In Orfeo, Powers tells the story of a man journeying into his past as he desperately flees the present. Composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police on his doorstep. His home microbiology lab - the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns - has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security. Panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive. As an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, Els - the "Bioterrorist Bach" - pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey. Through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, Els hatches a plan to turn this disastrous collision with the security state into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them.
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In the opening opus of Powers' latest novel, recently terminated 70 y.o. Peter Els, musician and part time genetic-engineering-hobbyist, picks up the phone to report the death of his golden retriever Fidelio. Obsessing over the proper music for the pet's burial, Els recalls Fidelio's reaction over the years to the music the two of them had listened to, the barks and howls that indicated pleasure, or displeasure, the first piece, the last...his musings causing him to mistakenly dial 911. Els has thrown a blanket over the dead animal. The responding officers come into Els' home, explaining they don't respond to calls about deceased pets, but curious about the bumpy blanket, say they have to look under it. What they notice as they look around the room is the sophisticated lab equipment in this retired music professors home. It is post 9/11, and the officers escalate the investigation to the federal level. Els is soon a fugitive nick named Biohacker or Boiterrorist Bach, on the run.
So begins Els' escape and journey back through his life, the narration threading the history of his life through his musical compositions, the memories of the music he loved, the 60's, Mahler and Mozart et al. -- the whole cord (or chord) recalled through the fleeing artist's eyes in the language of music and science. This is where I realized the 'poverty of my expression' -- I needed more than just a love of music to truly grasp the amazing power of this novel, or to give a knowledgeable review. Powers' understanding of music (and microbiology) goes beyond extraordinary, and he writes about it like an experienced artist schooled on all the concepts needed to paint, easily creates a masterpiece. Such expertise and precise knowledge is awe-inspiring, but overwhelming when tackled by my 5 years of piano, 2 yrs. violin, and season tickets to the symphony. Much of the novel is spent describing in detail, musical creations that exist, and those still running through the character's minds, waiting to be created, technical music jargon that quickly becomes esoteric, the complexities too cerebral for me.
Powers explores the purpose of art, the concept of science and music, and the urgency an artist feels to create; what comes through clearly is the complexity and brilliance of this novel, the beautiful metaphor and prose. (And a deep desire for an accompanying soundtrack--music is listed on Richard Powers' website). I apologize for this unqualified review, and I am looking forward to another listener giving this the review is deserves. I didn't take off a star for what I didn't understand, but did subtract one because the characters were more brilliant than real. Even knowing Els was selfish and served his music mistress, I would like to have felt beyond the music, the emotional connection between Els and daughter Sara, wife Maddy. I would like to have experienced Peter Els outside of his own head -- freed for a minute from his frustrations. [*My mother used to play the song I chose for my title. Recalling the words to that song, and the moving chords and music, actually gave me a little insight to Peter Els ongoing search for his song.] Gratifying even with a limited understanding; music scholars, lovers of classical music, will love this.
All my life I thought I knew what music was. But I was like a kid who confuses his grandfather with God @Terrorchord
No. Not everybody's jam, but for me it resonnated perfectly. It was like Powers gradually tightened the D-string on this novel, page-by-page, pushing the natural frequencies, abusing the harmonics, gradually twisting the wave harmonics of his prose to a point where the novel and its narrative explode and break at the very end. I will write more (add more pictures perhaps), yes I must write more tomorrow after I've thought about as I fall asleep. I want to think about it as I wake at 2 am to pee. For now? I need to wind-down. Deflate. Diminuendo.
Just know this book is a stage where Powers is able to exhibit his love for classical music and his theory that life, love, nature is a giant work of performance art with an infinite number of progressions, fugues, loops, expositions, derivatives, etc. All we need to do is to stop, listen and hear the music behind the silence, the songs stacked behind the infinite, the opera playing on the rocks that makes our cells vibrate together in a symphony of life and orchestration of possibility. Yes, I loved it