A Strange Composition: Classical Music Meets Bioterror In 'Orfeo' Richard Powers' new novel tells the story of an avant-garde classical composer who finds himself dabbling in DNA. He "gets obsessed with finding music inside of living things," Powers explains, and, as a fugitive, ends up leading officials on a low-speed chase.
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A Strange Composition: Classical Music Meets Bioterror In 'Orfeo'

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A Strange Composition: Classical Music Meets Bioterror In 'Orfeo'


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Richard Powers has been challenging readers for 30 years. Over the decades, his novels have regularly featured science and technology. In his latest novel, he revisits the ties between science and music.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) How small a thought it takes...

CORNISH: This minimalist piece by Steve Reich is one of dozens of compositions featured in Powers' new novel, "Orfeo."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) How small a thought...

CORNISH: Powers says this book is an attempt to recreate the musical state of mind. Sounds like heady stuff but don't be dissuaded. "Orfeo" is the story of Peter Els, a 70-year-old avant-garde classical music composer who finds himself dabbling in DNA and accused of bioterror.

RICHARD POWERS: Els starts college as a young man studying chemistry, and he's very gifted as a scientist and he's fascinated with this search for the patterns of the biological world. And he moves from this pursuit into - quite easily into musical composition and that same desire to find meaning in pattern. At the end of his life, Els finds himself drifting back to this road not taken and gets obsessed with finding music inside of living things. And his last transgressive artistic gesture is to try to encode a musical strain and insert it directly into a living organism, a bacterium.

CORNISH: Something that will live forever, in a way, or that will have some kind of legacy.

POWERS: Well, but also something that may or may not propagate all around people but that they're unable to hear.

CORNISH: We're talking very seriously. But in a way, the book is sort of funny in that, you know, he's a fugitive but he's a pretty slow moving one. I mean, this is not...


CORNISH: ...like, you know, a thriller where there's like car crashes, I mean...

POWERS: (Unintelligible) no high speed chases. That's right.

CORNISH: He's got a cellphone and is just kind of clever and moves bit by bit, visiting people that - from his life that he wants to reconcile with. And it's like a low speed chase with Homeland Security.

POWERS: Heading west, that's right. But it does become meditation on the security state, in a way. His house is raided and he does go on the run but he has enough of a jump that he isn't immediately under threat of being apprehended. But he becomes instantly aware of how his every move is leaving a data trail behind. He can't run his credit card through a gas pump. He can't make a phone call or check out a library book.

And, you know, while I was working on the book, I was a little bit afraid that I might have been overstating this kind of paranoia.

CORNISH: Right. Well, your own Google search history probably would've been a red flag, right?


POWERS: Well, precisely. Precisely. But what was really kind of astonishing to me was that when the book went into final production, the Snowden disclosures about NSA and PRISM broke. And suddenly, I thought, well, I wouldn't mind going back into the story and juking up that part of the novel a little bit because...

CORNISH: Throwing in the NSA instead of just Homeland Security.


POWERS: Everything that I described now seemed like understatement. I mean, this notion that ordinary citizens are subject to widespread surveillance is now something that we're learning all about, every day.

CORNISH: There is some eloquent descriptions of the music. The character, Peter Els, he's a committed listener. And you have a lot of passages in which he's just maybe in a coffee shop or out listening to birds. And it struck me that this is a very difficult thing to write, right? Like kind of explaining listening.

POWERS: Well, my challenge as a writer was how to create descriptions not just of canonical 20th century pieces but to create vivid descriptions of fictional pieces that did not exist and yet, describe them in a way that was vivid and compelling and recreated the internal drama of the composer as he was at work on them. So it's almost as if I had in my own head to write the music first, and then produce a kind of prose that recaptured the music and the rhythm and the challenge and the transgression of these pieces.

CORNISH: I don't know if you have a musical background but did you end up really doing that? Did you write any music, or what did you listen to as you were writing?

POWERS: Well, the great beauty of being a novelist is that you can spend three or four or five years vicariously pursuing those imaginary Walter Mitty-like lives that you never got to pursue in the real world. And I do have a stack of youthful compositions sitting on the bottom of my closet, so it was a great pleasure to spend these years working on this book, not just rediscovering the 20th century and this avant-garde tradition but also to imagine myself into the life of somebody who sees and hears and feels the world through sound.

CORNISH: Do you identify with this character? Because, you know, people have criticized your books as being cerebral and difficult. And it seems as though you might be in a similar position in terms of asking people to kind of stay with it.

POWERS: Well, his struggle, that is the struggle to find something that can expand or extend what we already know how to hear - and yet, still be somehow seductive or familiar enough to be accessible - is also not only my struggle but anyone who is interested in creating literary fiction. But we have it pretty good compared to composers. I mean, the person who has committed to written out music has watched an art over a hundred years go from being extremely provocative and dangerous and threatening to the status quo to, at the beginning of the 20th century, troubling almost no one.

But this balancing act between wanting to make it new and wanting to make it loved and beautiful is familiar to me. It is something that I've been wrestling with over the course of 11 novels and close to 30 years now. You write the kind of book that you wish you could find on the shelves somewhere. And you wait for someone who has the time and the focus and the desire to go deeper and to read a new story.

CORNISH: Who is your ideal reader?

POWERS: Someone who loves to look for connections, who sees that the kind of hunger that might drive a young artist is the same kind of hunger that might drive an aging scientist. I like a reader who knows that the human story goes beyond the individual self. And even as we are struggling with questions of love and devotion, family, obligation, loyalty, we are also trying to understand the human story, trying to link the little into the big, the private life into these large stories of politics and history and art that go so beyond the short span that we have here.

CORNISH: Richard Powers, thank you so much for speaking with us.

POWERS: Well, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Richard Powers, his new novel is called "Orfeo."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) It takes to fill a whole life. How small a thought it takes.

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