Notes On Richard Powers’ “Orfeo”

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“The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body.”
-Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ recent Orfeo is a troubling yet inspiring study of the power of music to shape a person’s life for both good and bad. The novel is the story of Richard Els, an elderly composer. Though he attended a prestigious Midwestern music school during the heyday of the American avant-garde movement in the early 1960s, had some operatic success thirty years later, and spent several decades teaching music at a small liberal arts college, Els is somewhat of a professional failure. He’s highly trained and talented, hears deep meaning in music, yet the world has largely ignored his own creations.

When we first meet Els, he is all but retired, having recently turned to gene splicing as a hobby in his home microbiology lab. Without the acuity to feel music’s effects due to amusia and seeking a grand way to finally make good on his unrealized artistic ambitions, Els is tinkering towards composing music out of bacteria–the ultimate, mutating, and enduring bio-art. As Orfeo unfolds through the present and past, we follow Els as he flees federal authorities who have caught onto his home lab experiments. Meanwhile, through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Els’ life in music as he remembers it and also about exactly how he’s come to be at the center of what is becoming a global terror intrigue.

Powers is masterful at weaving the entire history of western music into Els’ story. Every few pages we encounter significant composers from the European tradition–that “holy society of small discord” (8)–whose music has influenced Els in some way. These composers–a bunch that includes Perotin, Bach, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, and Steve Reich–have in common music that is both rigorously designed and also uncommonly expressive. Case in point: three-quarters of the way through the book, Powers describes the scene at a university campus coffee shop where Els is taking respite as he flees town. Over ten pages (245-255), Powers describes the moment by moment unfolding of Reich’s “Proverb” on the coffee shop’s sound system as Els understands and admires it and watches its effect on the twenty-something students around him. (Why this piece? Perhaps because its words–“How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”–illustrate the importance of music in Els’ own life.) “How can simple, pulsing lines build to such tension, when they run nowhere at all?” (250) Els wonders. And this: “The sounds could be an elegy for those scant ten centuries when chant became melody, melody blossomed into harmony, and harmony pushed outward in ever more daring raids on the forbidden” (248).

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What makes Orfeo daring and troubling for me are two things: first, its message that music is essentially a dangerous force, and second, the book’s questioning of music’s human social value and direct comparing of its workings to biology. For Els, music is a virus, a contagion, a weapon of “mass enchantment” (317). “Life is nothing but mutual infection” he says. “And every infecting message changes the message it infects” (95). And then this: “Life fills the world with copies of itself. Music and viruses both trick their hosts into copying them” (265). Why is all this troubling? Because it rings true. Just think for a moment about a tune you can’t get out of your head: Is it a melody or a virus?

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By the end of the book, we learn that Els had begun to see music inscribed everywhere in the world–“deafening festivals of invention for anyone who cared to attend” (332). It’s all a matter of scale: listen close enough and there’s music on the most microscopic levels. Els is thinking about DNA on this zoom focus: “Somewhere in the billions of base pairs in those millions of species there must be encoded songs” (332) he says. All he needs to do is take the music dreams of his youth to their logical extreme–“to reverse the process, to inscribe a piece for safekeeping into the genetic material of the bacterium.” In other words, “put music files into living cells” (333). The music-bacteria would spread around the world and finally everyone would have to listen to this “living music” (346).

To be sure, it’s a crazy idea–Els is grandiose and clearly disturbed about his last-ditch hopes for his creative work: “I wanted music to be the antidote to the familiar. That’s how I became a terrorist” (186) he says in one of the many brief aphorisms speckled throughout the book that in the end turn out to be Tweets from the composer. At the same time, Els’ grandiosity is the perfect excuse for Powers to offer observations on the relentless flow and evolution of musical style: “Now contagion was at the gates, the return of the repressed. Multiple resistant toxic strains were rising up like angry colonial subjects to swamp the imperial outposts” (194).

There’s so much to think through here in the depths to which Powers goes to explore musical experience is such a comprehensive way. Yet, there’s a sense in Orfeo that music is suspect–nothing more than a kind of sonic informational puzzle that tricks “the body into thinking it had a soul” (330), and that the crime of classical music in particular was its “ancient dream of control” (327). Transposed from art onto science, this is a dangerous idea indeed.

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