In 1985, the esteemed novelist worked with composer Todd Barton to create an album of unheard language and instruments. The reissue highlights the rich, totally immersive art Ursula K. Le Guin sought to create.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the master writer who died in January at the age of 88, was best known for her novels The Dispossessed, her Earthsea series, and the best-selling The Left Hand of Darkness, which imagined a planet whose inhabitants have no fixed gender identity. After Darkness was published in 1969, it became a classic of both science fiction and of feminist science fiction, a genre Le Guin helped bore into existence.
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope,” Le Guin said in a fiery speech at the 2014 National Book Awards. “We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.”
In her final months, she was preparing the re-release of a 1985 work that had largely flown under the radar. Music and Poetry of the Kesh, her collaborative album with composer and analog synthesist Todd Barton, was first issued on cassette in 1985, bundled with Le Guin’s novel Always Coming Home, a dark-horse favorite among her readers. It’s an expansive, 523-page portrayal of a future tribe of indigenous people living an anti-colonial existence 500 years from now, their lives ruled by nature and the seasons, their story told by Le Guin in fiction, poetry, plays, recipes, ethnography, a glossary, and hand-drawn maps. Even given those wildly melding genres, Le Guin claimed she needed to “hear the music,” too. She enlisted Barton and began an elaborate and carefully considered process that yielded the deceptively verisimilar Music and Poetry of the Kesh.
“Heron Dance,” the first song is one of the more evocative pieces on the album—wordless, electronic, and organic, with synthesizer, handmade instruments, percussion and what appears to be a dulcimer-like instrument. Like the novel, Music and Poetry of the Kesh pulls freely and weirdly and somehow unobtrusively from multiple genres—sacred, choral, poetry, avant-garde, minimalist, and downright New Age. In its original packaging, it resembles some lost Terry Riley collaboration, or a bootleg of John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s first Happening—something forested and futuristic. Barton visited Le Guin on her Napa Valley ranch, the ostensible setting for Always Coming Home, where he collected field recordings. The ambient sounds of creek and crickets feature on “Twilight Song”; campfire and coyotes filter into the female chorus of “Yes—Singing,” the woods encroaching on the studio.
The songs of the Kesh speak to an earth-based spirituality, referencing ceremonies of actual Native Americans: “Sun Dance Poem,” “A River Song,”; there are songs for willow trees, dragonflies, herons, and quail. The titles alone are risky; are these cultural appropriations? In the wrong hands, they could be, of course, particularly if Le Guin and Barton had opted to base them on actual sacred or ceremonial songs. But Le Guin resolved instead to listen not so much to other music but to the land itself, as she had done since childhood.
Le Guin is the daughter of two prominent cultural anthropologists who focused their work on Native American tribes of Northern California, especially the Yahi, a California tribe decimated by genocide. In the early 20th century, Alfred Kroeber made wax cylinder recordings of Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi, speaking and singing in the language that would largely die with him. Theodora Kroeber wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, as well as another, partly fictionalized book based on Ishi’s story.
Undoubtedly, Le Guin grew up hearing Ishi’s recordings and the music of other indigenous people. Native American friends were frequent houseguests at her parents’ “rundown, easy-going” Napa Valley ranch. Her Kesh songs honor the simplicity of hymns and sacred music, but they feel distinct, true to the world of the characters Le Guin created. Barton built instruments that he and Le Guin imagined the Kesh people would have played—a seven-foot-long horn, a flute made out of bone—and then taught himself and ostensibly the other musicians on the album, to play them. When he asked Le Guin if the Kesh spoke English, she responded, “Drat!” and then spent months making up an alphabet, included in the back of the novel, and vocabulary for her lyrics.
You don’t need to “speak Kesh,” or to have read the book, in order to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of this album, but one heightens the understanding of the other. Think of The Music and Poetry of the Kesh as an open invitation to entering another, other-world of Le Guin’s. The album moves through a series of a cappella or sparsely accompanied songs with entrancing choral arrangements of female voices, male ones, and the harmonizing of both. “A Teaching Poem,” delivered at normal speed, will sound most deceptively familiar to listeners of indigenous music; the slowed-down “Sun Dance Poem” casts it in an otherworldly, monastic tone. Listen outdoors and the creek water you hear in Le Guin and Barton’s songs may sync up to the muddy river you’re passing; listen during a city’s winter and the percussive rhythm and bell-like tones will commune with your apartment radiator. These are sounds that seek to speak from then and beyond, to right now.
“The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California,” Le Guin writes in the opening pages of Always Coming Home. “They are translations from a literature of the (or a) future.” The Kesh’s music and poems, too, are modern and archaic at once—they reach back to ancient hymns for the earth to repair the toxic damage wrought on their own. Pulling from the long ago past to address the people of the not-so-distant past, these songs are celebratory and a clarion call at once. - Pitchfork
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