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Orfeo: A Novel (2014)

by Richard Powers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6984023,373 (3.62)1 / 95
Composer Peter Els --the "Bioterrorist Bach" -- pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey and, through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, he hatches a plan to turn his disastrous collision with Homeland Security into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them.… (more)
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» See also 95 mentions

English (38)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (40)
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
To read this book, it would help to have a music degree or working knowledge of classical composers and composition. That, or the ability to read through descriptions and references to thing you have only a passing familiarity with. I really liked this book at the start, but then I got tired of slogging through mentions of composers names I vaguely know, recognizing that there's supposed to be something funny or meaningful in the comparisons Powers is making but not having the level of knowledge to get it. A bit more than halfway through I only read the present-day sections when Els is seen as a bioterrorist because the flashbacks were too exhausting. ( )
  katebrarian | Jul 28, 2020 |
In a true Olympic fashion, I had difficulty and controversy with my reading and ranking of the latest from Richard Powers. A much younger Jon would've been wowed by Powers' aplomb navigating the higher harmonies of music and chemistry. In fact he treats them as twin summits. Grumpy Jon of the present offers a sigh. There were times in Orfeo when the pages crackled, the meditation on Messiaen was marvelous and the backtracking through the new music of the 60s and 70s was a historic quilt of perfection. My chief complaint was of the Powers template rather than the story revealed here. We begin our narrative with Peter Els, a composer and scientist. This is established as if it were the most natural state of the world. I kept waiting for him to encounter a computer engineer who was also an expert in Flemish art history. I am serious about that. Powers illuminates the world of the brainy and geeky. He allows such a platform without guile, thus it is practically fantasy. I have deeply enjoyed most of Powers work over the last 15 years but I am sensing a constraint on the part of the author. Do we need more tales of lost love and the jarring confrontation with history and the lesser angels of our natures?



These are a pair of reasons to embrace this novel.

postscript I did not recognize the inserts as tweets. Someone should text Grumpy Jon and tell him he's late to the party ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
I need my life revolves around music friends to read this and talk to me about it. Right now I am ambivalent about it but there is a ton here to talk about and think about. ( )
  nkmunn | Nov 17, 2018 |
Le plus beau roman sur la musique depuis le temps où nous chantions
  ACParakou | May 31, 2018 |
Burdened with excessive detail, Orfeo drifts to a predictable, melodramatic conclusion

Peter Els is a composer of new music, an old man, a adjunct professor who has been put out to pasture. When his dog, Orfeo, his only companion, dies suddenly he's so distraught he mistakenly calls 9-1-1. He abruptly ends the call which brings the police to his home only to find he's been passing his time cooking up variant biological strains in his kitchen laboratory.

Is this crackpot a bioterrorist? When the authorities come to investigate, Els goes on the lam.

Author Richard Powers has the narrative go back and forth between Els' past and the present until they converge. Gradually a picture emerges of the a man obsessed with music, music that sounds like noise to most people.

I was never sure if Els was a genius, delusional, lazy or just stubborn, but his obsession manages to wreck every career opportunity and relationship he comes in contact with.

As a protagonist Els is not sympathetic, he's frustrating.

Powers burdens the story with extensive passages about experimental music and minute details on musical composition. It's excessive and redundant as are his passages of transcendence the composer feels when in the thrall of his muse. The plot seems to drift as if the author wasn't sure where to take it and the conclusion is as predictable as it is melodramatic.

Throughout the book the author has inserted intrusive sentences presented in a different font and separated from the text by bold lines. I had no idea what the quotes were referring to, who they were by or what part they played in the story other than pulling me out of the reading experience. ( )
  RodRaglin | May 11, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
Powers has not wholly solved the problem of writing about music without resort to technical language. To be fair, it is probably insoluble. The novel's evocations of musical pleasure will work best for readers who understand what, for example, suspensions or "strident minor sixths" are; but a lot of the musical description accomplishes impressively imagistic things with the most familiar possible terminology: names of instruments, "crescendo", the kinds of spatial metaphor with which music is always already riddled. ("The sopranos chase each other up a cosmic staircase, driven higher by the lurching vibraphones.") Cleverly, Powers makes sure to use as many vocal analogies as possible, since everybody knows what the human voice does: its verbs are as familiar to Lady Gaga fans as to creators of squeaky-door opera.


Very often, this novel makes you want to scurry to CD player or iPod to listen along. In that infectious enthusiasm, Orfeo is the equivalent in fiction of Alex Ross's history of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise. But whereas Ross's book fades out in the fragmentary soundscape of our day, Powers supplies a galloping finale that is sweet, funny, sad and haunting all at once, and comes to a halt on the edge of a precipice. The rest is silence.
added by aileverte | editThe Guardian, Steven Poole (Apr 11, 2014)
Richard Powers talks about his novel Orfeo, which tells the story of a composer's home microbiology lab, the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns, has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security. He becomes fugitive after the police raid his home, and an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, referring to him as the "Bioterrorist Bach."

Listen to interview with the author on WNYC website:
And with all this excitement around music, in this retelling of the Orpheus myth Powers also manages enchantment—or, re-enchantment, if you, like so many of us, believe the world today needs that. Told largely as retrospection even as the story moves forward—“walking backward into the future,” as Els experiences it—Orfeo reveals how a life, and the narrative of a life, accumulates, impossibly, infinitely, from every direction. On the one hand, the fleeing Els, like Orpheus, cannot help but look back. And as with Orpheus, there must be consequences for his looking. But in a book about music, and with Powers a whole career about music, it’s no surprise when Els eventually says, “Seeing is overrated.” We see in one direction. We cannot see God and go on living.
added by aileverte | editSlate.com, Scott Korb (Jan 10, 2014)
These characters are not free of the flaws Powers is often taxed with. They can be clunkily sentimental; they descend to cliché (“We had energy. We had ideas”); their motives are sometimes conventional, sometimes obscure. Nor is the patented lyricism of Powers’s writing always effective. For every happy hit (“The predawn sky was beginning to peach”), there’s a wince-maker like “skirting a cairn of cat turd”
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, JIM HOLT (Jan 10, 2014)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Powersprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gaffney Design, EvanCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martinez, RaymondCover photosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Welch, ChrisDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

Composer Peter Els --the "Bioterrorist Bach" -- pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey and, through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, he hatches a plan to turn his disastrous collision with Homeland Security into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them.

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