Collected Works: Literature



by Richard Powers

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Cooped up inside on a rainy Sunday afternoon, a young boy thumbs through his father’s record collection, hoping for a sonic distraction. He picks Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony and listens attentively, propping himself up on his elbows as the final movement begins. Four notes, ‘half a jumbled scale’, become the subject of contrapuntal complexity, an intricate invitation that must be answered. In this moment, he forgets all else, caught in a fleeting fugue state as these ‘viral strands propagate, infecting the air with runaway joy’.

Peter Els is a composer torn between beauty and innovation, secretly longing for the former even as he doggedly pursues the latter. We meet him in his seventies as he strains to code music into bacteria, toiling in his home laboratory. The experimentation leads to a police raid; sensationalised in the press as the ‘Biohacker Bach’, Els is driven to become a fugitive. The novel follows his journey, shifting gear from past to present and back, alternating between memory lane and the fast lane, each switch marked by an artistic aphorism.

Through this dual structure, Powers explores music’s relationship with time. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder sends Els’ mind spinning back to a teenage romance. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time stretches the lives of his elderly pupils out before their ears. The years to come harbour uncertainty, as our protagonist wonders whether his desire for artistic immortality will be fulfilled. The book’s overture informs us that he ‘wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future’.

Orfeo’s prose is lucid and lively, packed with evocative metaphors and biographical titbits. Here, singers negotiate ‘a thicket of tangled harmonies’. There, the Quartet for the End of Time triggers an account of the war camp in which it was written. As Els flees, with Shostakovich’s Fifth as his subversive soundtrack, he also races to catch up with modernity. The odds are stacked against him. Today, trends proliferate faster than the specimen in his Petri dish. The birdsong that inspired Messiaen has been supplanted by tweets of a different kind.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can visit Richard Powers' website here, and read an excerpt from Orfeo here. Kevin Berger has interviewed the author for The Paris Review, as have Andrew Leonard for Salon, Keenan McCracken for Music & Literature, Emma Brockes for The Guardian, and Alec Michod for The Believer Magazine.

You can hear the final movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 ('Jupiter') here, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder here, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time here, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 here. Richard Powers performs an excerpt from Orfeo here.

Question of the day

Which works of literature from 2014 would you recommend, and why?
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