boojum! title Nonsense,
Lewis Carroll


A set of White chess pieces galumphantly hunts for a Snark, even though they've been warned that if their quarry turns out to be a Boojum then they will 'softly and suddenly vanish away'. Indeed the Baker (a White Knight) already has, but our heroic crew, undeterred, recruits a new one - the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - and ploughs on. With Lewis Carroll (Dodgson's alter-ego) and Alice personning HQ our Hunt moves inexorably towards its fateful conclusion, where we discover, in the end, that Nothing is quite what it seems ...

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Authors' Notes:

When we first decided to write a musical comedy sort of thing, back in 1979, the subject chose itself: Lewis Carroll and his little-known masterpiece, the epic poem The Hunting of the Snark. We had not been, as kids, great fans of Carroll's stories (preferring the likes of Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and Norman Lindsay's Australian classic The Magic Pudding), but as adults we both independently discovered Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice, the fascinating book that first opened up for us Carroll's weird wonderlands of nonsense and logic with all their hidden references and meanings. Gardner's later The Annotated Snark became a major influence on what eventually became Boojum!.

Brian Hoad: The Bulletin, March 25 1986:
It is essentially absurdist theatre dealing with existential nihilism - Beckett with bells on ... The delightful result has much potent popular appeal.

Lewis Carroll is best known as the author of the children's classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - And What Alice Found There. His real self was the Oxford mathematics don and deacon of the Church of England the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was born, in 1832, just five years before Victoria came to the throne of England. Vowed to celibacy, Dodgson passionately loved little girls, worshipping their beauty, innocence and purity. Yet one by one they all grew up, leaping that final brook of adolescence to become Queens on the chess board of Life while he, the White Knight, was still dithering about taking two steps here, one step there. Towards the end of his life this respected churchman, successful academic, and lionised author sank into a 'purple period' of depression (all his letters at this time were written in purple ink) from which he painfully emerged not long before his death in 1898. He had a brilliant mind that steemed with ideas ('steemed' is a Carrollesque portmanteau word, like 'Snark', meaning 'seemed to teem'): he created games and puzzles - the word-game Doublets, for example - and was an inventor (of, amongst other things, dust-jackets for books). He was a photographer of excellence (his portraits of children are regarded as some of the finest examples of Victorian portrait photography), a talented illustrator, a keen amateur magician, and a stern moralist who published a book of Pillow Problems (logical puzzles designed to be solved mentally in bed at night to prevent minds clouded by impure, sceptical and blasphemous thoughts from slipping down beneath bed-clothes).

Dodgson's personal world contained many incongruities and seeming opposites: shy and stuttering in the company of adults he was confident and relaxed - and his stutter disappeared - in the company of children; he was fastidious, pedantic, outwardly conventional, and a boring, uninspired teacher - yet his non-academic works are wildly original and are among the most entertaining works in all literature; a lot of what he wrote was nonsense - some of the finest nonsense ever written, in fact - but as a respected logician he was a master of sense; he planned to out-bowdlerise Bowdler in protecting the sensibilities of 'British maidens' from the excesses in Shakespeare's plays - yet he defied Mrs Grundy by photographing naked little girls (albeit with, perhaps arguably, the purest motives); he loved the theatre at a time when this was frowned upon by his own Church; and although he was a devout and committed Christian, one who had preached against his church's doctrine of eternal torment for sinners, his Snark can readily be seen as an expression (unconscious, perhaps) of profound scepticism of the very notion of eternal life. For a conservative cleric he came up with remarkable concepts that are seen today to have relevance in many fields, including particle physics - look at the chapter headings of any good book on contemporary science and you are almost certain to see quotations from Carroll illuminating the subject. He lived largely in his mind, having all sorts of adventures in the world of ideas while his imagination hunted for Snarks.

In Boojum! we examine the incongruities within Dodgson by splitting him, temporarily, into two parts: the shy, conservative, eccentric, flesh-and-blood Dodgson (his persona) and the urbane, confident Carroll (his anima). We send Dodgson off as a member (the Baker) of an expedition hunting for a Snark, not now in the fantasy world he himself created in The Hunting of the Snark but in the real world to which we must all some day return. The Bellman and his crew knew very little about Snarks, but had been warned that if they met one, and if it turned out to be a Boojum, then they would softly and suddenly vanish away. Eventually, of course, the Baker did meet one, it did seem to be not quite what it had previously seemed, and the inevitable occurred. As it must. That, the bare bones of The Hunting of the Snark, is also the skeleton of the biographical Boojum! Along the way, however, some of Dodgson's creations come back to thaunt him (that's a portmanteau word that combines 'taunt' and 'haunt'): Dum and Dee Tweedle, for example, who remind him that being split into two ain't no fun, and our old friend that dope-smoking hippy, the lovable though cantankerous Caterpillar of Society (what could be more horrifying than to find that he is now a yuppie vegetarian and aerobics freak?). We meet the Alice of his dreams (or is she the real-life Alice Liddell, the great love of his life?), and we watch as she grows up and away while Dodgson sinks into purple despair ...

Kate Palethorpe, Beecroft, New South Wales, Dec 14 1988:
Boojum! is a great work and the more I sang it the more I liked it ... My friends who came found the work very moving as well as I did.

Boojum!'s book and lyrics attempt to reflect the opposites in Dodgson's personal characteristics and in his nonsense writings: dream versus reality, sense versus nonsense, the emotional versus the rational, the conventional versus the radical, religious faith versus existential despair ... The contrast between these (and between other antithetical notions, such as sexual desire versus Victorian propriety) provides the vehicle with which to contemplate his ideas and preoccupations. Much inspiration has come from his collected writings: Jubjubby, for example, is a sequel to the famous Jabberwocky; For More Than Sixty Years develops a fragment of verse written by Dodgson as a child; The Question Is: recalls Humpty Dumpty's attitude towards words but extends it in an unexpected direction. Carrollesque concepts - the flexibility of time, for example - are frequently employed; characters from his own works make up most of the cast; and, as in Through the Looking Glass, a game of chess underlies the events of the play. The primary theme - the search for something, we're not sure what - is that of The Hunting of the Snark. But what is the Snark? And what is the Boojum? Did Dodgson devote his life to the pursuit of the former in constant dread that he would discover only the latter? In short, Dodgson's immortal contributions to literature are used to ask questions about their author himself, in a manner designed to evoke his world, his life, his hopes and fears, his loves, his wit and whimsy, his intellectual vision: the human characteristics that are reflected in the charm and creative intelligence of his nonsense.

Dodgson liked to entertain his young girl-friends by tinkering with music boxes to make them play their music backwards and upside-down. In an attempt to portray Dodgson's world musically, therefore, some of the music for Boojum! consists of Victorian nursery rhymes backwards, some upside-down, some both. The Question Is:, for example, is Humpty Dumpty backwards. What is the Snark? is Rock-a-Bye Baby backwards and upside-down. Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake, Baker's Man (a most Carrollesque melody) appears in various guises in various songs, and provides the little motivic figure that musically characterises Dodgson. He was not a composer, but if he had been his music would have abounded in such logical niceties as crab canons (there's one in Mourn for the Baker) and games of musical 'Doublets'.

Elizabeth Silsbury: Opera, Vol.37, No 7, July 1986:
The text was inspired by (Lewis) Carroll's writings and draws heavily on them in content and style, but is highly original and spiked with wit. The music employs many devices that would have tickled Dodgson's fancy mightily - inverted and crab versions of nursery rhyme tunes, for example - and always sounds fresh, lively and richly expressive.

The sheep in Through the Looking Glass said 'I never put things into people's hands - that would never do - you must get it for yourself.' T. S. Eliot, when asked about the meaning of The Waste Land, is supposed to have said: 'I can't possibly tell you that. I am only the poet who wrote it. You must find out what it means.' Carroll himself said about The Hunting of the Snark: 'As to the meaning of the Snark? I'm afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense!' He went on to say: 'Still, if words mean more than we mean to express when we use them, and if there are some good meanings in the book, I'm very glad to accept them.' Boojum! is nonsense shaped to provide particular meanings while allowing many more - if there are some good meanings in the work then we're very glad to accept them.

(c) 1988 Martin Wesley-Smith Peter Wesley-Smith
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synopsis authors' notes critical comments
CD credits

conductor: John Grundy
chorus: Sydney Philharmonia
Motet Choir

piano: David Miller
percussion: Michael Askill

recording engineer: Mike Stavrou

Lewis Carroll: David Hamilton
Alice: Akiko Nakajima

Clarrie [Australian Butcher/White Pawn]: Robyn Archer
Al [American Banker/White Bishop]: David Aston
Errol [Chinese Barrister/White Rook]: Tony Backhouse
Cora [Boots/White Pawn): Jane Edwards
Dodgson [Baker/White Knight]: David Hamilton
Wal [Bellman/White King]: Michael Hissey
Mrs Hargreaves [Beaver/White Queen]: Akiko Nakajima
Carl [Russian Billiard-Marker/White Bishop]: Antony Walker
female speaking voices: Anna Broinowski
male speaking voices: David Christian

rehearsal pianist: Josephine Allan
production, mixing: John Grundy
Mike Stavrou
Martin Wesley-Smith
digital editing: Martin Wesley-Smith
final mastering: Belinda Webster
graphics: Melissa Lovric

synopsis authors' notes CD credits
critical comments
Jill Sykes: The Sun-Herald, March 16 1986:
... Wesley-Smith's many layered concept ...

Roger Knight: The Adelaide Review, April 1986:
... an undoubted theatrical success.

Michael Harrison: The Australian, March 12 1986:
Boojum is noisy and energetic. It is a kaleidoscope of colour and sound ...

John Pierce: The Daily Telegraph, March 13 1986:
It is a romp of fun and fancy that lets Martin Wesley-Smith's musical pastiche venture eclectically through a range of styles ...

Kate Palethorpe, Beecroft, New South Wales, Dec 14 1988:
Boojum! is a great work and the more I sang it the more I liked it ... My friends who came found the work very moving as well as I did.

Brian Hoad: The Bulletin, March 25 1986:
It is essentially absurdist theatre dealing with existential nihilism - Beckett with bells on ... The delightful result has much potent popular appeal.

Moya Dodd: On Dit, Adelaide, March 1986:
A singing, dancing operatic spectacle combining music, theatre, dance, comedy and even film to produce this world premiere that even the visiting Royals couldn't miss.

Matt Byrne: The News, March 11 1986:
... a winner ... With Royalty in the dress circle, Wesley-Smith's adventurous score and intriguing - at times beautiful and powerful - lyrics never outstayed their rapturous welcome in Wonderland.

Roger Covell: The Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 29 1986:
... Wesley-Smith ... [and others were] ... among the composers who distinguished themselves [in 1986] with new creative developments or further assertions of their mastery of a distinctive style.

Roger Covell: The Sydney Morning Herald, March 12 1986:
... a sequence of circling electronic sounds and lights and synthesised images which draw on Wesley-Smith's experience in electronics in order to point to the looming menace in Carroll's surmise that the snark might turn out to be a boojum.

A. E. Tonks: The Advertiser, Adelaide, March 19 1986:
... I saw the show surrounded by students from six to 26. Not a critical audience, you say? but a paying audience that can be more cruel at times than their more serious, high-minded elders. But they loved it. And I loved it.

Roger Covell: The Sydney Morning Herald, Sat Dec 31 1988:
... Nor would I find it difficult to believe in 21st century reincarnations of Martin Wesley-Smith's Boojum, which arrived at its most satisfying form so far in concert performances conducted by Sydney Philharmonia's new musical director, John Grundy ...

Roger Covell: The Sydney Morning Herald, Mon Nov 14 1988:
Boojum! is already a major achievement. There has been nothing to touch its combination of scale and spontaneity in the Australian choral repertory ... its range of styles, which includes several parodies, is very wide, moving from a slightly lemonadey Flanders and Swann simplicity via ingratiating pop manners to racy brilliance and two choral refrains of surpassing dignity and beauty.

David Gyger: Opera Australia, Dec 1988:
The piece itself is probably a minor Australian classic ... its creators ... have endowed it with so many flashes of inspiration it really must be persevered with till it comes into its own and manages to reach the vast audience it deserves and to whom it will obviously appeal.

Jill Sykes: The Sun Herald, Nov 13 1988:
... this witty entwining of Carroll's fantasy characters and their real life inspirations ... makes an entertaining and haunting evening of words and music ... an extraordinary musical that digs deep under the surface of (Carroll's) whimsical creativity ... clever lyrics that cling to an eclectic selection of musical styles. From blues to barbershop quartet, old dance-hall songs to a haunting refrain asking What is the Snark?, the references to be found in Wesley-Smith's score make it instantly accessible and add a measure of musical commentary at the same time.

from Fanfare, "The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors",
USA, p99, Vol 16, No. 5, May/June 1993:
Your reward is learning about Boojum!, a "light-hearted but deadly-serious choral fantasy" ... (the authors) have fashioned an irresistible contemporary musical snark hunt ... subtitled "Nonsense, Truth, and Lewis Carroll", (it) is partly a psychological profile of the Reverend Charles Dodgson ... For heaven's sake, indulge yourself in Boojum! Sit down with the libretto in the jewel box when you can be uninterrupted for two hours and experience this grand entertainment ...

double CD available from the The Australian Music Centre

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