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THE BOOK OF NEVER

Chorus (SSAATTBB)

43 min.

2018–2020

(excerpt)

The Book of Never is, in many ways, an adaptation of the Novgorod Codex. Also occasionally referred to as the Novgorod Psalter, the codex is a wooden book of psalms from 999 AD believed to be owned by Isaakiy, a monk living in the (now Ukrainian) village of Novgorod sent to convert the town from Paganism to Orthodox Christianity. However, when word of Issakiy’s use of Pagan ceremony and liturgy in his worship reached the church elite, Issakiy and the entire village of Novgorod were excommunicated for heresy. Through destruction of sacred icons, texts, and any associated writing tools, such excommunication would have almost certainly meant a complete erasure of any written records of the village, its language, and its religion.

And so, Isaakiy set out to retain what was left of his dualistic liturgy, his dialect, and the collective memory of Novgorod. Using his wooden book as a writing tablet, he poured layers and layers of wax over the psalms carved into its pages, marking each layer with text, and making multiple paper rubbings of the words he was attempting to preserve — his dualistic prayers, numerous instances of the Rus’ alphabet, sarcastic and scathing commentary on his banishment, even visions of the apocalypse. Issakiy’s paper rubbings are lost to the decay of time, but scratches on the surface of the wood itself remain, made when Issakiy pierced the wax layers while writing his apocryphal texts.

The writings from the Novgorod Codex (used here in the music for The Book of Never) include iterations of phrases like “and you bow down to [Beelzebub/Azreal] with your tongue” in an entry titled The Law of Moses, dozens of semantic variations of the statement “I am the truth and the law and the prophecy” in The Law of Jesus Christ, or a satirical list of platitudes from the Spiritual Instruction from the Father and Mother to the Son in the form of “the world is a town in which ______ are excluded from the church” where the blank is repeatedly filled in by descriptions of Issakiy’s congregation in Novgorod…to name only a few. The resulting text created by Isaakiy is somewhere between liturgy, the chanting of a vindictive spell, a recitation of sins, and a grammar lesson.

To put all this in a more contemporary context, The Book of Never combines text fragments from my own English translations of the Novgorod Codex — made in consultation with Simon Franklin, an expert in Old Church Slavonic at Cambridge University — with individual words and phrases by twentieth century writers in various states of exile.

“Passions of other people…” combines words from various English versions of Psalm 77 (one of the three psalms originally carved into the wood of the Novgorod Codex) with words from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, a bitter 100-page letter to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas written one page at a time in prison near the end of Wilde’s life. Prison guards would give a single blank page to Wilde, and when it was full he would exchange it for a new blank page. Upon leaving prison, Wilde gave the letter to his confidant Robert Ross who (before delivering the letter to Douglas) made copies and sent them to an American publisher for safe keeping.

“Burns I’d like to forget…” uses variations of phrases from throughout Pablo Neruda’s epic Canto General, a history in verse of the entire American Western Hemisphere, written after Neruda fled Chile for danger of arrest after publicly decrying the concentration camps of communist workers in the north. These phrases are interrupted by a large block of text from the Law of Moses portion of the Novgorod Codex, with slight alterations at the end that eventually wind their way back to Neruda.

“Tears I’ve never wept…” sets the first half of a short unpublished poem called “Exercise” from the Three Litanies by Andre Singer, a Jewish composer and conductor who fled Europe during the Nazi occupation. These transition slowly to short phrases from the Novgorod Codex’s Prayer to the Archangel Gabriel, a figure who appears in the Old Testament as guardian angel of Israel, in intertestamental literature as one of the five angels of the apocaplypse, and in New Testament texts as the blower of the horn of resurrection.

“Names of things I once believed…” contains phrases that begin as homophones of individual letters and grow into my own thoughts as I wrote the music, strung together from single words found in Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, a quasi-autobiographical young adult novel in the form of short poems about the young daughter of a Vietnamese refugee family living in Alabama, and her struggles with bullying while learning English. On top of these are variations of repeated phrases found in the Law of Jesus Christ portion of the Novgorod Codex.

The three interludes — all titled “The world’s a town” — draw their initial text from Zaliznyak’s rendering of the Spiritual Instruction from the Father and Mother to the Son from one of the text layers of the Novgorod Codex. The second interlude adds words from television interviews with philosopher and political activist Angela Davis, after she was found not guilty in 1972 of charges stemming from the use of a gun she had purchased in the Marin County Courthouse kid-nappings, resulting in her release after two years in the segregated wing of the court’s Women’s Detention Facility. These words are interlaced with lyrics from The Rolling Stones’ song “Sweet Black Angel” written about Angela Davis’ arrest during the Stones’ period of self-exile in Paris while avoiding tax debts on their previous albums in England. The third interlude includes entire phrases from Gertrude Stein’s Descriptions of Literature, a prose poem with cryptic one-sentence descriptions of books in the library she shared with her romantic partner Alice B. Toklas, published in 1926 but written sometime earlier during Stein’s years of expatration in Europe.

The music in The Book of Never was constructed solely from extremely brief fragments (only a few notes each) from the Stichera Alphabetica, a sequence of hymns sung in association with the Kathisma (a portion of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical hours) in which the psalms of the Novgorod Codex are found. The first letters of each hymn in the Stichera Alphabetica spell out the alphabet, echoing the alphabetic sequences found in the Novgorod Codex. These hymn fragments are layered on top of one another, juxtaposed, and harmonized with dense clusters built by simulating extremely long reverberations in digitally engineered virtual spaces.

Though it never actually appears in the text or music of The Book of Never, there are tones throughout of Cormac McCarthy's 2006 post-apacolyptic novel The Road. The book is referenced most transparently in the final movement, whose title is a variation on a phrase describing the nameless protagonist’s memory of what's been lost in the aftermath of McCarthy’s also nameless and ultimately unexplained end of the world:

“The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the name of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.”

© 2020 AARON HELGESON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED