Music forecasts the past, recalls the future. Now and then the difference falls away, and in one simple gift of circling sound, the ear solves the scrambled cryptogram. One abiding rhythm, present and always, and you’re free. But a few measures more, and the cloak of time closes back around you. [loc. 421]
Peter Els is 70, with a lifetime of avant-garde composition behind him. Music has always been the most important thing in his life -- family, friends, lovers, collaborators not excepted -- but now the physical cruelties of old age are robbing him of his enjoyment. The death of his dog, Fidelio, triggers a comedy of errors: no, wait, what might have been a comedy of errors in less paranoid times. For Els has been creating music in his back room, using an instrument that nobody's explored before: DNA.
Most of Orfeo is told in flashback as Els flees the consequences of his compositions. As a child, Els is blown away by Mozart but doesn't 'get' rock'n'roll; as a (chemistry) student he's beguiled by a composition course; as a graduate, besotted with Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, he writes for and marries his muse -- then leaves her (and his daughter) to write controversial avant-garde operas with his hippie friend Richard Bonner. (It's unfortunate that their final collaboration, an opera based on the 1530 siege of Munster, echoes the contemporary siege of Waco: well, Els thinks it's appalling. Bonner thinks it's brilliant publicity. "Come See the News That the Past Already Knew".)
And in the end, with patches of silence growing in his brain and news agencies nicknaming him 'the Biohacker Bach', Els realises that he has unfinished business.
This is primarily a novel about art -- music -- and how it informs life. It's packed with aphorisms and observations, theories and examples. Reading it (which took me a long while: it's a very dense novel) reminded me of reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia: which I note that I have never actually finished. Els is fascinated by how music affects the human (and the canine) brain; by how musical tastes shift; how ageing affects musical appreciation; most of all, by how music can make sense of life. Does he unriddle it? I'm not sure. I think I will probably return to this book again -- perhaps with a playlist of all the music Powers mentions (even though much of it is waaaay too modern for me). Not because Orfeo is a 'good read': because it opens doors.
There was nothing more pressing to do all day, every day, except think about the question that his whole life had failed to answer: How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul? [loc. 4631]