Monday, February 24, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo: A Novel

“What is it you wanted from…[music, fiction, art?]”

“Awe. Surprise. Suspense. Refreshment. A sense of the infinite. Beauty.”
--from Orpheo

Orpheus could make the stones weep, animate the inanimate. The love of his life is taken to the underworld. He wants to steal her back and creates music to tame the underworld, but he dies at the hands of those that cannot hear his divine music.

I always receive news of a new Powers novel with excitement. I think to enjoy his novels you must just allow yourself to be led, just for a little while. He is telling you a story that requires you to make connections. Powers has the heart of a musician and the soul of a scientist but his mode of communication is language.

This novel is about art, and what it means for our lives today, and what the boundaries are. Peter Els is a seventy-something musician who gave up everything, including his wife and daughter, for his music. He created music that people often didn’t like, and couldn’t follow. When he did finally create music that was meaningful to people, he refused to have it performed because it felt exploitative.

There are two threads in this novel. One is El’s regret for having missed the central meaning of life—to be with people you love. Els began to see that one can hear music everywhere, in ordinary outside noises, and that losing his family was the big regret of his life. The second thread is that Els, now in old age and at the end of his time on earth, wants to create music that transcends the time in which we live and changes as our lives change. This, he feels, will be a more permanent legacy than any music he could create for now which bridges past and future. He wants to connect that past with the present and the future. He conceives of the idea to implant a musical phrase into living bacteria so that it will evolve with the times. This is perceived by government regulators as subversive and he is pursued.

Ideas about art, how it is created, how it is perceived, what constitutes art are all central to this novel. In addition, Powers muses about plentitude, and solitude, and how we can manage either, or both, and what they mean for our perception of art. When you have ALL music to listen to at any time in any place, can you hear anything? Attention is harder to get, harder to keep. Powers says, paraphrasing from his interview with Nancy Pearl, “The challenge of today’s human is in meeting the increase in capacity of what we are able to do.”

Orfeo almost seems like it is written in another language. Just like music is a language, this book has pauses, codas, interwoven threads for different voices, all adding up to a larger piece…

Powers shares stories, partially made up but based in history, of composers and the act of creation and how certain pieces come into being, notably Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps or Quartet for The End of Time. The emotions and feelings of the composer are in the music that we hear and that our bodies feel. In an interview with Nancy Pearl, Powers asks the question, “There is something about a pattern of sounds that compels our bodies. Is it in the physics of creation or is it learned?”

These stories about creation and the meaning behind the music are riveting and meaningful and add immeasurably to our understanding of, and appreciation of, the pieces. On his website, Powers shares a link to the music mentioned in Orfeo, a list of the more important pieces and suggested renderings of that music. Listening to the music then enhances one's reading of the novel. This is big art--art to be savored.

In a series of interviews conducted after the publication of this book, Powers tells that his “alternate career” would have been music. He tells Nancy Pearl that he began studies as a physicist:
paraphrased: ‘As a young man, I always wanted to be a scientist, but I discovered as I grew older that to be successful as a physicist, one has to specialize narrowly. At the same time I fell under the spell of [a great teacher of literature] and I realized that there is one field that encompasses all fields, and that is writing.’

Salon interviews Richard Powers

Washington Independent Review of Books Beth Kingsley writes a review of Orfeo

Nancy Pearl talks with Richard Powers

Richard Powers introduces his novel

I want to tell you in advance that these referrals to articles and interviews may not help you understand or appreciate the novel. What they do is enhance your experience of the novel. If you didn’t enjoy the mind of Powers by reading his novel, you may be even more confused by the man in person. He goes deep and one has to listen with both ears and full mind, not with divided attention. I am not criticizing divided attention. We all have that. But one must sink into this novel and into his interviews with a willing resignation. A second read, a second listen may yield greater understanding. Don't be frustrated. Be intrigued. If you do take the time, you may find something very special, unique, and powerful. This is a man who could, perhaps, have been anything, but he chose to tell stories. Following him is a remarkable journey.

“If no one is listening, your art is set free.”

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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