Thumb-nail Review of “Orfeo” by Richard Powers

by danielgoode

It’s about us! Well, us, meaning us male composers of a certain vintage and background. Some of “us” may actually be in the Richard Powers 2014 novel, “Orfeo,” disguised of course. The Champagne-Urbana music faculty of around 1960-something is named with their real names. The teacher and acidic mentor of the now 70 year-old fictional composer-hero, Peter Els who in his youth went to the University of Illinois, might have been Sal Martirano. Or, not. My mentor, later of UCSD where I met him, Gaburo, is named. So is Tenney. The fictional composer is also a clarinetist. There’s an alto who…. It’s a novel about music, composition, performance and ideas, woven together in a manner both gripping and moving. I found it a page-turner. But then again, I’m one of the “us.” There are no women composers in the novel.

Descriptions of actual campus events of those times: a Cage Music Circus, and his HPSCHD are riveting—from the characters’ ears and eyes, but also by someone who had really been there. The author calls Cage “the Imp Saint.” Powers’s language chosen for these absorbing descriptions of both real and imagined music is worth studying: he manages to weave “technical terms” we know from music theory into overlapping poetics. There’s redundancy so if you don’t know the music terms, you’ve got plenty of other language to hold onto. The two together work synergistically in an admirable way: music critics take note! And writers on the arts: how he creates both musical and plot momentum during many pages devoted to a single piece. What about style and history? Well disguised. Peter, the fictional composer, starts as an interesting eccentric, and eclectic. Minimalism comes on the scene in the middle of his career. It’s really the only style mentioned by name. It makes its case, has an influence… Opera enters his life… A manic theater director. Success…failure.

Harry Partch’s hobo experiences and music form a parallel track to the fictional composer-hero’s last adventure of the novel. He also owns some “cloud chambers” like Partch’s instrument. There’s a futuristic turn to a kind of composing with DNA. The theme of a sometimes tormented composer is a flash on Adrian Leverkuhn, the composer in Thomas Mann’s novel. Each, something of a solipsist. Each involved in a spiritual search, but quite an imperfect one.

Novels about composers have got to be within number of fingers on one hand. There’s “Jean-Christoph by Romain Rolland which I’ve never read. There’s Mann’s “Dr. Faustus” (re: Schoenberg, serialism and the devil), and there’s Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” (which has music as moves in a multi-dimensional board game of the elite). That’s probably it for classical music. Proust, and ETA Hoffmann wrote about music in fiction. If we move to film, there are, of course, the entertaining composer films of Ken Russell. Composer-novels may be a strange genre. But not to me. It feels quite natural…of course.

(I did find it a little spooky that such a good novelist seems to know our world from the inside. Was he “spying” on us? Or was he one of us, once, not so long ago?)

Thumb-nail Review #37