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Saturday 13 September 2003

Singing the Body Electric:
Science Fiction Writers and Their Music

by Jeff Berkwits

Imagine uncovering an unknown science fiction story penned by Ursula K. Le Guin. Or finding a scary tale crafted by Neil Gaiman that few people — even acknowledged experts on the author — knew existed. Hard as it may be to believe, there are dozens of such fascinating but little-known adventures created by both famous and up-and-coming writers waiting to be discovered. However, fans will have to listen carefully to find them, as these works aren't available in magazines or short-story collections; rather, they exist solely on engaging though often obscure musical recordings.

Music has long been a part of science-fiction and fantasy literature. Songs — and the harmonic tales they tell — play a vital role in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Robert Heinlein's classic 1940 short story "The Roads Must Roll" showcases a fun ditty, set to the tune of "The Roll of the Caissons," titled "The Road Song of the Transport Cadets." Contemporary novelists also incorporate music within their narratives, from such high-spirited works as Bradley Denton's Wrack and Roll or Allen Steele's Orbital Decay to L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s popular Spellsong Cycle (The Soprano Sorceress, Shadowsinger, etc.), which takes place on a magical world where mastery of melody can literally mean the difference between life and death. Yet actually composing a tune, or even just setting words to music, requires an entirely different mindset than crafting a novel, short story or poem.

"When I'm writing a lyric, I feel that I am largely a servant to the music," says Le Guin, who has provided librettos for a trio of captivating recordings. "There's a certain simplicity that's necessary, and often a kind of straightforwardness, because the music is going to add all those layers of complexity that, in a regular poem, have to be in the language. In a lyric, you're really just stating something as easily and fluently as possible, and then the music is going to add all the other stuff — the shadows and the light and the various resonances."

Le Guin's most noteworthy melodic undertaking is arguably Rigel 9, created in collaboration with distinguished British conductor David Bedford. The work — initially released in 1985 and reissued on CD in 1997 — concerns the adventures of three astronauts who find themselves stranded on a verdant world populated by a strange alien race.

"We had talked about the composition as 'opera for ear,'" explains Le Guin. "That is, a radio opera, or something specifically for tape or disc. We liked the idea of being able to imagine the scenery, and then putting that scenery into the words and the music."

The author also teamed with musician Todd Barton to supply the lyrics for Music and Poetry of the Kesh, a cassette-only production originally packaged with her 1985 novel Always Coming Home. Although she doesn't actually perform on this project (or on Rigel 9), Le Guin can be heard narrating Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts, a lengthy eight-movement work she co-created in 1995 with contemporary classical composer Elinor Armer that harmonically describes a fantastical realm — the Uttermost Archipelago in the fifth quarter of Island Earth — where sound literally sustains life.

"Every time we got to a rehearsal, it would be so exciting," recalls Le Guin. "I remember the first piece written was titled 'Eating with the Hoi,' and it was performed by the student chorus at the San Francisco Conservatory, who were all very young with beautiful voices. So here were all these brash 18, 19 and 20-year-olds that were a little hard to keep under any kind of control; it was sort of a disaster right up to the performance night, but then they pulled themselves together and did beautifully." On the album, that composition (which serves as the work's fourth movement) was ultimately sung by the University of California-Berkeley Chamber Chorus, with other tracks executed by, among others, The Women's Philharmonic and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Famed fantasy writer Michael Moorcock has an equally impressive musical background. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s he worked extensively with the pioneering space-rock band Hawkwind, eventually writing "Sonic Attack," one of the act's most popular tunes. During roughly that same period, he also sang and played guitar with his own group, The Deep Fix. That ensemble released a single LP, titled The New World's Fair, in 1975 (it was subsequently reissued on CD in 1995). Additionally, Moorcock has written songs for Blue Íyster Cult and played guitar and banjo on a couple of albums by Robert Calvert.

Norman Spinrad is another author who has been involved in music for many years, recording several albums with the band Heldon. In fact, the group, founded by radical French musician (and long-time science-fiction fan) Richard Pinhas, derives its name from an allegorical locale in an early Spinrad novel.

"I formerly had a band named Schizo," reveals Pinhas. "But after reading Norman's The Iron Dream [1972], we decided to use Heldon, because I very much loved the idea that a paranoid like Adolf Hitler or Ronald Reagan could drive the world. We chose the name because it was a brilliant story from Norman."

Soon after making that decision, Pinhas had the opportunity to meet Spinrad, and they quickly become close friends and collaborators. Spinrad's words and voice, often processed through a vocorder, can be heard on the albums East/West and Only Chaos is Real, plus a Richard Pinhas/John Livengood LP called Cyborg Sally. Spinrad also presents the song "Passing Through the Flame" — inspired by his 1975 novel of the same name — on Le Plan, an offshoot project recorded under the moniker Schizotrope involving the author, Pinhas and French cyberpunk novelist Maurice Dantec.

Of course, not every writer is a performer. Although as a teenager he was in a punk-rock band that was almost signed to a record contract, as an adult Neil Gaiman is content to let others play his compositions.

"I don't think of myself as a songwriter," says the author. "What I love most of all about songwriting is the fact that it's not something that I do professionally or that I have to do. It's just one of those weird little skills that I have."

Gaiman provided inspiration and uncredited lyrics to Alice Cooper for his concept album The Last Temptation, and has penned a number of tunes for The Flash Girls, a folk-guitar duo comprised of Lorraine Garland and fantasy writer Emma Bull. Among the melodies he has crafted for them are "A Meaningful Dialogue," "Yeti" and "Banshee."

"'Banshee' just began with this line, 'And if you touch me I shall die,'" explains Gaiman. "The initial idea was to try to write a song that was constructed as a pantoum, in which line one and line three become line two and line four in the next verse. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to try that as a song?' Then I had an idea for a tune, but the tune didn't quite let me make it line one and line three, so line one and line three became cut into two-thirds in order to become line two and line four. It ultimately became this strange sort of love song between a man and a banshee, knowing that if she ever actually touched him he would die, which was really the line that it began with."

The late Marion Zimmer Bradley also eschewed recording her own compositions. In 1969 she penned seven "musical settings" — collectively titled The Rivendell Suite — based upon poems from The Lord of the Rings. Initially issued on cassette in 1996, the band Brocel´ande recently remixed, remastered and, in some cases, re-recorded those numbers on their album The Starlit Jewel.

"In terms of style, Marion was greatly influenced by both Scots Hebridean folk music and classical opera," explains Margaret Davis, lead singer and harpist for the group. "I would say that her compositions reflect the former primarily; she mostly wrote simple one-line folk melodies. We added chords and fleshed out the arrangements. Actually, her operatic leanings come through to a certain extent in that a fairly large vocal range is required to sing some of her music."

L. Ron Hubbard also composed a slew of distinctive tunes, with the Mission Earth CD — performed by famed rock artist Edgar Winter — probably the most prominent of these projects. Penned to commemorate his 10-volume Mission Earth saga, this boisterous work was recorded, with the author's direct participation, just prior to his death in 1986.

"I loved the free, uninhibited spirit that Hubbard exhibited," recalls Winter, adding that the novelist conveyed distinct opinions of how he wanted each composition to sound. "He had lots of ideas about the color and personality of the music. A lot of the songs were reminiscent of very primitive tunes, almost like what you would think of as old folk melodies, while others were more contemporary. It very much depended on what the song called for. Some had an Eastern influence, since a lot of the action in the books centered on Turkey and the heroin trade. Then there was a punk-rock-like song called 'Just a Kid' that was very modern. It wasn't just one style."

Hubbard's clear vision was perhaps enhanced by the fact that Mission Earth was not the first time he had used song to supplement his literary output. His debut science-fiction musical venture, Space Jazz, was specifically designed to accompany his novel Battlefield Earth (as a matter of fact, a couple of years later the LP was simply renamed Battlefield Earth). The eclectic 1982 album is reportedly the first soundtrack ever written for a book, and highlights performances from jazz greats Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, along with one of the earliest professional uses of the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) synthesizer.

"A song can racket down the ages," Hubbard presciently declared during a lecture delivered in December 1952. "It doesn't corrode. It doesn't have to be polished, maintained, oiled, shelved or put in a vault. It happens that a song is far more powerful than any blaster ever invented."

Numerous other well-known science-fiction and fantasy writers would likely agree with Hubbard's estimation, including Mercedes Lackey, S.P. Somtow, Anne McCaffrey, Steven Brust, Charles de Lint, Julia Ecklar, Spider Robinson and Locus Online contributor John Shirley. All of these authors have, at some point in their careers, crafted inspiring lyrics or forceful melodies. In fact, one rising literary star discovered early on that music served as an indispensable means to convey her intricate fable.

"Our first CD, Enemy Glory, was released long before Enemy Glory the novel was signed and published," reveals fantasy writer Karen Michalson, who's also the vocalist and primary lyricist for the band Point of Ares. "The CD came out [in 1996] after the novel had earned its share of rejections from the New York literary agencies and I was becoming fairly pessimistic about ever being able to share my characters with readers. My husband Bill, who plays lead guitar in Point of Ares, had an idea that if we wrote some songs and put out a CD that was based on the then-unpublished book, that music would be a medium for getting my story to an audience." The album, renamed Enemy Glory Darkly Blessed, was reissued in 2001 to coincide with the book's debut, and spotlights rewritten and rearranged songs from the original recording, together with a few fresh tracks.

Regardless of whether an author is a skilled musician or simply dabbling in a different medium, songwriting affords storytellers and their fans an opportunity to delve into feelings in a manner that's often unattainable through literature alone.

"Music offers an immediate emotional attack," notes Le Guin. "It just comes and picks you up and takes you. You have to be a good reader to read a poem the first time and have it pick you up and take you. Of course, the better listener you are, the more you'll get out of the music, but it can still just come and pick up even a very na´ve, inexperienced person and put them in a world of strong, clear emotions."

So don't be afraid to rummage around online, at a record store or in the music section of a progressive bookshop — you might well discover something new by your favorite science fiction or fantasy writer. Though frequently released on little-known independent labels and not always easy to find, these thrilling sonic stories, in which celebrated authors truly stretch their creative wings and "sing the body electric," are well worth seeking out.

Ever since he was a youngster, listening to Yes, Led Zeppelin and others sing of faraway lands and mystical realms, Jeff Berkwits has been fascinated with science fiction, fantasy and music. During the mid-1990s, he founded and published ASTERISM: The Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Space Music, and continues to explore the connections between SF and song via his regular "Sound Space" review columns in both Science Fiction Weekly and SCI FI: The Official Magazine of the SCI FI Channel. Berkwits can be contacted at

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