Music Reviews

Artist: Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton
Title: Music and Poetry Of The Kesh
Format: LP
Label: Freedom To Spend
The story behind “Music And Poetry Of The Kesh” is a fantastically elaborate one, the tale of late sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin’s five-hundred page book describing the anthropological history of the Kesh, an invented race who first appeared in her novel “Always Coming Home”. A cassette of made-up field recordings and indigenous songs accompanied early editions of the book. Oregon-based experimental musician Todd Barton had, it seems, followed Le Guin’s text about the Kesh’s native instruments and built some of them himself, to her specification, then taught himself how to play them. Both Le Guin and Barton clearly immersed themselves very deeply into the Kesh mythology. Now, over thirty years later, the contents of that cassette are remastered and officially reissued for the first time.

Mythology aside, what does it sound like? It’s a curious collection. Across thirteen short tracks we get something that really does sound like field recordings and ambient sounds from the folk music history of an indigenous people that is hard to pinpoint yet is strangely convincing at times.

Despite the information about Barton building a lot of original and invented instruments, large parts of this work are solely vocal. The chant-singing of “Yes” (despite the giggling fit that calls it to a halt) has a certain Russian or Mongolian twang to hit that’s hard to explain. “Long Singing” is like a lighter-edged semi-choral take on group throat singing exercises, and really rather beautiful. “The Quail” is a more Gaelic-ish folk arrangement over a very simple soft drumming.

Pieces like “Dragonfly Song” and “A Homesick Song” are less authentically staged, the former the sound of a babbling brook with a studio-quality solo female folk song laid on top, the latter an in-the-round mantra of multiple voices that sounds a bit more like 1960’s experimental theatre work.

Of the few instrumental pieces, highlights include the rather pretty “River Song” with its soft mesmeric sort-of-glockenspiel tapping patterns. “A Music Of The Eighth House” uses synthesized sounds in a very delicate way for an extraordinarily mellow wrap-up.

This vinyl release retains some attachment to the original book via using some of the original illustrations. But if it had been initially released in 2018 it would be easy to think of this as an in-game soundtrack, as we’re far more accustomed now to immersive and extensively realised made-up environments in the world of gaming. By 1985 standards it’s something of an anomaly but an interesting and maybe ahead-of-its-time concept worth being introduced to.

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