ORFEO – Richard Powers composes beautiful music with his words


I just finished reading Orfeo by Richard Powers.  I have never before read literature that so beautifully and evocatively captures music, describing actual works of music, conjuring imaginary works, evoking the process of composing, with such detailed brilliance and clarity and often near religious ecstasy.

Richard Powers

Richard Powers

My brother-in-law gifted me the book last Christmas.  And I’m sure he merely thought of this book for me because he’d heard that Orfeo was about music and highly acclaimed to boot.

Surely he didn’t know that for most of its pages it describes the unhappy career of what would commonly be described as a failed composer.  My brother-in-law wasn’t trying to send me a hard message, was he?  He couldn’t have known that there were many passages in Orfeo that threatened to open a yawning crevice of mid-life-crisis in this middle aged composer’s psyche?

Nah!  I’m being silly.  Peter Els, the hero of Orfeo, is very different from me.  We may both be composers, but he is of a different generation, part of the classical avant-garde of 20th century music, with a personal and professional trajectory quite unlike my own.

And then there is the bio-terrorism subplot.  Nope, no identification there!

music and dna

What brings avant-garde music and bio-terrorism together is the big mystery in Orfeo that I will not spoil here, except to assure skeptical readers that Powers does satisfactorily illuminate the narrative mystery by the book’s conclusion.

What I want to focus on here is Powers’ beautiful writing about music.  Several seminal musical works, by Messiaen and Shostakovich for example, are described in lustrous detail, as are the fraught circumstances of their creation.  I will quote however from early in the book, when the eleven year old Peter Els hears the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony for the first time:

Three movements of Symphony 41 pass by: destiny and noble sacrifice, nostalgia for a vanished innocence, and a minuet so elegant it bores the bejeezus out of him.  And then the finale, in four modest notes.  Do, re, fa, mi: half a jumbled scale.  Too simple to be called invented.  But the thing spills out into the world like one of those African antelopes that fall from the womb, still wet with afterbirth but already running.

Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future.  The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravy.  Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag.  At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy.  The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole.  Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hang in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.

Five rival strands propagate, infecting the air with runaway joy.  At three and a half minutes, a hand scoops Peter up and lifts him high above the blocked vantage of his days.  He rises in the shifting column of light and looks back down on the room where he listens.  Wordless peace fills him at the sight of his own crumpled, listening body.  And pity for anyone who mistakes this blinkered life for the real deal.

At six minutes into the amazement, the five galloping melodies align in a quintuple fugue.  Lines echo and overlap, revealing where the music has been heading from the opening Do.  They plait together too tightly for Peter’s ear to make out everything that happens inside the five-way weave.  The sound surrounds him, and Peter is immanent, inside it all, a small but crucial part of everywhere.

Mozart – Symphony #41 – Finale

Ah!  Mozart as a religious experience.  Surely Peter is not the first or last to discover the divine in Amadeus.  In later passages, when Peter is an adult and well versed in music, Powers adds more specific details about melody, harmony, structure and instrumentation in his descriptions.  But it is in this first major literary musical elucidation that the metaphysical is most presence.  As are descriptions of melodies that “split off and replicate” and are “viral strands” that “propagate, infecting the air”; allusions to the biological terror that hangs over the narrative throughout.

The descriptions of musical works are never mere illustrations, they connect richly to the themes and narrative of Orfeo.  Additionally, Powers writes compellingly of the act of composing, of musical and theatrical creation, collaboration and performance.  Near the end of the book we get what reads like a Credo for Creation, when an elderly Peter Els is tutoring a young, promising composition student:

He wants to tell her: Hold on to what you know right now.  Let no one persuade you of a single thing.  Study your hunger and how to feed it.  Trust in whatever sounds twist your viscera.  Write in the cadences of first love, of second chances, or air raids, of outrage, of the hideous and the hilarious, of headlong acceptance or curt refusal.  Make the bitter music of bumdom, the sad shanties of landlessness, cool at the equator and fluid at the pole.  Set the sounds that angels make after an all-night orgy.  Whatever lengthens the day, whatever gets you through the night.  Make the music that you need, for need will be over, soon enough.  Let your progressions predict time’s end and recollect the dead as if they’re all still here.  Because they are.

Thank you, Richard Powers, for the moving story, your generous love and understanding of all music, and most of all, the marvelous prose illuminating this passion.

orfeo book

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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