if he was around today.

RAZ: Where did the idea come from? Why did you decide to take James Joyce's "Chamber Music" and ask artists to set them to music?

Mr. NICHOLS: It was a spur of the moment decision really. I didn't really dwell on it. The idea came to me as I was reading the "Chamber Music" book. I just was looking at it and thinking this would be great if it was set to music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible)…

RAZ: James Nichols, when you brought this idea to all these various artists, what did you ask them to do?

Mr. NICHOLS: It was pretty simple really. They only had to put the words to music. The only restriction was that they couldn't mess with the words in any way. They couldn't adjust the words or place the words in a different order. Their role was as the composer of the music and Joyce was the songwriter.

RAZ: Mr. Nichols, two of the artists who perform on the album are with you. Singer-songwriter Owen Tromans and poet Jerry Mitchell. First, Owen Tromans, you chose verse 10 from James Joyce's "Chamber Music" to perform…

Mr. OWEN TROMANS (Singer-Songwriter): Yes.

RAZ: …on this record. The part that begins: bright cap and streamers, he sings in the hollow, come follow, come follow.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TROMANS: (Singing) Bright cap and streamers, he sings in the hollow, come follow, come follow…

RAZ: Owen Tromans, talk about the process of taking the words of one of the greatest literary figures, James Joyce, and setting it to that music. That must be a bit intimidating.

Mr. TROMANS: Well, I suppose it was intimidating. I kind of tried a few things with different verses and the tenth verse I thought would work really, really well for what I wanted to do, which was to pick up a (unintelligible) kind of a real, real kind of pastoral kind of sound. It was almost - although Joyce (unintelligible) the Irish, it kind of almost English, old kind of merry England kind of feel to some of the pieces.

And yeah, that's why I decided to do it in that style, which is just a guitar and voice.

(Singing) With ribbons streaming…

The song felt like a pop song to me, and so that's why it's performed with that amount of melody and that amount of simplicity if you like.

RAZ: And next to you is Jerry Mitchell. And, Jerry, you also sang on this album. Verse 26…

Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (Singer): Yeah.

RAZ: …from Joyce's "Chamber Music." Can you read from that part of the poem for us and then we'll hear some of the actual track from the record.

Mr. MITCHELL: All right. Yeah, I'll just get up. Thou leanest to the shell of night, dear lady, a divining ear in that soft quieting of delight. What sound hath made thy heart to fear? Seemed it of rivers rushing forth…

(Singing) …from the grey deserts of the north? That mood of thine is his, if thou but scan it well, who a mad tale bequeaths to us, at ghosting hour conjurable, and all for some strange name he read in Purchas or in Holinshed.

RAZ: Jerry Mitchell, what do you think James Joyce is trying to say with these words?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think he's trying to say that love's such a fickle thing that you can gather all away for just a line of what you dread about something that's totally obscure to you. You know, your whole world can be changed in an instant.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: James Nichols, this is love poetry that James Joyce…

Mr. NICHOLS: That's right.

RAZ: …wrote. How does it sort of unfold through those 36 verses?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, it charts love from innocence to experience. I mean, that's the quote we used to promote the record but it's also the quote used many, many times to explain that it charts low from that kind of, like, the beginnings of love where you lust and excited with the boy or girl that you are with until it essentially eats you up and consumes you.

And there's a great quote from Joyce himself. He said that he wrote this while wandering the streets as a young boy in Dublin just hoping that some girl would love him. And I think that's what he says it all to be honest.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) My dove, my beautiful one, arise, arise.

RAZ: James Nichols, when you brought this idea to all these various artists, what did you ask them to do?

Mr. NICHOLS: It was pretty simple really. They only had to put the words to music. Their only restriction was that they couldn't mess with the words in any way, they couldn't adjust the words or place the words in a different order. And their role was as a composer of the music and Joyce was the songwriter.

RAZ: Was there something about these verses, "Chamber Music," that James Joyce wrote in 1907, 101 years ago, that just struck you, that you thought this is going to sound really interesting performed by the artists that I know?

Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah, I just think (unintelligible) and simplicity really compared to Joyce's other work. They have a kind of an airiness to them and dreaminess so…

RAZ: Almost a whimsy.

Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah, whimsy. And I think they have more of an impact as songs than they do actually as poems.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANN CALIFONE (Singer): (Singing) Passes in the sunlight, by ways that know the light footfall?

RAZ: Chicago-based Ann Califone performing Verse 8 from the album "Chamber Music," 36 modern interpretations of James Joyce's poetry.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CALIFONE: (Singing) …mien so virginal?

RAZ: Earlier we spoke with the record's producer, James Nichols, and two artists who contributed songs - Owen Tromans and Jerry Mitchell. To hear more from the album, "Chamber Music," check out the music section of NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CALIFONE: (Singing) …of all the sunny woodland, carry so brave attire? O, it is for my true love, the woods their rich apparel wear, O, it is for my own true love…

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