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Music of the spheres; music in the genes

OrfeoThe subject matter of Richard Powers tellingly titled ‘Orfeo’ is immense – immortality and transcendence, the desire to make sense and purpose of it all, and what remains always outside our ability to grasp its intangibility, but is always on the edge of our yearning reach.

Orpheus in classical mythology is a poet and musician of such power that all of the natural world is charmed by his music. In one version, he is the son of Apollo. He descends to the world of the dead to bring back his wife Eurydice, a task which ultimately fails as he disobeys the instruction to not look back.

Corot - Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld Wiki Commons

Corot – Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld Wiki Commons

The central character of Powers’ book, Peter Els, though initially trained as a chemist, with a particular interest in its metaphysics, the secret at the heart of matter, falls as passionately for the metaphysics of music, becoming a composer. The book charts not only the history of music, the intense experience, the yearning, the transcendence, the way, which, if we pay attention to it, it can be felt almost at a cellular level, but also, through the central character in space and time (America, 1960’s onwards) the life of that country.

And there is more. At the start of the book, Els is 70. He has begun, in his search for a music which is present and meaningful, to return to his earlier training, and look at the building blocks of living matter, the alphabet of DNA, and how parallels can be found with the alphabet of music. He is exploring the music of biology, at cellular level
Serrata marcesccens

Unfortunately, in a world fearing chemical and biological terrorism, the discovery of a home lab where genetic engineering is taking place, makes Els a fugitive, on the run from the security forces.

Els’s ‘run’ also takes him into a spiralling run backwards and forwards into his own personal history, through first and last loves, the start and ending of relationships, with women, with his closest friend, and with his child.

This is a weighty, difficult, challenging read in many ways, exploring music and specific pieces in immediate depth, diving into the heart of them, and Powers uses language most potently, but demands work from the reader. His clear craft of language, the sense that every sentence is constructed with care, like notes perfectly placed, holding their hidden harmonics, meant it was important to understand precisely the meaning of often complex words. I was using the dictionary frequently. I was also highlighting, almost on every page, observations about art, about music, about biology, chemistry, philosophy, metaphysics, which were telling, weighted and beautiful

And most of all, the wonderful, illuminating journeys through musical works, both real, and imagined (some of Els’ compositions) sent me back to listen, or to listen for the first time.

Proverb Music by Steve Reich, Text Wittgenstein. One of the pieces of music explored in Orfeo

In this, Powers’ reminds me a little of another American author, Siri Hustvedt, another fierce intellect, who in ‘What I Loved’ with a central character who is a visual artist, creates invented pieces of art through words so real that I could see them, and went vainly searching for them via Google, convinced that Hustvedt must have seen or made them. I had exactly the same response to Els’s compositions. Powers writes so impeccably and presently within the heart of specific ‘real’ pieces, that, surely he must have heard the pieces his central character composes.

This will no doubt be a particularly potent novel for those steeped in the Western classical music tradition, as practising musicians, and probably even more so for composers.

The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits

It may not be the book if music holds the space of background:

Half the clientele have their own earbuds, the other half use this music, if at all, only as protection from the terrors of silence

Richard Powers

Music…………..doesn’t mean things. It is things

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