To celebrate the beginning of June, I am sitting here neglecting various compositional & engraverly duties, instead listening to Owen Pallett’s new album IN CONFLICT, which is, I think, exactly what the doctor ordered. For Me Right Now, it is the perfect mix of propulsion and energy, and also back-seat lamentation. “The Riverbed” has been stuck in my head for three days non-stop. Have y’all seen the video for it?
The whole album feels obsessive. Each song—every lyric, every harmony—seems intricately crafted, and in fact the entire album is preoccupied with only a handful of ideas. Snippets from the songs haunt each other, which is unsettling in the best possible way. The last track, a kind of outro, is the most deliciously electrified Philip Glass-Satyagraha moment I’ve ever heard (perhaps unintentionally, but one hopes not), fully laden with melancholy & sadness. Go ahead & buy it & make it your early-summer jam.
Simultaneously, I’ve finished this new fiction by Richard Powers, ORFEO. It’s sort of bizarre: the protagonist, a 70-year-old composer-turned-suspected bioterrorist, Peter Els, finds himself attempting kitchen genomics in a craze to create a new music. The book is divided between his current quagmire, fleeing from the government across the country in a Partchian fashion, and snapshots of his life, from birth through university years discovering an avant-garde voice, having a daughter, leaving Boston and family for New York’s nascent ‘downtown scene,’ creating a minor scandal with his historical opera. As mainstream fiction, the book is thought-provoking and engaging, if a bit excessively nostalgic at times. It’s a big book, littered with Els’s obsessive musical tics, constantly preoccupied with effervescent, fleeting melodies (so painstakingly described), and the music that inspires him, always cycling through his mind. When he turns to amateur bioengineering as 70 approaches, the patterns of DNA seem like music to him, beckoning to be tinkered with to engrave a new music, to make his mark on the world. And he certainly does, ending up being wanted for bioterrorism! It’s a crazy-town premise, but perhaps less than one might care to imagine, given the recent NSA fracas. The book almost seems to presage incursions being made into personal privacy, of the Facebook or Presidential kinds, which all clicks nicely into place mirroring Els’s tour-de-force opera that seems to portend the 1993 FBI raid of the Branch Davidian compound.
The thing that really threw me for a loop, though, was Powers’s in-depth descriptions of various pathbreaking pieces of music in the modern era: relating the Quartet for the End of Time to Els’s own search for timeless music in a particularly striking dozen pages; hearing Proverb over the speakers in his frenzied return to his old school’s coffee shop, economics students slowly slinking away (for what reason I’m not quite sure); Musicircus. The whole book, in fact, felt a bit like a big New Music Inside Joke. It’s a bit surreal to be preoccupied all day with technical musical terms and obscure (at least in the big picture) works, to then sit down and read about them in mass-market fiction! One wonders how much somebody without musical training would be able to glean from the book not knowing what a chromatic scale or spectralism are.
What goes completely unmentioned is the book’s namesake, which I’d imagine is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the first opera to remain in standard repertoire 400 years later. Els’s entire life seems to be marked with loss of some kind or another: from losing his first love to the siren-call of the +44, to leaving his wife and daughter (his only “decent composition”) for New York, to becoming disillusioned with the aforementioned historical opera. The man retires in suburban Pennsylvania, teaching people in a nursing home about the music he loves; surely everybody’s nightmare. And then, the government investigates HIM for seeming to have caused a bacterial outbreak around the country! Of course, Powers doesn’t take the obvious way out, tracking the plot along that of the Monteverdi. BUT, the poignant ending, which I won’t disclose, sees Els making a very Orfeian gesture in front of his utterly weirded-out daughter. This moment, which gave me chills, isn’t necessarily dependent on knowledge of L’Orfeo, but knowing how Orfeo ends up—ascending to heaven guided by a willing Apollo—gives the whole thing a tear-streaked luster. It’s a very clever resolution to an unbelievably well-researched book. I wonder how many years Richard Powers has spent attending Bang on a Can marathons. Somebody call him up.