Richard Power’s most recent novel “Orfeo” intertwines minimalist classical music and bioterrorism paranoia in an ironic homage to Orpheus. For those without musical training or knowledge of the history of avant-garde classical music composition a multi-media version of this novel linked to orchestral performances, or end notes about musicology, would have been a beneficial supplement. Monteverdi’s opera, “Orfeo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ma4OelX45I) , though capturing the theme of music and death in the Orphic-Eurydice Greek myth is too melodic for Richard Power’s protagonist, Peter Els. The Nouveau Classical Project Kamea string quartet’s interpretive performance of Richard Power’s “Orfeo” edges closer. (http://centerforfiction.org/calendar/notes-on-fiction-orfeo-by-richard-powers). Unfortunately there is no score for Mr. Els dissonant compositions. Unlike Orpheus’ lyre, Mr. Els’ works are the risk of artistry: works never to be heard. The novel is a chronology of the modern classical music genre and its influences that for better or worse Peter Els borrows or revolts from: the polyphonic Pérotin; Bach; Mahler; Bartók; Shostakovich; Messiaen (see my earlier review of the novel “Quartet for the End of Time” and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYpBHc8px_U); Stravinsky; the indeterminate John Cage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4); Terry Riley (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hy3W-3HPMWg); serialists Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and George Rochberg; Jon Gibson; Steve Reich; Philip Glass ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Stu7h7Qup8and); and Pierre Boulez’s Orientations. This novel is “In C”.
A young Peter Els begins his odyssey for musical perfection by trying to impress his first love, Clara Reston, whose critical ear isolates sound and discards conventional musical form. He alters his career choice from chemistry to musical composition; the fascination for underlying notation interlocking the two. She discards him for London and a husband and he finds a substitution in his monetarily supportive vocalist wife, Maddy and their emotionally supportive daughter, Sara. The “happenings” of U.S. in the 1960s catalyze him to discard both for his music; an addiction orchestrated by his manipulative colleague Richard who commissions him for his mostly uncompensated operatic librettos and modern dance pieces. He discards their fifteen seconds of fame achieved by inadvertently reinvigorating Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. Both are operas that memorialize the later socialist hero Thomas Münzer who in 1534 at the behest of the Reformation’s Martin Luther is massacred with 30,000 Anabaptist families. On the heel of Waco, for moral reasons, Els precludes encores of his piece. He becomes reclusive, but in middle age finds sanctuary and a little income teaching at a college. Ever the perfectionist in his own mind in this 70s he seeks perpetuity of his unheard score by encoding and mutating a bacterium’s (Serratia) with elements of his compositions. Federal agents, paranoid about bioterrorism, brand him one and he becomes a fugitive. A temporal cult hero on Twitter his pieces finally find an audience.
Mr. Powers employs music in some of his other works, so I first thought that the novel only employed the currency of security paranoia for commercial reasons. The novel can be a little slow at the outset, particularly if you have no musical background. A 2014 long listed Booker Prize novel, it is far more engaging than the plot and is worth pursing to its conclusion. For book clubs that read challenging literature it is an excellent choice.
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” Are sound and music synonymous? What is the music in things and the pauses between sound? Is conventional music a mathematical construct that begs to be unconstrained. avant-garde music extends the reach beyond limited tonality, but Els is venturing into nanomusic.
“A year of reading, and the scales fell from El’s eyes. … Microbes orchestrated the expression of human DNA and regulated human metabolism. They were the ecosystem that we just lived in. We might go dancing, but they called the tune.”
Steve Reich’s Proverb (based on Wittgenstein’s “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5lgAUHVFC4) is a relativistic beautifully melodic inversion that hauntingly chants through Els, until he learns that the thought is love, not music.
“To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power… ludicrous. And yet, Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limits to music’s threat.” Els’ tells the history of Shostakovich’s Fifth. Compelled by Stalin for him to be more melodic, the composer had to abandon his acclaimed inventive Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldRJQfES8hA). Censorship is a chill that leads to a putinesca score. Els buries is dog Fidelio, who unlike Beethoven’s heroine of the same name, will not be able to free him from political prisons.
“He goes on writing, of music converted into a string of zeros and ones, then converted again into base four. He writes of Serratia’s chromosome ring, five million base pairs long. He tweets how he divided those two numbers to produce a short key. ”
“People now make music from everything. Fugues from fractals. A prelude extracted from the digits of pi. Sonatas written by the solar wind, by voting records, by the life and death of ice shelves as seen from space…. String quartets were performing the sequences of amino acids in horse hemoglobin. No listener would ever need more than a fraction of the music that had already been made, but something inside the cells needed to make a million times more… His own music had no corner on obscurity. Almost every tune that the world had to offer would forever be heard by almost no one.”
Mr. Powers is a musician, and although he attended college for physics, he became a literature major. He worked as a computer programmer and was an adjunct faculty member at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. His novels are a blend of these skill sets, although weighted more to biology than physics. In short, he is interesting and thought-provoking. Make the effort.