Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Orfeo, by Richard Powers: Music and Microbes

Few writers could cross avant-garde classical music with bioengineering to produce an entertaining, hellishly smart novel. But if you've read Richard Powers before, you probably know he's just the writer to do it.

Powers' latest novel Orfeo (a nod to the Greek mythological figure Orpheus) tells the tale of Peter Els, a 70-year-old composer who goes on the lam when authorities discover an amateur biology lab in his house. Is he a terrorist bent on biological warfare? Or is just an old guy with a strange hobby?

From the start, we're pretty sure it's not the former, but Powers delves deeply into Els' life story to explain why it's the latter. We learn about Els's influences in classical music, both traditional and non — from Mahler to Mozart to Messiaen. (A 10-page anecdote about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of the World, composed in a Nazi prison camp, was one of the highlights of the novel for me. Absolutely fascinating.) And Powers writing absolutely flourishes when he's describing a piece of music. You're almost obligated to stop and Google the piece so you can enjoy it with him.

We go back in time to learn about Els' ambition, mistakes, divorce, retreat from the world, relationship with an antagonistic collaborator named Richard Bonner (himself an avant-garde choreographer), and how he comes to believe music can truly be immortal (and by extension, make its composer immortal as well). We constantly waver between empathizing with Els and scratching our head at the choices he makes.

But part of the point of this novel, also, is how expression and art — especially music — seem to terrify authority. (In addition to the Messiaen story, Powers also gives a brief aside about the Russian composer Shostakovich, and how his 5th Symphony was a response to criticism from Josef Stalin.) Els is living in a post-9/11 world where fear spreads as quickly as the altered bacteria he's supposedly culturing. Powers writes:
“To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power…ludicrous. And yet, from Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limits to music’s threat.”
And that brings us to the notion of biocomposing — the practice of composing music from patterns in nature. But biocomposition isn't quite what Els is up to, and to tell you what he's really doing would be to spoil the ending — but needless to say, it's an ingenious idea. And the whole thing — as Els travels around the country, still on the run from authorities, righting wrongs from his past — leads to one last piece of performance art that may finally bring Els the fame and notoriety he strove for his whole life as a composer.

I am far from an expert on classical music, and even further from an expert on avant-garde classical music, but Powers writes in a such a way as to make his subject (whether a composer, a piece, or a piece's place in history) understandable. I learned a ton from this novel! There are, admittedly, a few instances when Powers seems to get bogged down by his own expertise, but on the whole, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking story. But if you know Powers' previous novels, you'd expect nothing less! 

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