Creative Collaboration: Elinor Armer and Ursula Le Guin

When a distinguished science fiction writer and a highly acclaimed composer of New Music come together in collaboration, one may expect flights of imagination, surprising locutions, and beautifully expressive musical explorations. Amply fulfilling those expectations are Ursula Le Guin and Elinor Armer in their two-CD orchestral piece, Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts.

Both women are well-seasoned in long, creative careers. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969 to enthusiastic acclaim and has been in print since then. Her subsequent books have established her as one of the best-known and most-read science fiction authors of our times, whose work explores Taoist, anarchist, ethnographic, feminist, psychological, and sociological themes. Elinor Armer has headed the composition department at San Francisco Conservatory of Music; she has received numerous awards and commissions, and is an important advocate of New Music. She is known for her lively and complex style, often playful and enriched with humor.

Having met in the early ‘80s in California, the two women are friends as well as collaborators. Their work on “Uses” took nine years to complete, beginning with exploring the idea of an archipelago of islands, each of which would illustrate a “use” that could be made of music, e.g. weaving, eating. The completed Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts consists of eight separate sections evoking a journey to each of the islands. Armer uses orchestra, a chamber group, spoken word, and choruses to bring this exploration to vivid musical life.

The following interview was conducted by Gena Raps, a concert pianist and recording artist, who serves as music editor for Persimmon Tree. Her conversation with composer Thea Musgrave appeared in the Spring 2009 issue.

In the interview below, you will have the opportunity to hear Elinor Armer’s music and read Ursula Le Guin’s poems.

Gena Raps (GR): Ursula Le Guin and Elinor Armer, you have been involved in creating new mythologies. You must find much that is compelling in each other’s work. Elinor, what is suggestive of music in Ursula’s writing?
Elinor Armer (EA): Her poetry is extremely musical in its lilt, its imagery, and thought. But that question’s pretty hard to answer because if I could put it into words, there wouldn’t be any need for music. Music says what words can’t.
GR: Ursula, what do you find suggestive of language or story in Elinor’s music?
Ursula Le Guin (ULG): I don’t find anything like that. As a poet and as a prose writer, I’m extremely aware of the sound of my words. I hear what I write. And I do hear word-music, language-music. There’s a pleasure in sound. Sometimes I don’t understand Elinor’s music very well, but it simply has always given me pleasure.
EA: My mother once said to me that she didn’t understand my music, but she liked it. I said, “Mom, music wasn’t meant to be understood.” I do think that there is a big overlap with Ursula and me in the area of imagery. I was very curious to explore the uses of music as metaphor with her—how music could be made to stand for other things the way words do and cause people to think of those things. I have always had a lot of images in my mind when I compose.
GR: Can you talk about the genesis of your collaboration on “Uses” and the mode of your work?
ULG: Elinor had already set some of my poems to music, so we had a history of working together. One day we were sitting around at my family’s ranch in the Napa Valley, and one of us said, “I wish it was possible to collaborate from the beginning on a piece that had both words and music.”
EA: We were having a wonderful lot of laughs on those lawn chairs, just brainstorming and freewheeling and howling at various ideas.
ULG: I think the first idea for “Uses” was Elinor saying, “What if music was food?”
GR: And it is food.
ULG: Yes, but what if it was truly food that people starved if they didn’t get!
EA: We began quite an active correspondence in the mail. This was B.C.—before computers—and we wrote letters the old-fashioned way. There was a lot of back and forth, not only about the scene about food but other uses of music that occurred to us subsequently.
ULG: We met when we could and talked about it. Elinor lives in the Bay Area and I live in Oregon, some thousand miles between us.
EA: Sometimes Ursula had ideas about orchestration and would mention her favorite instruments and so on. Sometimes I made suggestions for the text.
ULG: Sometimes you actually needed the text changed for something you wanted to do with the music.
EA: Yes, it was a wonderful back and forth. A true collaboration.
ULG: At some point it occurred to one of us that each use of music could have its own island. We started talking about the island of Oling, where music represents travel.
EA: No, the music is weather on Oling.
ULG: Okay. Where is it travel?
EA: It’s on Rowhas.
ULG: We decided this could be an archipelago. The specific islands began to rise above the water.
EA: Over this ten-year-or-so period, I would get a commission from a performing group that would require me to write a piece for whatever choruses they had, such as the San Francisco Girls Chorus. I called Ursula on the phone and asked her to contribute text for that commission. Ursula, I remember you were a little irritated. You didn’t know what to come up with.
ULG: I don’t think I was irritated. I was worried because we were getting such excessively different groups of instruments to play the music. It was going to be almost impossible ever to put the whole piece together at one venue . . .
GR: Practical considerations.
EA: Not usually a hindrance to us. In spite of that, Ursula, you shot off a poem the next day that was so perfect and has stunned many listeners with its beauty and appropriateness. That’s really one of our favorite pieces on the “Uses” set. It’s “Anithaca, the Island of the Daughters of Penelope.” It’s about . . .
ULG: Weaving. For a poet, weaving is a pretty simple idea to write about. I’ve never woven, but I’ve done a lot of handcrafts.
[Press the “play” button to listen to the beginning of “Anithaca”.]

Anithaca: The Island of the Daughters of Penelope

The loom is language,
the warp is song.
The day is lovely,
the night is long.The shuttle slips from left to right
like a bird that flies
with a tail of light
and the weaving grows:
we are weaving the emperor’s clothes,
weaving believing the emperor’s clothes.

The loom is language,
the warp is song.
The day is lovely,
the night is long.

From right to left the shuttle slips
like a song that dies
on silent lips
and always always less is left
as we unweave the lessening weft,
unweaving ungrieving the lessening weft.

The loom is language,
the warp is song.
The day is lovely,
the night is long.

EA: For a musician, weaving is a very easy subject, too. The first thing that comes to mind is counterpoint. I actually took some of the word sounds from the poem and wove them into the singing, the way weavers put in a feather or a pebble or a bone in the thread. And eventually, those sounds lengthened into parts of words. And then they lengthened into words. Eventually the words gained syntax. Everything became connected. And in the center of the piece, you have the poem sung verbatim. I used sounds: sibilants and popping P’s, parts of words that had other meanings. For example, you had the word “shuttle” in there for the weaving. When the piece was about to close, that shortened to “shut.” And that shortened to “sh.”But Gena, I’d like to go back to what you were saying about practicality. We eventually gave up on the idea of having all these sections of “Uses” done in one concert. But strangely enough, when it came to producing the CD, we managed to pull it together and do all but the last piece (which is for orchestra and chorus.) This was performed by the Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra in San Francisco.
GR: Elinor, I see that you studied with Darius Milhaud, the French composer and teacher.
EA: That’s correct.
GR: He wrote a set of pieces devoted to domestic life before the women’s movement elevated household themes as suitable subjects for art. Some of his titles from a collection called The Household Muse are “Household Cares,” “Laundry,” “Flowers in the House.” Would you say Milhaud was an early feminist?
EA: I think he probably would have balked at being known as that.
GR: Did he encourage you?
EA: Very, very encouraging. And really wonderfully hands’ off. And very good-natured. There were no how-to’s. By the same token, every week he would also give us a species counterpoint exercise, very difficult. He was diligent about technique.
GR: Ursula, who were your mentors, and were you encouraged to find your unique voice?
ULG: I was a loner. I had very good teachers, but I didn’t study writing. For one thing it wasn’t taught then. Creative writing didn’t exist. And if it had, I wouldn’t have taken it because I didn’t want to be mentored. I was an extremely willful and determined artist who wanted to do what I wanted to do. Some artists work in groups, and some artists don’t. They just read. Actually, my mentors were probably everything I ever read that was of quality that made me think, Oh, I wish I could do that!
GR: Who were your hero writers?
ULG: There are so very many of them. In my 20’s I began to understand Virginia Woolf. I differ a little bit here with you, Ellie, because understanding is involved both in music and in writing and in painting. Art—either you get it or you don’t. And I call that understanding. I didn’t quite get Virginia Woolf’s novels, but I got A Room of One’s Own. I don’t think I ever had the remotest notion of imitating her or ever emulating her. But as a hero, as a person who did it right every time, she just meant a lot to me and still does.
GR: I’d like to talk about anger. This week Esther Broner, one of the founders of the Women’s Seder, is having the 35th Seder at my home. And the subject is “in anger, in struggle, in continuity.” I plan to read Ursula’s poem, “In Anger” at the Seder.
EA: That was from our first collaboration, “Locker Bones/Air Bones.”
ULG: The anger in that poem is the anger of the very young person who knows there’s a world waiting for her that’s hers, but she doesn’t quite know the way in and beats at the door in anger.
[Press the “play” button to listen to the poem “The Anger.”]

The Anger

Unlock, unlock!
So long a silence
needs shouting
and latches smashed
and the damned hinges broken
and then in ceremonial
of open air, the wine
poured out, the hands
empty: and slowly,
grave, straight, smiling,
to step across the threshold.
Unlock, set open,
set free, the exile
waiting in long anger
outside my home.

GR: Ursula, can you talk about any particular personal struggle in your life?
ULG: As lives go, mine has been rather struggle free. I was a nice upper-class faculty brat. I went to college and did okay. The only sort of struggle I ever had was spending 10 years submitting writing and not getting anything published, except for some poetry. But that was enough to keep my heart up. I had a bit of a struggle breaking in as a fiction writer. Then I did, and everything went pretty well. I’m one of the probably handful of American fiction writers who can live off her writing. It went that well. So I’m not very good at struggle.
GR: And what about you, Elinor, what were your struggles?
EA: My struggles were pretty internal as a result of growing up in a small town in the 50’s, which was a very conformist, not to say fascistic, era in the U.S. It was a strange, hard time to experience adolescence. By the same token, my family was artistic. They were writers, and artists, and sympathetic to that cause. That provided me with support of various kinds. Then I was fortunate to go to Mill’s College when Milhaud was there. Professionally, I have to say I got lucky. The only thing I had to struggle with was my own internalized notion that women weren’t fit material to become composers.Anger in my music comes out, I believe, as defiance of convention and sometimes as outrageous playfulness. Much of Ursula’s and my work is humorous. Speaking for myself, I believe that humor is one way of expressing anger—obliquely, profoundly, and to very revelatory effect. I think most useful and effective art dares the world in some way. I have studied whether music can be overtly political; I even created a graduate course called “Kurt Weill and Friends,” asking that same question. I doubt that anger can be overtly political, in the absence of polemical text or theater. To the extent that it energizes me, I use it; to the extent that it saps my energy I let go of it.
GR: Were either of you active in the women’s movement?
ULG: I came to it late. I thought I was a feminist. I’d always called myself a feminist, but I was behind the wave. So my activism in feminism was through my writing. In 1968 I wrote The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the people have no gender except once a month. Then you can be either a man or a woman, you can be a father or a mother. It was a book that had, actually, a fairly large influence. When the women’s movement got going in the 70’s, they picked up that book.
GR: Elinor, how was your activism expressed?
EA: I was interested in how the women’s movement affected musicians. By the time I was giving the keynote address at the Symposium on American Women Composers and Conductors in ’86, I had just founded the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. And it was there that I was able to make very real my belief in women as composers. The percentage of women studying composition at the conservatory went up to about 50 percent in those first few years. It has gone down since then, just as somehow the intensity of the women’s movement subsided to some extent. But the women who do study composition do not suffer from some of the same internalized doubts, misgivings, and misconceptions that I suffered from. They are fully competent and competitive.
GR: When I was a baby at Juilliard—you’ll enjoy this, Ursula, because your daughter is a cellist—it was thought that it wasn’t ladylike to play the cello because your legs were spread apart.
ULG: Yes. I think what Elinor says about young women composing is true for young women writers now. They simply don’t have to pretend to be men anymore. It doesn’t occur to them that anybody ever did. We have come some way.
GR: Can you tell me some of the risks you’ve taken?
EA: I take a risk every time I write a piece.
ULG: My early books were pretty male-centered. A lot of my work was published in genre fiction—science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction was an extremely male and macho field when I started writing it. Feminism taught me that I couldn’t go on doing that. It just wouldn’t work anymore. I had to write as a woman. That was very interesting and kind of scary, a risky business for me.
GR: Did Virginia Woolf help you?
ULG: Absolutely. All my writing foremothers. During the 70’s and 80’s they were reprinting all these women writers whose works had gone out of print. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women—that was my bible. I read it from cover to cover with all the footnotes. I needed that.
GR: Do we have a collaboration in the future from you two?
EA: People often ask us that. Our friendship, in a sense, is our collaboration. But as far as an artistic product coming from that . . .
ULG: Partly we haven’t been able to get physically together for years. If you’re going to work together, it really does help to sit around on the lawn chairs and laugh about ideas.
GR: Tell me, women of our age, how has your work changed? You know, I’ve been playing a lot of late Brahms and late Beethoven because the work is really perfected. In Beethoven’s case, it’s stripped away and purified. In Brahms’ case, it’s stripped away in a different sense. The works are shorter and more perfect. How do you feel about your work at our age?
ULG: I’ve got a decade on you two. Eighty is a little different when we’re talking art.
GR: What are the changes in your art?
ULG: Nothing deliberate. Nothing calculated. I do not seem to have any stories to write at the moment. I’m writing poetry. I can never predict what I’m going to do next.
GR: Well, writing poetry is a very big challenge.
ULG: I’ve written it all my life. But now it’s all I’m writing. So it gets more weight on it.
EA: If anything is different now for me, it’s that less of the music that I elect to write involves words. It’s more absolute music. Even though I always have a program and visual things in mind, I don’t necessarily put them in the title.
GR: Can you give us an example?
EA: I’m writing a string quartet for the Ives Quartet, residents at Stanford. In my mind, it’s all about coils and circles and things of that kind. I am not going to say anything about that in the title. It’s simply what sparks musical ideas from me. I also have gone for pure expression of emotions that can only be expressed with music. That involves some probing and introspection. At the same time, it commands me to respect the spontaneous in me. So I actually am doing a lot more improvisatory stuff. I start out improvising at the piano. It’s a great help to me that I am a pianist. I graze at the keyboard and get my impulses out into little lumps of raw ore and then go from there.
ULG: I think that’s a parallel here with what I’m doing. It looks like I’m deserting narrative, which has always been my main shtick, but I’m going more towards the musical in language. I think, also, it’s a matter of energy. Writing a novel is a huge job. It takes physical strength for a year or more. I haven’t got that much energy. If a poem comes by, I can grab it and then tinker with it. It doesn’t take an enormous commitment of time and physical energy.
GR: It takes craft.
ULG: Having written for 70 years, I have developed some craft.
EA: I really do think that by this time we don’t worry about what people will think or if we are showing enough technique or-
ULG: I never did that much.
EA: I actually never did, either. But I’ve had numerous students who were terribly tied up in knots about those things. And I have tried, just as Milhaud did, to skirt those issues. They needn’t even be a consideration. I tell students, Don’t worry about whether your piece is fashionable or shows that you took counterpoint and so on. Just go on faith that it will do what it has to do with the tools you have gathered.
ULG: A bit like grammar for a writer. Which some writers think they don’t need.
GR: It sounds like you have enough commonality that you would enjoy working together again.
ULG: It would be fun. Maybe we will.
EA: We gotta get some new lawn chairs and age them real fast.
ULG: Those lawn chairs were bought in 1934, Ellie, and they will not be replaced!
EA: I’ll see you at the lawn chairs someday.
(Copyright 2010 Gena Raps. All rights reserved.)
Elinor Armer, composer, was head of the composition department at
the San Francisco Conservatory. She has received awards and fellowships
from the MacDowell Colony, the Charles Ives Center for American Music,
and numerous commissions. Her works are published by J.B. Elkus and Son
and C.F. Peters. Her collaborative work with author Ursula Le Guin,
Uses Music in Uttermost Parts, an eight-part fantasy series, has
been recorded on the Koch International Label. For more information on
the work of Elinor Armer go to: href="">

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin is an American author. She has written
novels, poetry, children’s books, essays, and short stories, most
notably in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. First published in
the 1960s, her works explore Taoist, anarchist, ethnographic, feminist,
psychological and sociological themes. To explore Ursula Le Guin’s
extensive website, go to

Photo credit: Eileen Gunn.

Gena Raps, interviewer, is a concert pianist and recording
artist. To learn more about her, go to href="">; href="">;
and href="">

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