Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: Orfeo by Richard Powers

I'm Hearing the light from the window... 
 I'm Seeing the sound of the sea...  ~Michael Nesmith "Rio"

I've never read a book so in tune with what a musician feels, what he or she sees, when playing symbols from a page, contrasting the diaphragm, sounding the notes which would set angels to attention.  I've never read a book that says what it means to love music, to be enthralled with every passage of sound in one's life.  And never have I read a book that contains in its pages its own soundtrack.  But it's here, and it's here.

I don't think I have to say that any musician will love this book, as the division between someone who simply listens to music while jogging or cruising down the block and the person who hears the music, the notes fill up every corner of the air around him, has never been so aptly described.  I have often said that Mozart or Beethoven would weep and render their clothes asunder if they knew that their most famous works are now used as cell phone tones, heard in grocery stores as an irritant, rather than praises to God, or messages to Life, Death, and Time itself.  I want to grab the earplugs of the people around me and yank them out, saying, "Listen!! The music is all around you." Would they miss the trumpets of Gabriel for the autotuned babble of One Direction?

But this book contains all this, and a story as well.  It is the story of Peter Els, a prodigy child musician (on the Clarinet, no less), and an outcast from the rest of the social order, as he spends his time listening to music and seeing inside of the notes what Kant would have called the Noumenal World.  He sees the notes as the pure Forms, outside the cave, that other people can but dance to, shake their hips and gyrate.  (No, I see nothing of this person in me at all..............) He sees in mathematics the numerical order of the musical world, and in Chemistry, the underlying tones of the Universe.

But, alas, he is torn to choose between chasing after standing on the mountaintops and gazing out at Paradise and real life, love of a woman, and the constant pressures to understand to his professors' ideas of music theory in the Twentieth Century.  The book transitions back and forth between his life story, his past, the events of the 1940's on (reaching the present), and the point where the story begins, where FBI agents raid his home after finding potentially deadly homegrown bacteria.

Els becomes, perhaps, a mirror of Willie Loman, as well as the defiant character found in Faustian legend.  All bound together in a work of literature that may not ever get the acclaim it deserves.

I say this because a reader who is not a musician probably will have little patience with the verbal description of long works of music composition.  The reader will tire of little plot in the present and too much back story.  A reader not familiar with Post-Modern literature will not understand that the journey throughout the book, in time and mind, is the story worth telling.

I've told my own story about singing, about belting notes in my car, where no one could hear, of singing Art Garfunkel's "Skywriter" in the grocery store parking lot, late at night (and this was before the days of iPods and mp3 players, where every bagger is totally deaf to anything going on around them because they're too busy listening to the rot in their brains.) I've told why, even though, to my parents, I had a great voice, but never used it.  And I feel a kinship with Peter Els.  The last thing he wanted to do was to actually publish a work, and he hated every time he did it.  To face the criticism of the expression of the Music of the Spheres as Peter heard them, I wouldn't want to publish them either, but rather hold them close to my chest and hear the notes late at night, rotating around my room, illuminated by the lamp post outside.

No comments:

Post a Comment