My friend Jonathan, over at Me Fail? I Fly! has been reviewing novels lately. If Amazon knew about this, they might give him a medal.
Recently he turned me on to Richard Powers’ latest, Orfeo. It’s a strange and wonderful mixture of art and science, the story of a modern American composer named Peter Els who, at the age of 70 when the story opens, has abandoned music for adventures in amateur genetics. And his dog has died.
In grief and confusion, he has placed a call that results in two policeman showing up at his home. Els wants only to give his dog a decent burial, but the police insist that he call animal control. When they enter his home they notice the strange assortment of scientific equipment strewn in the confusion of his home: microscopes, petri dishes, jars and beakers, cloud chamber bowls, all purchased on the open internet. The police eventually depart and Els, despite their instructions, buries his beloved Fidelio in the back yard.
The following day, while Els is away on an early morning walk, the authorities return and begin to ransack the house. They suspect that Els is a bioterrorist, and the unfortunate coincidence of an outbreak of serratia marcescens, a common but septic bacterium, confirms their suspicions. Terrified if not a terrorist, Els goes on the run.
From this point, the novel splits into two stories. One tells of his flight, first to a rustic cabin offered by a friend, then on a mad Kerouackian odyssey across the breadth of the United States. Els seeks out his long-divorced wife, his brutally iconoclastic one-time collaborator in the creation of wild, genre-busting theatrical happenings, and finally travels to the home in California of his beloved daughter Sara. The saga has all the hallmarks of a great thriller for the age of the Patriot Act, as Els seeks escape, reconciliation, and deliverance. I read it with an unceasing sense of dread for the fate of this strange, often genial, sometimes loyal, tormented, artistic soul.
The second narrative thread recounts the composer’s life story, and along the way, offers an incandescent history of the musical avant-garde of the twentieth century encapsulated in the musical education and aspirations of Peter Els. From an early age, when the final movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony effects a transcendent out-of-body experience, through his years as a student, a young father, and a stalwart of the art-music scene in New York City, Els’s life in bound up in the search for music as yet unheard. He lives in the hope that he will one day create a work that offers both solace and transformation, beauty and intellectual challenge, to his listeners.
As with most such composers, fame and fortune elude him until he undertakes one last, gigantic opera with his lifelong collaborator, Richard. The Fowler’s Snare, commissioned by the City Opera, is based on the life of John of Leiden, who established himself as a theocratic prophet in the German city of Münster in the early sixteenth century. The opera debuts in the week following the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and is an instant sensation. Els is as horrified by the inadvertent identification of the opera’s story with Waco’s as by the media’s characterization of himself as a prophetic genius. He breaks with Richard, and retreats into experiments in chemistry. From there the two stories begin to converge once more as Els seeks to find a way to use the medium of DNA to encode a musical composition. In the persistence of bacterial life and the genetic code lies the promise of immortality.
This may sound like a mad idea, but in fact the use of DNA as a storage medium for non-genetic information is a reality. It is slow, and expensive, but offers the promise of almost infinite amounts of enduring, replicable storage for the vast amounts of data that our contemporary society produces every second of every day. As a means of infinitely preserving the intellectual output of our society, it can indeed be seen as the perfect marriage of art and science.
All of this makes for a thrilling adventure, and Powers’ powers (sorry) of description and narration are on extraordinary display. Normally I might balk at the interruption of a ripping good yarn by extended domestic dramas. Or I might resent the descent from high intellectual adventures into the mundane and aggravating world of security gone mad in defense of “liberty.” But Powers pulls it off beautifully, modulating back and forth in time and story so seamlessly that I often wasn’t aware of the transition until I was totally engrossed in the changed scenery.
But what propels Orfeo into a state of utter, exuberant majesty, is the way in which Powers writes about the music that inspires Peter throughout his life. Here is a snippet of that teen-aged encounter with Mozart, nicely insinuated with the drama that is about to unfold, as the fourth movement of the Jupiter seizes him:
Five viral 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.
In the course of the novel everything from Bach’s cantatas to Terry Riley’s In C flash by. There is an extended, heartbreaking journey through Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Els reads the symphony as the Russian’s attempt to transcend Stalinist strictures, to compose a life-saving masterpiece, one that will allow him to articulate his aesthetic vision while quite literally staying alive. The resonances with Els’s desperation are obvious but deeply moving.
Even more so is the recreation of the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatour pour la Fin du Temps. Captured by the Nazis near the Maginot Line in the spring of 1940, Messaien, along with clarinetist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were interned at Stalag VIII-A in Silesia. In the midst of a debilitating captivity, the musicians were somehow safeguarded by a sympathetic German captain named Karl-Albert Brüll. Akoka managed to hold on to his clarinet; prisoners in the camp passed the hat to buy Pasquiet a battered cello from a nearby shop. Working with an equally distressed violin in the possession of a fourth musician, Jean Le Boulaire, and a camp piano, Messiaen composed his quartet. Brüll arranged for its premier in the camp on January 15, 1941 to an audience of frozen, starving prisoners:
Two birds start a predawn song they’ve sung since long before human time. The clarinet channels a blackbird; the violin, a nightingale. The cello skates about in a fifteen-note loop of ghostly harmonics, while the piano cycles through a rhythm of seventeen values, divided into a pattern of twenty-nine chords. This whirling solar system would take four hours to unfold its complete circuit of nested revolutions. But the movement lasts a mere two and a half minutes—a sliver between two infinities.
A shimmer of sound, according to Messiaen’s program notes. A halo of trills lost very high in the trees . . .the harmonious silence of Heaven. But before the dazed prisoners can tell what they hear, morning is over.
Then the angel appears, one foot on land, one on the sea, to announce the end of time. Bright, crashing chords, a race of doubled strings. Violin and cello, in a unison chant, wander as far from this camp as imagination can reach. The piano descends in waterfalls of chords. Fanfare returns, jarring the audience. No one can say what on earth these four performers think they’re doing.
Forty years ago, when I was in graduate school, a friend tried to convince me that the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps was twentieth-century music triumphant. But I couldn’t hear it; I almost literally couldn’t listen to it. Now, thanks in part to this brilliant guidebook, I can, at last.
I suppose that age has helped as well, and here again Powers surprised me. I was completely caught up in the adventures of Peter Els, entranced by his recreation of the iconoclasms of the 1960s (some of which I witnessed), engrossed by his exposition of the intricacies of composition. He had his fingers on my pulse, on my moment in time, and that compelled me as I read.
As I wrote above, Els makes his first escape to a cabin in the woods. This refuge is offered to him by one of a group of senior citizens Els has been visiting at their assisted living home in the months prior to the opening of the novel. Both dazed and frantic at having witnessed the assault by the FBI on his home and wondering how he will survive the accusations he is certain await him, Els seeks a momentary respite in his obligation to these elderly students. When he tries to cancel class, their evident disappointment compels him to one final lecture, on the Messiaen quartet. He’s puzzled by their persistence. But he may also understand it.
They didn’t really need the music. Yet the pattern was as old as dying. A sudden turn in the aging body after the back straightaway, a need for more serious sound. Els had seen it in every uptown concert he’d ever attended: everyone in the audience, old. Auditoriums a whitecapped sea. For years he’d thought that these incurables were the survivors of another time, the children of early radio’s doomed project of cultural uplift. But the years passed, the old died away, and more old people came to replace them. Did something happen to the fading brain, some change in meter that made it turn away from the three-minute song? Did old people think that classical held the key to deathbed solace, an eleventh-hour pardon?
For the past six months, The Clash and the Pretenders and the Kinks have languished on my iPod as I’ve dug into Handel’s sonatas for wind instruments and listened, methodically and for the first time in my life, to Bach’s cantatas. The three-minute song has indeed, at least for the moment, lost its appeal. I don’t know that my brain is fading or that I want an eleventh-hour pardon, despite a growing sense of mortality in general. In fact, I feel possessed by a new hunger that brings with it unexpected delights, a rejuvenation that balks at extinction. Orfeo arrived at just the right moment, when the experience of reading it and the desire to explore the Baroque and beyond could urge one another on.