What does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.
Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.
On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.
But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.
Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.
Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.
Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.
I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.
Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo