‘I think that there is a huge link between the scientific impulse and the musical view of the world,” the novelist Richard Powers said during a recent interview. He was speaking, chiefly, about the search for patterns, and the way that “meaning emerges out of the expectation that patterns produce and frustrate as well.” Powers’s own background includes experience as both a programmer and an accomplished amateur musician, and he has mined this overlapping seam over the course of his career: It lies at the heart of both “The Time of Our Singing” (2003) and “The Gold Bug Variations,” a finalist for the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Yet his most recent novel may be the most ambitious in following the convergence of these domains to a dangerous extreme. “Orfeo” (2014) centers on Peter Els, a composer-chemist who, having been ousted from his college position, decides at age 70 to become a DIY human biologist. The two strands of his life meet in an unsettlingly Faustian ambition — one that earns him police attention, as well as the nickname “Bioterrorist Bach.”
Els’s journey as a composer is told as a kind of bildungsroman that echoes the often strident ideological warfare that dominated new music in America in the decades after 1950. Interspersed are descriptions of seminal pieces in the fictional composer’s life. In a crucial scene, just before he flees from law enforcement, Els gives a lecture to a group of senior citizens on Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” and the dramatic story of its composition in a German prisoner of war camp. Powers’s 13 pages on the Quartet boast a level of eloquence and acuity rare even by the current high standards of English-language music writing.
“Orfeo” and this episode are the subject of a Saturday concert in the Electric Earth series in New Hampshire’s Monadnock region, which brings together Messiaen’s Quartet with a sextet composed for the occasion by Scott Lindroth, a colleague of Electric Earth artistic codirector Jonathan Bagg at Duke University. Powers, a longtime friend of series co-director Laura Gilbert, will read excerpts from the book.
While Powers’s initial inspiration came from the story of Steve Kurtz, a Buffalo performance artist who was arrested in 2004 for possessing biological specimens in his home, the intellectual heart of the book is an exploration of the way both science and art are compelled, by their very nature, to push beyond what exists, through to the unknown.
What Powers called “the trembling question of the 20th century” for music was: As tonality and myriad other governing norms became unmoored, “can it still be exciting, can it still be thrilling, can it still be transgressive, if you have broken so many rules that the public can’t follow you anymore?
“That tension, between pleasing and provoking, between looking forward and looking backward, between using the tool kit given to you and trying to find a way beyond — that tension is never resolved in art,” he went on. What’s extraordinary about the Messiaen is that “it’s absolutely unrelenting. It’s true avant-garde music. And yet, it’s entered the canon of musical works in the way that very few works from that period have. It’s found an audience despite the fact that its language is jagged, and it is dissonant, and it is inscrutable and esoteric in some ways. But it’s also found its lovers, even among people who otherwise wouldn’t challenge the avant-garde.”
For Lindroth, who recalled in an interview bringing “Orfeo” to Bagg and Gilbert’s attention, the task of placing his own new work — “Cadences,” for flute, clarinet, string trio, and piano — next to the Messiaen was on one level daunting, on another an opportunity to highlight some of the commonalities between his composing and Messiaen’s. One is a preference for what Lindroth called “these monolithic textures where entire ensembles are doing the same thing. He didn’t worry about writing music that always had many different layers or a contrapuntal aspect.” He also was drawn to Messiaen’s uniquely asymmetrical handling of rhythm, in which “it floats in and out of where you’re able to perceive a beat or a pulse. You lose your bearings and regain them later. You feel a sense of expectation and a narrative thread in the way that he shapes sentences, [which] I find very attractive.”
When I spoke with Powers by phone, the precise plan of the concert had yet to be finalized — an unsettling prospect, he admitted. Yet “anytime the musicians will let you in behind closed doors, let you see them woodshedding and working and making the choices, is thrilling. And to be part of that, to have some say in the way that the music and the words will go together, is both sobering and exhilarating.”
ELECTRIC EARTH CONCERTS: “Project Orfeo”
At Bass Hall, Peterborough, N.H., Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $25. www.electricearthconcerts.org
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.