Richard Powers, Orfeo
“The mind may give up its desire to improve on creation and function as a faithful receiver of experience.” John Cage
After enjoying The Overstory, I wanted to read more of Richard Powers’ novels. Orfeo was also long listed for the Booker prize. Perhaps more of his novels would have been had the prize been opened to American authors earlier.
Orfeo is about Peter Els, a seventy year old composer who accidentally alerts Homeland Security to the existence of his home laboratory, in which he has been trying to recode the genetic material of a bacterium to include a piece of his music. He ends up on the run, which provides the catalyst for a narrative in which we ponders the past and returns to it. Woven throughout is a history of contemporary classical music, most real and some invented.
The themes of Orfeo have often pinged at me:
- how should one spend a life?
- how can one express one’s personal freedom in a world threatened by terrorism?
A lot of these ideas will be familiar to anyone who has read The Overstory. But it also turned out to be a fascinating read for the current times. Ordinarily, Orfeo’s microbial sub-plot would provide ample subtext for discussion of ‘catchy’ tunes, but in the midst of the current pandemic it’s a little spooky.
Modern music is not obscure because it is written by weirdos with no new moves to pull off, but also because we as listeners have been drawn into comfort zones by the ‘greats’ and find it very hard to accept new and different ideas.
Must we always be tempted by beauty over truth, love, and emotion?
Another theme that recurs throughout the book is hearing resonances in notes. Not just in a musical sense, but also in how characters and lives are also built up from resonances of their experiences. And again in the descriptions of how the audiences can ‘hear’ resonances in different ways. All of life is to some extent a performance, and this is something I know that I struggle with: why must we always perform, when the beauty of our work should stand alone. Why risk interpretation?
In many ways, Orfeo is another book about writing. You can sense Powers as an author trying to balance the competing desires to experiment with form and to tell a good story. Can you do both? This novel perhaps might easily have been one of those dreadful novel as tweets, but this format gradually reveals itself later and has so much more woven around it as a result. In some ways, Powers can’t help but resist showing us the wiring behind the board.
The novel is also fundamentally about a desire to leave something in the world, but not necessarily a need for the world to know it’s there. There are tales of music composed in concentration camps, music composed under threat of totalitarianism, music composed from discarded messages by the roadside, and also coded out of weird geometries and harmonics inaccessible to less studious listeners. The desire to feel a single irreducible and unrepeatable moment, to know something fleeting if only for an instant. To create something that makes you more than yourself, but not necessarily having imposed on the world.
Orfeo was very much my favourite book of 2020. I read it in a flash in late March, early April and kept dipping into it and random points through the year. Sometimes the point is not to survive or defeat troubled times, but rather to transcend them by simply existing. Music, and creative acts more generally, are a way to do this.