Finding the Music in James Joyce's Words

June 16, 2017

Each June 16, bibliophiles around the world celebrate Bloomsday – the day on which Leopold Bloom, protagonist of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses, takes a walk around Dublin.

Joyce was a great lover of music, and it’s often been said that he had a musical approach to language. Composers and songwriters ranging from Samuel Barber and John Cage to The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett have set his words to music over the years (his work is proudly represented by ASCAP in the US). 

This Bloomsday, acclaimed Irish composer Brian Byrne offers his own homage with the ambitious Goldenhair, an album of wide-ranging works inspired by Joyce’s 1907 collection Chamber Music. Byrne’s settings are performed by dozens of guest artists, including actress Glenn Close, Grammy-winning singers Kurt Elling and Judith Hill, vocalists Andrew Strong, Gavin Friday, Julian Lennon, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and more. 

To celebrate Bloomsday and the release of Goldenhair, we asked Byrne to tell us how he captured the music in Joyce’s words.


Immediately after scanning though all the poems, I wrote what is now the title track “Goldenhair” very quickly as an experiment. I heard the Grammy Award-winner Kurt Elling’s voice in my head whilst writing it, as with the poems “Play On” andStrings in the Earth and Air.” Whatever mood I was in at the beginning of the writing period, those poems seemed to inspire a mix of modal Irish melody, jazz sensibility and harmony.

I also wrote “Strings in the Earth and Air” for Kurt Elling very early on, as a short introduction to the album. This piece is more traditionally Irish-sounding than the others.

The opening poem “Strings in the Earth and Air” could not have more musical images in it. I’m using the voice here like an old Sean-nós song or a pipe tune and lastly I added my friend Gavin Friday reading the poem over Erig Rigler’s haunting pipes. I wanted spoken word first to lead into song. Handing over spoken poetry to music and song.

The melody is completely inspired and shaped by the words and uses Irish modal and open diatonic intervals that should be sung in full voice. It is in ABA form.

On the opening A section using the words “Strings in the earth and air,” I’m using a typical Irish pipe-type figure over a drone, a diatonic run starting on the first note of the scale (C) landing the 4th degree of the scale (F) on the second beat to add tension. Then more tension with “Earth and Air” using the 2nd and and 7th note of the scale landing on the fifth. Then “Make music sweet” uses only simple open notes of the triad extended over the octave, to give a sense of resolve or sweetness as the lyric suggests. The next figure is similar but with a different end phrase. A question and answer using two similar four-bar phrases.

The B section opens the second octave, setting up the “money note” or big vocal note for the singer on the line “Pa-le FLOW-ERS on his man-tle” then it winds down quietly with "Dark leaves on his hair."

At the end of the final A section, I use a flattened 7th (Bb) - a very Irish modal sound, to give the end of the phrase some intrigue and to root it in Irish melody.

Overall I wanted to try and write a melody that could be sung a cappella and still have the same impact as if it were accompanied by a full orchestra. Something distinctly folk or Irish that musically paints Joyce’s beautiful words.


For six years I’d stare at Joyce's poem "I Hear an Army," not knowing what on earth to do with it. It had honesty and a darkness to it that took me a while to comprehend. It was so different to the others. It had something the other poems didn’t have and I think James Joyce was channeling his inner blues and anger here, whether he knew it or not. Either the blues for a girl or for his country, which he was growing disillusioned with. W.B. Yeats described the poem as "a technical and emotional masterpiece." 

This is the original poem the way it was written. 

I Hear an Army (James Joyce, 1882 - 1941)

I hear an army charging upon the land,  
  And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:  
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,  
  Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.  

They cry unto the night their battle-name:       
  I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.  
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,  
  Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.  

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:  
  They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?  
  My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?


I set this song as a minor blues and I used the last two lines from stanza three to create a hook or chorus for the song. I turned it from a three-stanza poem to verse/chorus form with instrumental solo in the middle. By building the chorus with these two lines, it gives the listener something to latch on to and let the singer loose on the chorus. I took my lead here from Joyce’s own setting of “Bid Adieu,” where he repeated lines in the song form but not in the poem. 

Repetition is your friend in modern songwriting and song titles are very important. I figured that “Why Have You Left Me Alone” might be a catchier title or at least be more personal than “I Hear and Army.”

I used the Irish percussion instrument the bodhrán to represent the “army charging upon the land” and set the words to a minor blues. The only voice I could hear was Andrew Strong, the lead actor/singer from The Commitments movie directed by Alan Parker. With his voice in mind, it was arranged in a retro blues/big band and strings setting with alt-jazz/blues chords in the strings (anything to darken it and give it a sense of longing and cool).

The words in this poem were darker and more direct than the rest. It seemed to me that Joyce was unearthing his inner blues even if the blues form had not reached Ireland yet!

The song setting uses a lot of blues melismas, turns and has space in between phrases to set up and help the feel of the blues groove.



About Brian Byrne

Brian Byrne is a Golden Globe-nominated and IFTA award-winning film composer and songwriter. In addition to scoring Zonad (2009), Albert Nobbs (2011) and Boychoir (2014), Byrne has co-written songs for artists including Josh Groban, Kelly Clarkson, Sinead O’Connor, Barbra Streisand and has arranged strings for Katy Perry, Pink and Bono. Byrne also composed the music for Riverdance's recent show Heartbeat of Home. In 2008, Byrne was awarded the Steve Kaplan Scholarship from ASCAP’s Film and Television Scoring Workshop with Richard Bellis. An accomplished pianist and conductor, Byrne has performed and conducted extensively.

Click here to download Goldenhair from iTunes.