While some of her work has been set to music, Ursula LeGuin is best known for her reconfigurations of science fiction, fantasy and myth. The narratives of her stories sheathe cunning, detailed challenges to race, to gender and to the ways in which one can tell a story. More recently her tales have shaded into a kind of conceptual ethnography in order to build stories almost entirely out of explorations of culture.
Less well known, LeGuin’s poetry initially seems like a different beast. Close examination sees the same preoccupations written in microcosm. Sparse and spare, the words in her poems are the tips of long quills of implied experience; to be drawn out and savoured. In these mid-’80s recordings, Californian composer Elinor Armer has taken five disparate Ursula LeGuin poems and (working in a stark, economical style as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture) whittled a musical housing for them.
Assuming that it’s a song-cycle at all, ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ is a loose one. The poems are taken from three separate volumes spanning thirteen years, and the interconnections in LeGuin’s text are tenuous. There are fleeting references to bodies of water. A falcon links two songs; extending this, references to birds link a full three. Unspecified protagonists (all of them apparently female) are observed via brief passing notes and at various ages, generally in relation to a loaded past or a fervently desired future. The obscure bones of the title transform and recur in the shape of crustacean shells or as feathers or teeth; possibly even in the irreducible state of the lean phrases making up the poems.
Armer, in turn, faithfully honours LeGuin’s verbal economy. Her music stops, starts and leaves prolonged expectant spaces as she delicately feathers the text. For ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ she uses a quintet: flute, violin, piano and percussion set plus Wendy Hillhouse’s stooping mezzo-soprano. Armer keeps her own compositional liveliness on a tight leash. Nonetheless, she brings her particular yen for musical illustration to the table (as well as leavening touches of humour and compassion). Initially building up from a reserved, near-atonal sketchpad, Armer still works in tinges of modern America, ancient Greece and traditional Japan. Direct musical themes are hidden in favour of attentive, close-bound responses to the emotional charges of the poems. Ultimately, it’s this that provides the cycle’s unifying factor.
In the first piece, The Anger, a young woman’s frustrations burst out. She’s trapped between worlds of experience – one outgrown and chafing, the other filled with promise but sealed away). Rira Watanabe’s chivvying violin and Keisuke Nakagoshi’s piano accents usher in a flare of rage, with the first line sung against tolling, breaking percussion: “Unlock, unlock! / So long a silence / needs shouting / and latches smashed / and the damned hinges broken…” In airier drifts, the middle section dreams welcome and ceremony – “open air, the wine / poured out, the hands / empty: and slowly, / grave, straight, smiling, / to step across the threshold.” It feeds the eventual conclusion, in which that earlier impotent frustration becomes a clear, confident command.
The Child on the Shore is made up of a split dialogue between a daughter and her dead mother. Neither address each other directly: in the poem, their communications are carried by intermediaries of the natural world, by song, by death itself. The entire piece is a bleached landscape of bereavement rituals. Esther Landau’s lyrical flute-playing embodies the elements into which propitiatory gifts are flung – a ring into the sea, a feather into the wind.
In turn, Hillhouse gives voice to two exhausted threnodies, one for each woman. The child’s voice is angry with grief, demanding return of both tokens and parent. The mother’s is windblown and accepting; a thank-you for the gifts, a desire to soothe. Yet there is no confirmation that this message of comfort has been heard. The intermediaries themselves remain silent throughout. Armer divides the two voices with a bleak, unyielding curve of violin melody. Behind them, abrupt traces of marimba and piano stray and hit like bruising raindrops.
Footnote briefly enters the thoughts of a solitary woman. It’s unclear whether she’s an exile or a recluse, whether she’s young or old. Her hints at an aristocratic background could be no more than whim, or the last vestige of hauteur. Regardless of this, she finds kinship with nature in all of its wrack, decay and continuance – not just through the heraldic glamour of the falcons, but via the cast-up seaweed, the scavengers, the passing insects and the weather.
Armer treats this cultivated loneliness (and acceptance of the world) in kind. Still, slow and minimal in nature, the music is pierced and enlivened by visitants. After a drifting reflective start, a shift to a dissonant emphasis and Erica Johnson’s rattling wood percussion greets the naming of “crabs / prancing in the shadow / of fierce, stranded seaweed” while the appearance of bats is accompanied by violin and flute.
In Hard Words, Armer abandons melody altogether and goes for a plosive, theatrical hayashi approach. Hillhouse speaks and swoops LeGuin’s words like a Noh theatre chanter, springing the rhythms in the poetry, which itself abandons all but the most essential nuggets of phrase in an oblique look at the failings of human language. “Hard words / lockerbones / this is sour ground / dust to ashes / sounds soft / hard in the mouth / as stones / as teeth / Earth speaks birds / airbones / diphthongs.” The instrumentalists respond with zings of percussion; with tongued flutes, piano fragments and instrumental noises (including a short resigned squall of violin like the last gasp of a fax machine). On the final word, a lacuna of mingled flute and gong ends in a sub-audible skirl of breath. Relief and release.
The songs conclude with the wounded, optimistic For Katya. A muted and slender melody – seasoned by anger – fleshes out LeGuin’s words, which reinterprets the struggles for control between men and women in the form of a stark fairytale built from halting, frustrated syntax. “They always shut us up in towers / ever since once upon a…” Comfort arrives in the same mythic form, as a transformation of both sentence and outlook: “So we learn alone there / arts of unlocking / Till the old terrors / shed wolfskin and stand brothers…”
It’s an exhausted comfort: yet it’s indomitable, a long parched resistance holding out for a sane outcome. As Hillhouse sounds out the last word, a capella, its pitch hangs unresolved; waiting for the future to catch up with the hope.
Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’
Released: 2010 (recorded 1985/1988)
Buy it from:
Free download from Ursula LeGuin’s homepage.