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Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo (2014)

by Richard Powers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5563625,695 (3.63)1 / 92



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English (35)  French (1)  All languages (36)
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
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 |
Composer Peter Els has become a fugitive from Homeland Security. A philosophical, retired composer, Peter has been conducting chemistry experiments in his garage to find the true essence of music in the elements of earth. Chemistry was his second love, his first being a dreamy music student by the name of Clara, who urged Peter to pursue his talent for composing as something he owed the world. A retired professor of music, his run from the law is a slow and confusing walk. Peter marks time with a cerebral trip through his past which became just a bit too slow and cerebral for this reader. The narrative is an unending array of musically-related terms, adjectives and adverbs that challenge a reader seeking a more typical hide-and-seek adventure. Sentence after sentence of descriptions of Peter's thought processing begins to wear on reader's hopes to find some action in this story. In addition, if the reader is not savy to musical notation and terminology, many of the analogies are lost. Powers' description of tree frogs singing goes like this: "The new chord bent into more grating intervals, a flat third, widening to almost a triton, a glacial creation like Xenakis or Lucier, one of those cracked Jeremiahs, howling in the wilderness, looking for a way beyond" is an example of how he will stretch the imagination of the reader beyond the normal parameters of mystery reading. But note that Powers is described as a writer who "may be America's most ambitious novelist" (Kevin Berger, San Francisco Chronicle) and has won awards for his writing, so he just may be your cup of tea.

Karen J. / Marathon County Public Library
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( )
  mcpl.wausau | Sep 25, 2017 |
Not sure the text entirely resolves the problem of putting the experience of music into words but a brave stab that kept me reading till the end and left me wondering about the legacy of the sixties and how we got to here. I didn't know this writer and I am glad I now do. ( )
  adrianburke | May 8, 2017 |
Having recently discovered Evan Dara and read his Lost Scrapbook, I was led to Richard Powers who was cited in a blurb. An ear for music -- and sounds of all kinds -- is not the only thing these two writers have in common. Orfeo is a novel of ideas, and in that sense the plot-line may be of secondary importance, which might explain some of the readers' reactions. As someone with absolutely no musical education (alas!), I can say that the accusation often leveled at the book that it aims at select readers versed in the technical vocabulary of composition is unjustified; I would say that rather the opposite is true: Powers opens up the world of music to those uninitiated and teaches us to listen more intently. One of the things I have enjoyed most about the novel were the sections of close-listening (i.e. like close reading applied to musical pieces: Mozart (Jupiter symphony), Gustav Mahler (Kindertotenlieder), Olivier Messiaen (Le Quatuor pour la fin du temps), Steve Reich (Proverb)... It's not so much that you can't get through this book without listening to those pieces: Powers' prose imparts infectious enthusiasm, you can't resist hearing those pieces for yourself the way the author hears them, which brings something new to compositions you might have listened to casually or perhaps even been obsessed with at some point, yet without possessing the perfect pitch or a musician's ear (on a personal note, this was the case for me with Shostakovich's third string quartet which, as a child, made me imagine a whole intricate story that I wrote down as a long poem in imitation of Polish romantics; that story, whether I wanted or not, had become for me indissociable from the piece; and yet, reading Orfeo, I managed to hear the piece anew).

The narrative follows an elderly composer, Peter Els, from the moment he dials 911 for his dying dog thus triggering police interest in his amateur genetic lab, which soon turns him into a suspected bio-terrorist and a fugitive. What might have been a fast-paced spy-novel plot, an unrelenting crescendo rising to an explosive end, is slowed down and extended by long remembrances, the old man's retrospective glances at his life. A review of his life is interspersed with the protagonist's thoughts on music: its nature, its ontology, its ubiquity. There is an intricate relationship between music, memory, and time: "Music forecasts the past, recalls the future." We come to understand music as something like another dimension of being. Although Powers never mentions Nietzsche, some of the musings made me think of Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return of the same: as if universe were a vast composition, and our lives a small part, a particle, a note in the musical partition, music is perhaps the key to understanding the larger design. "Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future." ( )
1 vote aileverte | Aug 24, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (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
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393240827, Hardcover)

The National Book Award–winning author of The Echo Maker delivers his most emotionally charged novel to date, inspired by the myth of Orpheus.

"Richard Powers has been astounding us almost every other year since 1985,” wrote John Leonard (Harper’s). In Orfeo, Powers tells the story of a man journeying into his past as he desperately flees the present. Composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police on his doorstep. His home microbiology lab—the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns—has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security. Panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive. As an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, Els—the “Bioterrorist Bach”—pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey. Through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, Els hatches a plan to turn this disastrous collision with the security state into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:49 -0400)

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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