The Books of Bokonon

Instrumentation
Clarinet (doubles bass clarinet)
Bassoon
Trumpet
Trombone
Percussion (one player):
Marimba
Cello Pan (may be substituted by a synth pad or marimba)*
Glockenspiel
Crotales (lower octave)
Kick Drum
Conga
2 Bongo (low & high)
Tam-tam
Snare Drum
3 Tom-toms (low-med.-high)
Suspended (crash) cymbal
Sizzle cymbal
Concert Bass Drum (large)
Violin*
Double Bass
Soprano (optional)*
*Movement two of The Books of Bokonon includes a part for steel drums (cello pans). This part may be performed by the percussionist on a synthesizer with a drum pad MIDI controller (a so-called “synth pad”). Should either option be unavailable the part should be performed on the marimba using soft yarn mallets (or, possibly, a vibraphone with the motor off).
Movement seven includes an optional vocal part intended to be performed by the violinist (who should be a soprano). In circumstances when this proves impossible, the ensemble may choose to include a soprano to cover the vocal part or it may be omitted entirely. The vocal part should be amplified and be performed in a jazz or pop singing style.
Double bass harmonics should sound at written pitch throughout.
Commissioned by Michael Gurfield for The Deviant Septet and written from February to April, 2012 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Duration: ca. 28′
 Premiered By The Deviant Septet at the Outside the Box New Music Festival at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, Illinois.
Lionel Boyd Johnson, known as “Bokonon,” was born on Tobago in 1891 to a wealthy family whose fortune was derived from the discovery of $250,000 in buried pirate treasure by Bokonon’s grandfather, which he reinvested in livestock, farming and asphalt, among other commodities. After a childhood spent in Episcopal schools, during which he developed an interest in religious ritual and carousal (an irony not entirely lost on Johnson himself), he sailed, in 1911, on the sloop “The Lady’s Slipper,” for London in order to
enroll in the London School of Economics. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 interrupted Johnson’s studies and he quickly enlisted in the British infantry, where he served with distinction. After spending two years in the hospital following the second battle of Ypres he sailed for home–as luck would have it, on the same sloop, “The Lady’s Slipper,” that took him to London in the first place. After a series of misadventures beyond the scope of this brief sketch he lands in India and spends two years as a follower of
Mohandas Gandhi, which gained him the appreciation of the British crown who repaid him with a jail sentence and, at the end of his term, a one-way ticket back to Tobago, where he eventually builds a schooner, the Lady’s Slipper II, and sets off to sail the Caribbean as an idler. In 1922 he meets Earl McCabe, an American Marine deserter escaping Haiti with his unit’s recreation fund, when McCabe hires Johnson to transport him to Miami.
They never made it.
Instead, a storm capsized the Lady Slipper II onto the rocky shores of the island of San Lorenzo. There, naked and hungry, they nevertheless came face to face with a people far less fortunate than themselves, a population of little more than serfs bound to the Castle Sugar Company, whose San Lorenzan operations were absolutely worthless. In contrast to the poor San Lorenzans, McCabe and Johnson (pronounced “Bokonon” in the San Lorenzan dialect) were the epitome of grace, literacy, curiosity and ambition, not to mention a
fount of information on the outside world. They quickly pronounced themselves in charge (much to the relief of Castle Sugar’s executives!) and went about redesigning a utopian life for the hapless San Lorenzans. McCabe would overhaul the law and the economy while Johnson–Bokonon–would design a new religion (a religion that was quickly
outlawed, at his own request, by McCabe, in order to make it more enticing to the native population).
Bokononism, as the religion came to be called, can be summarized by the following proverb: “live by the foma (‘harmless untruths’) that make you brave, and kind and healthy and happy.” It is a religion which its own creator admits is based entirely on lies. These lies, however, are meant to help those who abide by them lead happy, fulfilled lives–much like any religion, ultimately.
In The Books of Bokonon I have aimed to create a musical picture of Bokononism and its sacred texts (written largely in the form of calypsos) and ceremonies. Each of the movements is a fantasy on a work of Bokonon’s, starting with the San Lorenzan National Anthem, a faithful arrangement of the tune composed by Johnson and McCabe upon their assumption of power in San Lorenzo. This is followed by a fantasy on Bokonon’s Fourteenth Calypso, in which he writes about his youthful carousal and the similarities of his life
to that of the Christian St. Augustine. The third movement, “Karass/Duprass”, is a depiction of those teams that unknowingly perform God’s will (a karass). This is represented by a perpetual canon in three pairs of voices (representing the “duprass,” karasses made up of only two people) held together by a cantus firmus first presented in the violin and glockenspiel, representing a “wampeter” (the pivot point of any karass). Since each karass usually contains TWO wampeters, one waxing and one waning, the violin eventually
wanes by joining in the canon, leaving the glockenspiel to wax as the sole remaining wampeter in the karass.
“Busy, Busy, Busy” is a phrase uttered by all Bokononists when they contemplate the incomprehensible complexity of daily life. This is the hardest movement in the piece. “Dynamic Tension” is named after a Bokononist political theory that posits that good societies can only be built by pitting good against evil and keeping the tension between them
high at all times. It is derived from an earlier theory of the American political scientist and fitness guru, Charles Atlas. This is followed by a little tone poem titled “Pool-Pah!” In Bokononism a pool-pah is defined as “a shit storm.” It is the wrath of God. “Pool-Pah!” is, therefore, appropriately chaotic and anarchic. Its component voices (a depiction, perhaps, of a “granfalloon” or false karass) give way to a maddening violin solo of incredible virtuosity, leading, without pause, to the final movement, “Boko-Maru.” In Bokononism, boko-maru is the ultimate expression of intimacy between members of a duprass. It consists of a ritual mingling of awareness by the pressing together of the soles of a couple’s feet. Boko-maru can last for hours! This depiction of the ritual, however, is interrupted by a bass drum, which brings the piece to a violent end much like the chilly end that awaits the world through the miracle of Ice-9.
(The following paragraph may be omitted.) Of course, none of this is true (or is it?)! Bokonon and Bokononism are the product of the mind of the brilliant American writer Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel, Cat’s Cradle. I have tried to remain true to the riotous (yet ultimately nihilistic) spirit of Vonnegut’s novel in this piece, scored, ironically, for the same combination of instruments as Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece, L’histoire du soldat (ironic because Vonnegut’s final work before his death was a new text for L’histoire. Mr. Vonnegut, Stravinsky and I now form part of the same karass–or, at least, a granfalloon).
The Books of Bokonon was written for The Deviant Septet in the winter and spring of 2012.

I. The San Lorenzan National Anthem; II. The Fourteenth Calypso; III. Karass/Duprass

by The Deviant Septet