Saturday 21 April 2018

Music, germs and a touch of real genius - an insight into classical music

Atlantic, tpbk, £14.99, 370 pages, available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709 350

Richard Powers
Richard Powers
Orfeo by Richard Powers

Jonathan Gibbs

Richard Powers has written about classical music before (in The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations) and about genetics (in Generosity, and Gold Bug again).

Yet it would be rash to say that this new novel is his most complete exploration of those themes, if only because he will probably go ahead and write an even more complete one.

So I'll just say that this is the best novel about classical music that I've read since Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. There are passages that make you want to rush to your stereo, or download particular pieces to listen to as you read – Mahler's 'Kindertotenlieder', Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time' – and others that seem to offer that same experience for pieces you will never hear, pieces composed by Powers's composer hero, Peter Els.

The book starts with Els, 70-years-old and retired from music, panic-calling 911 because his beloved dog Fidelio has collapsed and died. Two police officers who call to check on him are spooked by the ominous-looking lab equipment he has accumulated for his hobby, the exploration of microbiological engineering, and the FBI quickly impound it.

Then, when there is an outbreak of bacterial infection in a hospital way down in Alabama that is worryingly close to the stuff Els had been cooking up, he panics again and goes on the run.

The escapades of this unlikely "Bioterrorist Bach" are inter-cut with Els's memories of his past life, in music and love, starting in the innocent post-War years and moving through the extravagances of the Sixties. There is something of John Adams in Els the composer – coming after the iconoclasm of John Cage and Steve Reich, he finds himself torn between tonality and innovation. He produces a Borges song cycle; soundtracks for New York happenings; and eventually an opera based on the 16th-century siege of Münster that is doomed to obscurity until Waco pops up to explain it all.

The book is full of incident, and there are sections of pages at a time when the prose seems to lift up and carry the reader as an orchestra might, the words working in perfect consort. Els' jogging in the local woods before his enforced road trip has him wondering about the young woman who keeps lapping him, then thinking how Mahler would have loved her MP3 player: "His symphonies, laced with tavern music and dance tunes, were like a vulgar playlist."

Orfeo is a deeply intelligent book, and, though it knows enough to make you care about its characters, its greatest achievement is to flatter the reader into thinking they care about – and understand – music and art too.


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