Hear Ursula K. Le Guin’s Space Rock Opera Rigel 9: A Rare Recording from 1985

In her remem­brance of recent­ly depart­ed sci-fi great Ursu­la K. Le Guin, Mar­garet Atwood describes “an absurd vision” she drew from Le Guin’s fan­ta­sy nov­el A Wiz­ard of Earth­sea: “There was Ursu­la, mov­ing calm­ly down a hill of whis­per­ing sand under the unchang­ing stars; and there was me, dis­traught and run­ning after her and call­ing ‘No! Come Back! We need you here and now!’” Atwood longs for Le Guin’s respons­es to the crises of the present, the old hier­ar­chies of pow­er and priv­i­lege reassert­ing their cru­el dom­i­nance over men, women, chil­dren, and an already over­bur­dened envi­ron­ment.

The prob­lem of pow­er and its abus­es is one Le Guin returned to over and over in her work. “As an anar­chist,” writes Atwood,” she would have want­ed a self-gov­ern­ing soci­ety, with gen­der and racial equal­i­ty.” As a keen anthro­po­log­i­cal observ­er of human behav­ior, she saw how and why tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-advanced, yet psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly reac­tionary soci­eties stray from these ideals, desta­bi­liz­ing the eco­log­i­cal bal­ance they depend on to sur­vive and thrive. Le Guin fought back in her way. She was a pro­lif­ic builder of poet­ic new worlds. Through them, we will always have her wis­dom, and in a few rare instances, we have her music.

No, Le Guin didn’t com­pose, but she did write libret­tos for three dif­fer­ent col­lab­o­ra­tive projects. Above, we have her “most note­wor­thy melod­ic under­tak­ing,” accord­ing to Locus magazine’s Jeff Berk­wits, Rigel 9, a space opera with music by avant-garde com­pos­er David Bed­ford, record­ed and released in 1985. (It’s also stream­able on Spo­ti­fy. Lis­ten below or here.) Rigel 9 “tells a pret­ty clas­sic space sto­ry,” Cara Giaimo  writes at Atlas Obscu­ra. “Three astro­nauts, named Anders, Kap­per, and Lee, are sent to explore a strange world. After Anders goes off to col­lect plant sam­ples and is kid­napped by extrater­res­tri­als, Kap­per and Lee argue over whether to res­cue him or save them­selves.”

Amidst this dra­ma of tiny red aliens, a dou­ble sun, air that smells of cin­na­mon and yel­low and orange trees, we learn a few unset­tling facts about what has hap­pened back on Earth. “The Earth has no more forests,” sings Anders, “no wilder­ness, no still places.” Evok­ing a Sartre­an hor­ror on a plan­e­tary scale, he gives us an image of “only human faces, only human voic­es…. The Earth has no more silence.” The resources we need to replen­ish not only air and water, but also weary minds have dis­ap­peared. These rev­e­la­tions set up Anders’ seduc­tion by the lush­ness and qui­et of Rigel 9, and the gor­geous sopra­no voic­es of its inhab­i­tants.

Bedford’s music is trans­port­ing, with “Bowie-esque synth sweeps” and sax­o­phones, thrilling choral move­ments, and a pound­ing rhythm sec­tion that puts one in mind of Queen. Scot­tish New Wave duo Straw­ber­ry Switch­blade make an appear­ance, as the lead voic­es of an alien funer­al pro­ces­sion (top). The dia­logue and spo­ken per­for­mances can be a bit corny, but the space rock opera has nev­er been suit­ed for sub­tle­ty, and Le Guin and Bed­ford pur­pose­ful­ly cre­at­ed the dra­ma as a radio play of sorts. “We had talked about the com­po­si­tion as ‘opera for ear,” she explained, “That is, a ‘radio opera… We liked the idea of being able to imag­ine the scenery, and then putting that scenery into the words and the music.”

That same year, Le Guin released anoth­er musi­cal effort, team­ing with musi­cian Todd Bar­ton for a cas­sette-only pro­duc­tion called Music and Poet­ry of Kesh, released togeth­er with her nov­el Always Com­ing Home. And ten years lat­er, she worked with clas­si­cal com­pos­er Eli­nor Armer on Uses of Music in Utter­most Parts. This eight-move­ment work fea­tures Le Guin her­self, nar­rat­ing a text about “a fan­tas­ti­cal realm,” Berk­wits writes, “the Utter­most Arch­i­pel­ago in the fifth quar­ter of Island Earth—where sound lit­er­al­ly sus­tains life.” Just above, hear one move­ment, “The Sea­sons of Oling,” a fur­ther reminder that Le Guin, who nev­er shrank from the vio­lence of our world, could always imag­ine enthralling alter­na­tives.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cel­e­brate the Life & Writ­ing of Ursu­la K. Le Guin (R.I.P.) with Clas­sic Radio Drama­ti­za­tions of Her Sto­ries

Ursu­la Le Guin Gives Insight­ful Writ­ing Advice in Her Free Online Work­shop

Ursu­la K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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