Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton – Music and Poetry Of The Kesh

Photo by Brian Attebery

The future is more than a metaphor. Ever since Ursula K. Le Guin began publishing her work in the 1960s, the Berkeley-born science fiction writer has expressed the zeitgeist of another time. Far from fantasy, her alternative realities question the present world as we know it, challenging conventions around the natural environment, gender, religion, and sexuality. Her work encourages us: Without the power of imagination, there is no hope; and a world without hope is the perfect fit for a willing trash receptacle. 

While being honored at the 2014 National Book Awards ceremony, Le Guin described writers of fiction as realists of a larger reality: “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now; and who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope.” Beyond social critiques, the futures Le Guin imagines are so full of song and dance, contagious displays of peace, love, and harmony, that it made perfect sense to enhance her writing with music.

In 1985, the Music and Poetry Of The Kesh soundtrack was originally released as a cassette accompanying the box set edition of Le Guin’s science fiction novel Always Coming Home. More than 30 years later, the soundtrack earns a re-release on the time traveling label Freedom To Spend. Part anthropologist’s study, part traveler’s diary, the 500-page novel is set in the Pacific Coast after the decline of modern society; humanity is divided between the expansionist, industrialized Dayao, and the peaceful, agricultural Kesh. The Kesh society embodies Le Guin’s personal ideals: hierarchy-free communities, ecological awareness, and a naturalistic spirituality.

In order to experience her imagined culture, Le Guin collaborated with her Buchla synth whizz friend Todd Barton to channel the spirit of the Kesh through music. Barton and Le Guin began by “discovering” the Kesh’s instruments during imaginary archeological digs. Then, using a Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizer, Barton simulated the sounds of their discoveries. Mirroring an anthropologist study, the instruments they designed were illustrated in detail in Always Coming Home. They were so inspiring in concept—including such fantastic designs as a seven-foot wind instrument known as the houmbúta—that her fans have, over the years, created their own versions. 

While Barton wandered California’s Napa Valley capturing field recordings of creeks, birds, and camp fires, Le Guin spent six months designing a language for the Kesh. Linguists take note: She created everything anew, from an alluring new alphabet to a vast vocabulary with verb conjugations. In fact, she did so well that the U.S. Copyright Office initially denied their copyright claim, believing that their work was indigenous folk music! 

Referencing Taoist and Native American themes, Music and Poetry Of The Kesh sounds both earthy and transcendent. The human voice is essential to conveying the emotion of the music. Embellished by field recordings, Barton pitch-shifted Le Guin’s vocals to surreal effect; elsewhere, Barton recruited members from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to add depth to the longer singing pieces. “Heron Dance” runs through oriental scales on a wéosai medoud teyahi, a bone flute made from a deer or lamb thigh bone with a cattail reed. Buoyed by cosmic synth swells, wisps of Theremin curl around tribal percussion. “Yes-Singing” drifts in a cappella, female voices propelled by hand claps. While the song lapses into laughter, one dreams of sleeping beside the fire. The campers gather closer, turning kindling into myth, returning smoke to the stars.

Conjuring a sacred serenity, “Dragonfly Song” sets a spoken word passage against a recording of a gurgling creek. A male choir circles around a spiraling motif on “A Homesick Song.” “A River Song” features the doubure binga, a set of nine brass bowls struck with wooden mallets; merging with rain and faint footfall on autumn mulch, one can nearly smell the forest floor. “Sun Dance Poem” showcases the beauty of a single human voice, the crags of every syllable resting in the mouth like river-worn pebbles.

The worlds Le Guin envisions are so empowering that people not only believe in them, but want to live in them. Protesting abuses of power and wealth, demonstrators in the Occupy Oakland movement wielded shields decorated with images from Le Guin’s book, The Dispossessed. Although hardly a tract writer creating blueprints for social action, her work spurs us to imagine a brighter tomorrow. Sadly, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away in January of 2018 at the age of 88. Happily, her dream persists. In a plea for solidarity, we hear her spirit in a lyric from “Sun Dance Poem,” “We are nothing much without one another.”

Hope can leave one feeling… dizzy… When conceived within the hysteria of our current culture, Le Guin’s alternative realities teeter on the brink of puzzlement. (Don’t look down.) Incidentally, puzzlement is precisely the state of being that most upright humans avoid—unless accompanied by a Sunday morning crossword. Maybe that is all we are waiting for: Sunday mornings every day. Until someone redesigns our calendar to allow for permanent rest, Music and Poetry of the Kesh invites a hopeful way of being which can still be shared by all. 


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