cello leaning on a chair in a field

Five stars for virtuosity in this novel about music and science—but mostly music.

In Orfeo, Richard Powers uses language to describe music with such dexterity, it is as if you are listening, not reading. This novel is beautiful, and it has an interesting plot as well. But mainly its uncanny beauty strikes me.

Also, its uncanny ability to describe undescribables. At one point in the novel, a modern classical composer is asked by his wife to compose something easy to listen to, as opposed to the atonal music he usually composes. Here’s how Powers portrays this request:

“Something singable, not art. No occult noises for gatherings of alienated prestige-mongers.”
—Richard Powers, Orfeo

So cutting, and so true. Why must there be a division between what is understandable by most people and what is art?

And the words Powers uses in this passage! Every word carries so much weight. Occult. As if modern classical music is beyond the rational realm. Noises. As if modern classical music is as pleasant as listening to a jackhammer. Gatherings. As if modern classical music is for a select group of cult followers. Alienated. But the cult followers don’t actually get along; they are only connected by their commitment to this weird séance. Prestige-mongers. And within this cult, there is a pecking order, complete with those at the top who think too highly of themselves.

This would all be comical if it were not actually true. There are cult-like hierarchies in the worlds of art, whether in music or visual art or poetry. And it’s true that the majority of people don’t understand the artworks that are considered to be the highest pinnacles of glory by those in the know.

I feel personally attached to all of this both because I was myself entrenched in the music world for many years as a young woman and struggled to understand and appreciate modern classical music; and because when I switched my art to writing, I felt a similar yanking as I tried to navigate creating a novel that was artistic, yet readable. To this day, I don’t know whether my unpublished novel The Water Creatures is a work of high art that should stand as is, or whether it needs to be rewritten so it can be appreciated and understood. Or whether it should be trashed altogether—though I suspect there’s something salvageable and don’t plan on hitting the delete key anytime soon.

Reading Orfeo brought back so many memories and conflicted feelings in me that at times I felt like I was drowning in the work—but isn’t that what you want from a novel? To become so immersed, to think of so many connections to your own life, to be awash in so much beauty, as to question who you even are, and what new thing you have become as a result of reading this one astounding book?

What type of music moves your soul?