‘Orfeo’ by Richard Powers – Modern Classical Music, an Oxymoron?

‘Orfeo’ by Richard Powers  (2014) – 375 pages

Orfeo Mech 4p_r2.indd

It happens.  Several of the novels by American author Richard Powers have moved me to enthusiasm before, but his latest, ‘Orfeo’, has left me somewhat cool and indifferent. My lack of enthusiasm for ‘Orfeo’ may be more my fault than his.  Let me explain.

My ignorance of modern avant garde music composition is so overwhelming that only Powers could get me to read a novel about this subject.  First even the music of the great classical composers like Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms holds little interest for me.  My music tastes are so low and unformed, I need the human voice in a composition in order to appreciate it at all, and thus I can only appreciate a few operas out of the entire world of classical music. Thus the experiments in classical composition of the last fifty years have seemed to me somewhere between scams and shams.  John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams.  In my ignorance, I ask ‘Didn’t classical music stop a hundred years ago?’  Like so many others, my musical tastes run to rock-and-roll or pretty pop tunes, not this avant garde classical stuff.  However Richard Powers has a way of making ostensibly uninteresting subjects exciting, so I decided to read ‘Orfeo’.

‘Orfeo’ is about a man who has spent his entire life composing experimental classical music.  He could have had an ordinary successful life as a chemist, but instead he has devoted his life to composing music to which very few people want to listen.   Now seventy years old, he has developed a new interest in do-it-yourself genetic engineering.  He is attempting to splice a music composition into a living cell.  Googling the word ‘ricin’ has gotten him into big trouble with Homeland Security who suspect him of bio-terrorism. As he awaits apprehension, we get the story of his life in flashbacks which are in chronological order.

Thus we have the two major themes of the novel.  A man devotes his life to being creative in the field of classical music but apparently has little to show for it in the end.  The second theme is that creativity by its very nature is original, subversive and thus suspect.   The following line from ‘Orfeo’ is in regard to the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich which he wrote after being denounced by Stalin:

“It spoke of whatever is left, after the worst that humans did to each other.”

The power of music.  Both of these themes are meaningful and resound with me   I suppose if I had had more empathy for the composers of modern classical music, I would have liked this novel much better than I did.   Not until the above vignette on Shostakovich did Powers get me excited by his subject.

There are other weaknesses to the work which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I had been more gung ho on this novel.  The story of this man’s life is pretty standard fare with a girl friend here, a wife there, a daughter, a divorce, and so on.  I suppose the point was to make this man’s life as normal and ordinary as possible except for his obsession with creative music composition, but this made for some quite shopworn story lines.  The female characters  seemed particularly predictable. 

Despite my lack of appreciation for ‘Orfeo’, Richard Powers is a writer I will probably return to.  He is intelligent, passionate, and spirited so that even his failures are more interesting than most writers’ successes. 

4 responses to this post.

  1. LOL The Spouse calls this kind of music ‘squeaky-door’ music. I don’t call it music at all.


  2. Tony, I, too, like Powers, but was a little apprehensive about this one when I read somewhere that it would be more of a “crowd-pleaser” than his others. And now that I’ve read your review, I think I’ll wait for the paperback.


    • Hi Kat,
      With a name like ‘Orfeo’, I’m not sure this would qualify as a crowd-pleaser, but there are some elements of the life story that would appeal to more people than some of Powers’ more philosophical novels.


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