Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Powers pens a musical marvel

  • Print


Few writers of fiction dare to describe music: Straying from one artistic medium into another carries with it a whiff of transgression and puts a novel in danger of being dubbed "hybrid" -- not to mention the fact that long descriptions are supposed to be anathema to the modern reader.

In Orfeo, U.S. National Book Award winner Richard Powers' 11th novel, music plays as important a role in the plot as its protagonist, the aging avant-garde composer Peter Els, and long passages of musical description are catalysts for some of Orfeo's most profound ideas.

Powers is no ordinary novelist, and Orfeo is no ordinary novel. Like the haunting music it describes, it is stirring and odd, elegant and melancholy, the kind of book you can't shake even if you dislike it.

Seventy years old, Els is officially retired but still making a kind of music in a new medium altogether -- microbiology. He is only midway into a groundbreaking project in genetic manipulation, conducted in his do-it-yourself home laboratory, when the FBI catches wind of his experiment.

Els' strange story is inspired by that of Steve Kurtz, a real-life bio-artist arrested by the FBI in 2004 on charges of terrorism. Like in the Kurtz case, Orfeo's "Bioterrorist Bach" is guilty of working with potentially dangerous bacteria, but he is innocent of malicious intent.

As he repeatedly insists, his materials can be found via a few mouse clicks and purchased with a credit card. In a virus- and terror-phobic era, however, this isn't enough justification for the FBI, and Els is soon on the run, driving cross-country and visiting ghosts from his past as he tries to evade the dangers of the present.

Orfeo's structure is complex: the present teases out slowly (the entire novel covers just a few days in real-time), interspersed with long passages delving into Els' memories. As he has lived a musical life, many of his memories involve music -- either that Els himself has composed, or music he's loved.

Some of these descriptions are beautiful, exhibiting Powers' own tonal range. Sometimes, the pacing of Orfeo slows to a crawl, or shifts to the tempo of the music moving it, but this always feels deliberate.

In one key passage, Els does nothing but sit in a university café listening to Steve Reich's 14-minute musical interpretation of Wittgenstein's proverb, How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life. As he listens, Els hears his own life unfolding again in the chords -- a moment of uncertainty, a wavering between keys.

"Does that D want to return to B minor, as in the beginning? Will the road lead back to E-flat minor, or leap free into a wilder place? The path bends again; E-flat in the soprano, followed immediately by a half-step lower, and he's flooded with loss, the sound of something said that can never be taken back."

Orfeo mainly strikes minor keys, but its political overtones, familiar to Powers fans -- the policing of art, the intersections of power and technology -- largely take a back seat to looming themes of love, loss and regret and, most of all, the excruciating effort involved in creating a meaningful work of art.


Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:22 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

January 26, 2014 at 10:32 PM: Adds quotation marks.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets players discuss outcome of Game 3 and hopes for Game 4

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local/Standup- BABY BISON. Fort Whyte Centre's newest mother gently nudges her 50 pound, female bull calf awake. Calf born yesterday. 25 now in herd. Four more calfs are expected over the next four weeks. It is the bison's second calf. June 7, 2002.
  • Challenges of Life- Goose Goslings jump over railway tracks to catch up to their parents at the Canadian Pacific Railway terminalon Keewatin St in Winnipeg Thursday morning. The young goslings seem to normally hatch in the truck yard a few weeks before others in town- Standup photo- ( Day 4 of Bryksa’s 30 day goose project) - Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


What do you think of the government's announcement that there will be no balanced provincial budet until 2018?

View Results

Ads by Google