If everyone got to talk to Richard Powers for 45 minutes, humanity might go ahead and evolve to its next level. Unfailingly kind and generous, passionate and fiercely intelligent, Powers is as remarkable to speak with as he is a writer. The San Francisco Chronicle has said that Powers "may be America's most ambitious novelist," and The Echo Maker, for which we last interviewed him, won the National Book Award.
Orfeo, his latest novel, centers on Peter Els — a composer who, because of his experiments in microbiology in his retirement, finds himself on the run from the authorities; in so doing, he revisits the people, music, and memories that have shaped his life and his composition. Powers returns to some familiar subjects — notably music, genetics, and the surveillance state — with lyrical and beautiful prose, a moving and relatable story, and an eloquent and fascinating look back at the music of the 20th century. We are incredibly proud to present Orfeo as our choice for Indiespensable Vol. 45.
Jill Owens: You've written about music in many of your books, but in some ways this one feels the most focused on it as a direct subject — especially the history of 20th-century music. What did you want to deal with in this novel that you hadn't dealt with before?
Richard Powers: I actually think that in some ways The Time of Our Singing is probably just as focused on music in terms of a life spent making music and a thousand years of vocal music. What's different about Orfeo is its emphasis on a life spent trying to create music and, in particular, trying to write a music that hasn't been heard yet.
Peter Els begins his life as a performer, goes to school to study chemistry, and is seduced back into music when he discovers that he has a talent for composing. What's most fascinating to him is this idea of something that wasn't there that now is there and making something that's just a little bit beyond the ear's current ability to hear.
I guess in that sense, the book takes on a much more intimate focus, because while Time of Our Singing is about singers and their relationship to preexisting music and what it feels like to be onstage and recreating something that might be two, three hundred or a thousand years old, for Els the arrow of time, the direction, the pinhole relationship to music, is pointed in the other direction. It's pointed toward a thing that doesn't exist yet. It's the pursuit of a kind of music that he can't quite name yet.
As a result, it becomes much more a relationship between temperament, individual and private — the challenges of a private life, of a self, intersect the story of music in a different way. He wants to make his music. He wants to find something that he can put a personal stamp on, that he can say, If I didn't make this, no one else would have. And so, in a sense, I see what you mean that this book is more focused on music because it's more intimately focused on what music might come out of an individual soul.
Jill: A refrain I like throughout the book is: "Music doesn't mean things. It is things."
Powers: Yes. The struggle for composers, which Els goes through in different stages over the course of his 70 years, is precisely that battle between a music that might be a matter of life and death, as it is for Shostakovich, or a way of surviving the evils of human history, as it is for Messiaen. You align yourself to a kind of music in the service of one or another of all the different kinds of things that the human mind might want. And at the end of the day, you have this reflective feeling of saying, it's very possible that in pursuing a kind of music that you wanted to serve a certain function, to create a certain social urgency, to solve the problems of your historical time and place, that it might also have been worthwhile to make a music that simply moves people in the most etymological sense of that word — actually just makes their bodies want to move.
It's that tension — between the music of pattern, the music of the cognitive brain; and the music of body, the music of pure spirit — that infects his life at every turn. Music is both those things! And human beings are both thinking creatures and feeling creatures. And the art that hits on all cylinders, the art that moves us intellectually and bodily and spiritually, is what we're after. But to capture all those things in the same vessel is a very, very difficult task. And it's a very difficult one for Els until the very end.
Jill: How did you think about actually describing and narrating the music? Your description in particular of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was magnificently evocative. I haven't yet had time, but I want to listen to it soon, as well as revisit Reich and Shostakovich and some others you include who I haven't listened to in years.
Powers: That's good to hear. One thing I wanted to do in the book was create a kind of very rapid retrospective of the incredible places that classical music has gone in the last hundred years, and the huge gamut of need that music served. To try to make a kind of whirlwind anthology that would touch on all kinds of music — music of great formal ingenuity and then music that just lets it all hang out. The opposite end of the spectrum, from the highly constructed formal ingenious music of Els's graduate school — the 12-tone serial kinds of things at mid-century, which are all about creating a language, a highly literate and highly structured language — all the way to the other end of the spectrum with Harry Partch and hobo music and the music of the street and the music of desperation and physical urgency.
I wanted to create descriptions of music and to treat those historical pieces in different ways — do a biographical approach, do a historical re-creation of the composition of certain pieces, but also do a more musicological or listener-response approach to music. I wanted to create this "thirteen ways" of listening to the song of human beings in the 20th century.
Along the way,I became really enchanted with describing musical pieces that don't exist. To take Els's life and journey through these different capacities of music and try to imagine the pieces that he's actually writing and describe these fictional pieces in a way that will somehow put them on par with these landmarks of 20th-century music. I was trying to find different kinds of vocabularies to describe them to laymen, as these musics unfold, and appeal to the reader. To treat these pieces — to almost compose them in my head and then to describe them as though I were listening to them for the first time.
And that was a great delight because, the truth is, this is in one sense a very self-indulgent book because at the bottom of my closet are hundreds of amateur compositions from years ago. That's my road not taken, my idea that I might have become a composer, and I get vicarious pleasure of that life not led by composing, if you will, in fiction anyway, a wide variety of pieces and trying to find a language that would be equal to describing them.
Jill: I had read that you had composed in the past, and I was going to ask if you did, in fact, compose Peter's pieces in the course.
Powers: I didn't literally sit down and put the notes on the page, but I went a good deal toward trying to imagine what they would look like in a score, and what they would sound like in performance.
Jill: This was something that I didn't know the last time I interviewed you, but you apparently write by speaking out loud, using dictation and speech recognition software. How do you think that affects your prose? Do you think it has any relationship to your feelings about music?
Powers: I should say that I actually compose different ways at different times, and different books have all been composed in slightly different ways. I will also mix different modalities of composing in the same book, in different parts of the book and in different stages of the composition and revision process. So while I do use speech recognition, I also use handwriting recognition, and I'll also type. All of those modes are useful depending on what's happening in the book at a given time, or where I am in the revision process.
But I do think that speech recognition and oral dictation reintroduce an interest in prosody in the sense that comes from the sound of the sentence. That's completely foregrounded in poetry. It becomes more important in those lyrical passages in a book like this that are not just trying to move people across the room or keep the plot moving forward, but creating mental states that are somewhat auditory in nature and to be able to test the quality of the prose — the rhythms, the diction, the register, the syntax.
There's something quite lovely about composing in my voice. I think most writers will do that at some point in the process — maybe often closer to the end — when you'll just read the draft out loud, either for someone or for yourself, because readers will subvocalize. When we read, on the page, so much of what the prose ends up meaning, so much of the affective power of any passage, has to do with speed or slowness, the staccato or legato quality of the prose, and to hear how it's going to appear in the mind's ear of the reader, it's very helpful sometimes to hear it out loud. And that's one thing that dictation can do for you, is to get that whole awareness of the prosodic power of the prose earlier into the process, into the initial composition.
Jill: And of course the other major focus in the novel is that of the surveillance state, the all-reaching war on terrorism, biotechnology, and the spread of information. I was fascinated by the Steve Kurtz affair that you mention in the Norton interview.
Powers: Yes. Steve Kurtz was a performance artist and bio-artist who had exhibitions in many of the leading museums of North America and Europe and elsewhere. In 2004, he was arrested for, effectively, having biological materials around his house, which raised the suspicion of local authorities there. Despite the fact that he, within hours of his arrest, could demonstrate and have corroborated by numerous artistic institutions around the country that this material was an essential part of his artwork, he was held and prosecuted for, I believe, four years before finally being cleared of all charges. That was just part of Patriot Act America's inability to gain a perspective on what was truly threatening to the social fabric and what was provocative in an artistic sense.
I initially thought it would be interesting to just try to fictionalize something that hewed pretty closely to Kurtz's story, because it's so incredible to think that this guy created this much backlash and was prosecuted for so very long, despite the fact that he could demonstrate that he had an exhibition just weeks away at an art museum that all this material belonged to. The problem, of course, was that the story rapidly lost dramatic force, because the innocence of the artist was clear from the beginning, and the relative stupidity of the prosecutors, or their desire to save face by finding something that they could pin on this guy, just didn't make for good, rich literature. It didn't have that kind of negative capability or ambiguity. And so I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to create an artist whose relationship to the material was more ambiguous, and who had perhaps a stranger and more troubling and more provocative and perhaps more disturbing desire to use the materials in a more ambiguous way?
That might open up not only the question of the culture of fear that we live under now — that's been so richly demonstrated in recent months in ways I could not have anticipated at all while writing the book —
Jill: It's certainly very timely.
Powers: Oh my God! When you think, not just of the incredible NSA stuff that just keeps going day after day, and opening out onto wilder and wilder revelations, but of that incredible Harper's piece William Vollmann wrote about being suspected of being the Unabomber and the ricin letters going to Bloomberg and the White House — all this happened after I finished the draft of the book. And now I'm just going crazy wanting the book to come out as soon as possible so that it will coincide with these things. But I have to conclude that this is just where we live now, and these things are going to continue to be part of the fabric of our life. Also, I was delighted that after the book was in galleys, there was a story about a scientist who actually created the experiment that Els himself was after.
But to go back to what I was saying, by shifting the terms from a bio-artist who has a legitimate reason for working with these materials to an avant-garde composer who now has, at the end of his life, these severe doubts about whether he's gone down the wrong path, about troublesome art, subversive art, dangerous art, then I could combine the story of the fear of culture with the culture of fear, and make them closer than they might seem at first glance, and make this relationship between art and danger much more explicit, and play with that in a kind of variation across both of those frames.
Els was in his youth in the glory days of the '60s when people had this tremendous openness to music that was challenging everything that they thought music was. In his late years, there is a return of a kind of maudlin neoromanticism, with people saying, We made a terrible mistake; we alienated our audience, and there will never be a desire to hear the kind of music that we wanted to make back then, and we were just wrong. But to take that wrongness and combine it with one last hurrah that's saying to be alert — to be aware of the ways in which your culture wants a safety that's anathema to the true expansiveness that art offers — is an interesting move.
In a sense, I don't know finally what I feel about Els. Is he doing something heroic? Is he doing something completely off the deep end? I like telling stories that allow for a rich, incomplete, and ambiguous relationship to that final gesture.
Jill: In another piece of the Norton interview, you quote John Fowles from The Tree, "All novels are essentially about finding freedom." I wanted to point that out because I love him, and for whatever reason, I have an anecdotal sense that he is underread these days, so I'm glad that you brought him up. And Peter at the end definitely does seem to reach a kind of freedom. It seems like the novel is concerned with that idea of struggling with and then finding freedom.
Powers: I couldn't agree more about Fowles. It's always hard to know — we never have more than a kind of anecdotal sense of who our immediate acquaintances are reading. But that man did so, so much to expand the terrain and domain of the novel, and if he isn't as widely read now as he was back when I was forming my sense of taste, I guess he's one of many casualties as we move toward a literature that maybe doesn't require as much focused attention, or doesn't require us to work as hard at our stories.
But the freedom that troubles Els privately, in the domain of his own life, and the larger crisis of freedom that is troubling his time and place, his culture at the end of his story, I think is the same. The thing that we most want freedom from is fear. There's a point where, after he's gone back to see Maddy, his ex-wife, in his fugitive progress, and they have this moment where she realizes and he corroborates it, that it was basically fear that made them recoil and retract and protect themselves from the challenges of their shared life.
And, of course, it's fear that makes us reject art, both individually and in its grand project. In a sense, I think, there's a way in which Els comes to the realization that close listening, the embrace of things that seem dangerous and troubling and unlikeable, is a way past fear into freedom. You know, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago makes a T-shirt that says, "Fear no art." Of course they're right. If we can get to the point where even the scariest art is exciting to us, because it allows us to reflect on the safety that we've pulled like blankets and shawls around us, to reassure ourselves about the capacities of our lives, if we can let those go and use the danger and the strangeness and the provocation and the scariness of art to open us up again to experience and to make us hear things that we thought were ugly or noisy or strange or troubling, we don't lose what we loved already, we've expanded our love. We've found a kind of freedom to take all kinds of things on the spectrum that we initially were protecting ourselves from and to use them as love.
Jill: You mention close listening and focused attention. I found the study that you referenced about our loss of focus to be fascinating and disturbing.
Powers: There are moments when Els is reflecting on the real crisis in music right now, which is that it's superabundant. When all of us can listen to every piece of music that was ever written, at any time, from anywhere that we want, how can we hear anything?
What happens is we cease becoming adventurers and we cease becoming participants and subjects in this grand experiment of art, and we simply become consumers and really good commodity experts. When we have the entire gamut for our consumption, we just go to those things that we like the easiest. And that's the problem. It's hard to listen all the way through a three-minute song when we know that with the flick of a finger, we can pull up something that might be slightly better for our current mood.
That's the crisis. It's the opposite crisis of Messiaen, where they've got three battered instruments and they have to make something to fill the emptiness of their days — days when they can hear nothing. Now we can hear everything, but we can't make the time to be urgent about hearing anything.
I don't mean to be a Luddite; I think it's glorious. Believe me, especially writing a book like this, it was marvelous to be able to pull up any piece at all in 15 different recordings and do these minute, side-by-side comparisons of the ways that different performers are extracting nuance from the first movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.
We live like gods! But very forgetful gods. Very amnesiac and babyish gods. The question is how do we make ourselves alert again in the face of all this opulence and richness.
Jill: Speaking of gods, what were you interested in exploring by referencing the Orpheus myth?
Powers: Not only is it one of the oldest stories that we tell ourselves, that forms the foundation of Western thought, it is a musical theme that has been treated again and again forever. As you remember, Orpheus is said to be capable of creating music that would make stones weep, of finding this mysterious power in patterned sound that can animate the inanimate. So initially there's a kind of magical quality attributed to music, to produce life where there is no life.
For Els, I think his descent into the underworld and the attempt to resurrect a dead muse, the attempt to use whatever power music has to seduce even death and to retrieve from the land of the lost, becomes part of his story as well. The whole framing of the story... Els is a 71-year-old man who suddenly, for the first time in his life, has an audience. The desire on his part is to return, to go backwards, into the lost path, to try to retrieve his dead muse from this lost grave. The myth has many powers. This idea that somehow there can be an expression or pattern that can dig a tunnel between the remembering self and the experiencing self that can put the past back into the future, that can bring the dead back to life, that can make stones weep — this whole idea that music may be the only bridge we have that can create at least the semblance of immortality — is what interested me, in connecting his private story — Did I make a mistake in dedicating my life to this kind of music that nobody really wanted? — to this public story — Are we living in a culture now that's so terrified of everything that seems to threaten our sense of safety that we can't hear ourselves anymore?
Jill: One sentence of yours, out of many, that I liked: "Some part of him could not help believing that the key to re-enchantment still lay in walking backward into the future."
Powers: Yes. It's that "key to re-enchantment" that I think is a part of the Orpheus myth that drives the urgency of this story.
Jill: In Generosity, the character Russell Stone is teaching a creative nonfiction class, and they're arguing about whether there are a fixed number of stories in the world. You write, "It's two, Russell thinks, though no one bothers to ask him. It's the old, elemental two, the only two that anyone will read: the future arrives to smack around the past, or the past reaches out to strangle the future." If we're going by that model, which of those would you say applies to Orfeo?
Powers: The story exists in that battle between the two. And, in a sense, that same battle between music as a received thing and music as something that one pushes forward into places that it hasn't been, is at the heart of his division and urgency inside this story. To rephrase the Russell Stone dichotomy, are we crushed under legacy or are we always on the threshold of escaping to a new place? That gets recast in musical form in this book. Between the recovered simplicity of a kind of undying formality and romanticism and the impulses of the avant-garde for whom that past needs to be killed somehow, needs to be replaced.
Again, I'm not entirely sure... I have my feelings about the meaning that Els has arrived at at the end of this story. On that final day, when he goes to visit his daughter one last time, at which point the ultimate showdown will also occur, he hears a piece from Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs on the radio in his car, and Lieberson of course could be Els in a kind of parallel universe. As a young man, he was this great proponent of extremely difficult and thorny music, one who demanded from his students the most rigorous, formalist music, and a wholesale rejection of the prettiness of the past, and yet he somehow did a 180 in adulthood. He was reported to have said, "I want to apologize to my generation, for I have misled them." He had misled them into thinking that music needed to be this difficult and demanding and thorny thing. And we could write music as beautiful as Mahler, that we could go back to these gestures of neoromanticism and revive them. In fact, the heart only ever wants the food that it's always had, to be reminded again of what that is.
And Els has that moment, saying, Was I wrong? Would it have been okay to make a music that everyone already knows and recognizes as beautiful and loves already, before they even hear it? And then he says, Well, no, the point is — I made this choice. I elected for trying to find what wasn't yet. Trying to find that future, somehow trying to escape being broken by the past. And for better or worse, I have to go through with that. I have to follow that muse, and I have to try to say that this, too, is a human gesture. This hunger, too, is part of what we are and needs to be fed.
So in a sense you cannot say the human heart will ever be satisfied entirely with the beauty that it already knows, or beauty that hasn't yet come into existence, or a challenge to the beauty that it doesn't yet understand. It is infinitely hungry, and it's never going to be satisfied. It's always going to be stuck between these two incommensurable desires.
Jill: Something I was thinking about as I've been reading and rereading your novels is that you do a remarkable thing. Your characters are almost always engaged in a consuming obsession — whether it's music or genetics or computer code — that basically puts them into a state of peak experience, at least in parts of your novels. I think that, as a reader, you get a kind of contact high, as you're empathizing with these characters, and it occurred to me that you're spreading the excitement of being alive, of learning something, through your novels in the exact same way you describe the spreading of genes or music or ideas within your work. Not that all art isn't supposed to work like that, in a sense, but in your case it's so perfect a mirror of itself.
Powers: Oh, bless you for that. You make me want to try this again. [Laughter]
You know, it's funny because as I was describing Peter Els being caught between legacy and revolution — he is that kind of American transcendentalist. There is that eye in him. Wanting to take these dusty old tunes and turn them into mind-bending things. But, of course, in describing Els's battle between inheritance and transformation or revolution, I'm also describing my own ambivalent approach to literature. There's something in me that wants to align with the avant-garde, with this attempt to create a book that's too hard yet, so far. Or that doesn't look like something familiar and comforting and known. And yet there's something in me that wants to take all these long-lost loves from centuries ago, and do them again.
I've lived my life in this delicate, precarious juggling act between traditional fiction carried by plot and character and the kind of thornier fiction that demands more, that uses strangeness or uses formal experimentation or other unfamiliar gestures to try and create a different kind of consciousness, a more reflexively self-aware consciousness on the part of the reader. Orfeo is just another attempt to try to get them both into the same vessel. To tell what's essentially a very traditional bildungsroman, a künstlerroman — this artist who gets married and has a child and then destroys his domestic life, has this friendship that's really as much a battle as it is a love affair, searches for this thing in an obsessive way and can't quite find it. It's a traditional story!
But it's also this strange thing, where you have to stop and listen to the story of the creation of the 20th-century landmark pieces, and you have to hear these formal descriptions. Again, it's this hunger, this obsession. And if, as you say, I cannot only tell a story about that obsession but be that obsession — if, like music, the novel is not about things, but is things, then that feels like a step in the right direction to me. That feels like coming back a little bit from the underworld and saying, for a moment at least, we've defeated death, and we have something that has a life and a rhythm and an essence of its own.
Books mentioned in this post