Ursula K. Le Guin & Tom Barton’s World Building Music and Poetry of the Kesh Receives a Long Awaited Reissue

Ursula K. Le Guin and Tom Barton’s fictional world of the Kesh, which was captured through the original 1985 cassette release of Music and Poetry of the Kesh, has now been reissued by Freedom To Spend Records.

The great late Ursula K. Le Guin was best known for her highly acclaimed science fiction novels like the classic best-seller, Left Hand of Darkness. The novel explored a world in which there is no set gender and inhabits are able to choose and change as they please. The novel transformed Le Guin into a major author of the science fiction genre. As well, she played a key role in paving the way for feminist science fiction. In 1985 she published her last major novel titled Always Coming Home, that told the story of a civilization that existed 500 years in the future where the society (loosely based in California’s Napa Valley) was pastoral, peaceful, and had a strong relationship with nature. Todd Barton had been a long time fan of Le Guin and when he introduced himself to her after one of her readings during a tour of upcoming works in the early eighties. Barton, who at the time was the composer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland California, quickly became friends Le Guin. Soon after, Barton was visiting Le Guin and her husband at their home in Napa Valley where Le Guin asked if he would like to compose music for her next book. He happily agreed. The book was sold packaged with a cassette-only release of Music and Poetry of the Kesh and was intended to be listened to along with the book. The purpose of the album was to be apart of the story created through the novel, and not just an afterthought that was to be merely a case of “inspired by…

Todd barton
An original copy of the 1985 cassette that was sometimes packaged alongside the book.

The language of the Kesh is entirely made up by Le Guin. The first edition of the novel featured an alphabet in the back cover. In a sense, the story was constructed as a collection of archaeological findings of the Kesh people by illustrating examples of their dance, writings, way of life, tools, and other characteristics of the society. To incorporate such elements into to the music Barton set out to create instruments that had aligned with the Le Guin’s story and own designs. The duo’s end product blends together combinations of spoken word, homemade field recordings of nature, new age like synths, minimalism, and acoustic homemade instruments. Some tracks are entirely wordless, some are choral-like pieces, and some contain no instrumentation at all. The first track of the album, “Heron Dance”, which features synth, sparse small percussion, zither-like strings, and homemade horn instruments, is able to transcend the listener to a state where one is truly able to experience life in the Kesh society. The rest of the album is as equally ethereal, as the Music and Poetry of the Kesh possess the qualities of ancient-primitive sounds that still seem far ahead of even the time and space we inhabit now.

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