Most novels have plots and characters, but Richard Powers’s novels also have subjects in the sense that college classes or articles in Scientific American have subjects. Among the cutting-edge topics he has addressed over his career are artificial intelligence in “Galatea 2.2”; virtual reality in “Plowing the Dark”; and neurology in “The Echo Maker,” which won the National Book Award. His new book, “Orfeo,” might seem at first like a departure: Its preoccupation is with music, as suggested by its title, which invokes the myth of Orpheus and specifically its operatic treatment in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.”
But for a 20th-century composer like Peter Els, the novel’s melancholic hero, the line between music and technology is a blurry one. Els, whose career is retold in flashbacks throughout Orfeo, falls in love with classical music as a child, his mind expanded by the counterpoint of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony: “Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens under the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hang in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.”
But once Els gets to college, in the 1960s, he enters a world of tinkerers and theorists — composers for whom technology is more important than melody and harmony. This is the world that the music critic Alex Ross conjured so deftly in his book “The Rest Is Noise,” and “Orfeo” often reads like a fictional fantasia on Ross’s themes. Els admires Harry Partch, the outsider musician who invented his own instruments, and Powers actually devises a meeting between Els and John Cage, whose experiments with chance and silence turned music into something more like philosophy.
The big question that dominates Els’s life, and the novel, is whether this kind of avant-garde music — so hermetic and unbeautiful, so unappealing to all but a few connoisseurs — is worth all the sacrifices that an artist’s career traditionally demands. After college and graduate school, Els continues to compose in private, but can’t make a living from his music. The resulting friction between him and his wife, Maddy, who wants him to take a secure teaching job, leads to the crisis of Els’s life: “The way he remembered it, everything happened in that shared glance. On the downbeat, he left a wife who’d given him a decade of unearned patience, abandoned a daughter who wanted only to make things with him, and stepped out into free fall. For nothing, for music, for a chance to make a little noise in this world. A noise that no one needed to hear.”
Certainly, when we first meet Els as the novel opens, it doesn’t seem that his gamble has paid off. In the present day, he is an old man living alone, with no companion except his dog, Fidelio, who is dying. He is no longer even composing music. Instead, he has turned to another kind of manipulation of signs: He has a small laboratory in his home, which he uses to create DNA sequences. “Billions of complex chemical factories in a thimble: the thought gave him the cold chill that music once did. The lab made him feel that he wasn’t yet dead, that it wasn’t too late to learn what life was really about.”
It is this hobby, not his music, that will end up getting him into trouble, and pushing an often static and discursive novel into action. When Els calls 911 for help with his dying dog, the police take note of his unusual gear, and soon he is receiving a visit from federal agents. One morning he comes home to find that his house has been raided, and instead of trying to explain matters, he takes flight, driving across the country on what becomes a pilgrimage to the people and places of his past. Not until the novel’s last pages do biology and music, past and present, come together in a clever, explosive resolution.
Powers is a novelist known for his ambition, and the measure of that ambition is the number of difficult problems he sets himself in “Orfeo.” Writing about music is always a tricky proposition: Words are unable to capture the concrete structure of a piece of music, and many purple passages of “Orfeo” read like fancy liner notes to various classical masterpieces. The dual structure of the novel, too, is problematic. The only thing linking Els the musician with Els the biologist seems to be Powers’s own intellectual curiosity about both fields. More than its plot or its subject, it is Powers’s earnest concern with what it means to be an artist and his interrogation of the price we pay for art, that sustains “Orfeo.”