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
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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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