Like eating nice cheese

Richard Powers

Orfeo, Richard Powers, Atlantic Books

In Greek mythology Orfeo (or ‘Orpheus’) is a singer who captivates the world with his music, and who undertakes a quest to the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. The main character of Richard Powers’ new novel Orfeo is a composer who wants to captivate the world with music, but who finds himself in his own underworld, on the run from paranoid, post 9/11 US authorities who suspect he is a bio-terrorist.

There are two strands to the book, wherein we get the life story of Peter Els, particularly as it intersects with the developments in twentieth century classical music, and a ‘current’ narrative of the discovery of Els’ home biochemistry lab, in which he tinkers with viruses as a hobby in order to, we eventually learn, somehow encode his melodies into the genome sequences, and his subsequent flight. The book has aspirations towards the Great American Novel such as Moby Dick. Like the novels of John Updike, Powers revels in virtuoso displays of description, cranking up the language as he describes music’s mystery and power. He has immersed himself in music theory and history, and he elaborates at length on Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, Mahler’s songs of mourning for dead children, and Olivier Messiaen’s premier in a prisoner of war camp of his haunting and experimental Quartet for the End of Time. And like the novels of DeLillo or Pynchon, Orfeo touches on modern fear and crisis – Waco, the fall of the USSR, Bird ‘Flu – from a unique angle.

Unlike the whaling in Moby Dick, music in Orfeo is not a metaphor. “Music isn’t about something, it is something,” Els says at one point. Yet the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ would have bemused someone like Bach. He would be surprised to see music put on a pedestal, rather than simply being the pedestal itself. It may be a generalisation, but there is some truth in the notion that, unlike in the past where music served religion and empire, modern music (like Western art in general) has turned its transcendent arc back upon itself, twisting and distorting as it nears its empty centre that is no longer filled with God. Modern music can be compellingly honest, but it often reflects the disharmony at the root of modern, secular society. There is beauty too, but it is often subsumed under the constant search for novelty (which lies at the centre of Els’ quest). Music is a legitimate pleasure, like eating nice cheese or lying on the grass watching the clouds go by. But things get a bit tangled when we start talking about the whole business of art itself as this sublime, other-worldly experience.

Music and biochemistry may seem poles apart – art versus science – but both are, at a micro level, simple patterns – vibrations and sequences of chemical compounds, respectively – that at a macro level create extraordinary complexity. And Peter Els sees in them both the potential for almost-immortality. Writer Peter Conrad has documented (and, sadly, applauded) the modern push for the artist to replace God as the immortal creator, yet music like Bach’s derives its power from more than his genius alone. It would not be presumptuous to assume that Bach felt himself some sort of conduit for harmonies created by someone beyond and sustaining the universe. At the very least his music was designed explicitly to praise this someone.  But the great crescendo of the history of modern music reflects a widespread belief that the transcendent and the immortal must be found in this world alone. Els’ own quest for immortality, no matter the unfairness of the situation he is fleeing, has a desperate, sad note about it. His story, while glorifying the power of art and artists, has only an ambiguous answer to the questions of whether they have the power to change the world, and what makes for truly lasting art.


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