Music for you eyes: Orfeo by Richard Powers, book review


Peter Els, an ageing music professor and never succesful composer, who had recently turned to bioengeneering as a hobby, is wrongly accused of being responsible for a bacterial outbreak in a nearby hospital.
Afraid, Peter flees across the country, revisiting his past at the light of what is becoming, inevitably, the end of his life, and mostly his relationship to music – compulsive, passionate – that has shaped everything else.

This is Richard Powers doing Richad Powers : briliant writing – though I must say the copy my mum gave me was in french, but the translation was masterfully done and the style had been brilliantly transposed – musical,  symphonic and not afraid of grandeur or hyperbolic moments. The story itself,  Els’ life, intricately weaved with and into music, allows Powers to vastly digress from the plot to spend a chapter talking about Messiaen “quartet at the end of time” while he was imprisoned in a German camp during the Second World War,  and the first concert he gave in front of his fellow prisoners and guards. And that’s just an example. Name any relatively famous modern composer and you’ll have an story about him or a discussion of his style in this book.

I took my time to read this, revisiting the pieces mentioned,  listening to them as I was reading,  and that turned out to be immensely enjoyable,  mostly for the more obscure modern composers I usually struggle with (I’m afraid my classical music tastes are rather…classical, and I quickly loose interest for anything after Shostakovich), that I rediscovered at the light of Powers’ interpretation of their music or knowing the circumstances of the composition better. And that was lovely, because I love music about as much as I love reading, so put the two together (and do it well), you got me.
But I didn’t care that much for the narrative skeleton behind. And some of the more lyrical passages I couldn’t help read with a sort of distanciation that always makes it sound cheesy or unnecessary. With all that, I would be very interested to hear if any one who doesn’t like classical modern music has read it and what are their thoughts about it, does it still holds some interest?

To me, it bears no threat to supplant “A dance to the music of time”, also by Powers, which is also about music and the 20th century, but it was an interesting musical read, if you are ever looking for one.


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