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Richard Powers: Orfeo

With Richard Powers, you know that you are going to get science/technology, music and politics and you certainly get all three here. It tells the story of Peter Els, composer and part-time, amateur scientist. He needs nothing but his math and his Mozart, the maps back to that distant planet. We start with him, aged seventy, living alone (long since divorced from Maddy). He phones the emergency services, apparently because his dog is dying. When they finally arrive, the dog has already died. Thy tell him that he needs to get Animal Control to dispose of the body but he states that he is going to bury the body in the garden, which he proceeds to do. The novel proceeds with his current life, with the story of his life interspersed.

Peter’s father was musical and played classical music at home. It was he that instilled a love for classical music in his younger son. The elder son, Paul, was much keener on pop music. He will later tie his younger brother up and make him listen to the current pop music (late 1950s). Peter is not impressed. Peter’s father is very keen on his sons studying science, as he feels that the US needs to match the Soviet Union. Peter wants to study music – he has learned to play the clarinet – but, at his father’s urging, he studies chemistry at university, which he quite enjoys. His choice of university is conditioned by the fact that the girl he is in love with, Clara Easton, a cellist, whom he had met in the school orchestra, is going to study music there. He and Clara had spent time studying music at school, with Clara suggesting increasingly obscure works to Peter. This continued at university, where the pair were inseparable. Peter auditioned for the orchestra and beat out many clarinet players who were studying music. Peter continued to find, with Clara, obscure works, particularly modern ones. However, after university, she went off to Oxford to do graduate work and met someone else. Peter is heartbroken. Meanwhile, he has gone to do postgraduate work in music (his father is now dead) and studies composition. Peter likes modern music, though his music teachers try to teach him that it is the only music worth listening to and writing.

Isn’t the point of music to move listeners?

Mattison smiled. No. The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits.

And tradition?

Real composers make their own.

So Gustav Mahler wasn’t a real composer?

Mattison regarded the ceiling of the bare room and stroked his stubble with the back of his knuckles. He considered the question for forty-five seconds—half the length of Els’s octet scherzo.
Yes. I would have to say that Gustav Mahler was not a real composer. A songwriter, perhaps. But caught in the grip of the past.

At university, he meets and later marries Maddy and they have a daughter, Sara. However, Peter is not interested in having a real job and wants to compose and, when he meets Richard Bonner, doctoral candidate in theatre arts, his life changes. Richard always wants to go a bit too far and it is Richard who tries to marry Peter’s music to his theatrical vision, which creates fascinating visions, even if most people find it just too excessive. (The songs were performed twice, seven years apart, for a dozen puzzled listeners each time. That was the kind of music Els wrote: more people onstage than in the audience.) The pair have a warm but difficult relationship for the rest of their lives. Peter will end up a loner, with minimum success and a not much greater reputation, with the exception of The Fowler’s Snare (that pastiche of Rilke and Isaiah) whose theme is state repression of individual rebels. It premieres at the time of the Waco Siege, causing Richard to cheer, because of the box office receipts and Peter to try to withdraw it.

At the beginning of the novel, living alone, but teaching music to other older people, Peter has returned to his early love of chemistry. Specifically, he is involved in home gene splicing. Apparently, there are many people in the US experimenting in this way, with the materials and equipment readily obtainable online. For Peter, however, as we learn later, it is a form of composing, only composing with strands of DNA rather than musical notes. However, he gets a visit from two bumbling cops from the Joint Security Task Force. When he comes home a couple of days later, he sees his house surrounded by police and others in biohazard suits. He decides to go on the run, rather than confront them. When he sees his name all over the news, he runs even more. Powers recounts what he does on the run while telling of his life to date.

Much of this novel is a tribute to composing, particularly as relates to 20th/21st century classical music. Powers gives us a huge amount of information both about the composers and the techniques used. Much of it was above my head and will be above the head of those who have not had musical training. Nevertheless, you can only admire his great enthusiasm for and knowledge of the music, the techniques involved and, of course, the controversies. He is fairly critical of the way that musical academia has been taken over by the the soulless modernists. As well as music and science, politics is important. There is not just the Waco Siege but other important political events in modern US history, particularly those that affect individual freedoms and creation. I do not think this is his finest work but, like all of his works, it is another first-class novel and one that keeps him at the forefront of contemporary US novelists.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by W W Norton