One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible. Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else. Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside. Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible. Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.
Not so with music. Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box. You either take it as it is or ignore it. A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.
Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways. We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon. We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward. Less often, we are altered for life. We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.
Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:
Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.
Music has that power. (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.) Music can transform us in the listening. Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.
It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed. It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive. In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people. Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.
In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself. And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist. This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm. The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.
For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important. The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.
Powers knows music. Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect. Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession. This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.
Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.