Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

A Musical Unibomber?


Remember The Fugitive (the 1963-67 TV series and subsequent movie starring Harrison Ford) about Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely accused of murdering his wife?  Richard Powers’ mesmerizing new novel, Orfeo, shares a number of superficial similarities with Dr. Kimble’s story, based on an actual murder.  Peter Els, a seventy-year-old revered composer/academic, is accused of cooking up a dangerous pathogen in his kitchen that may be intended for some kind of terrorist act.  Just before men from the government can apprehend him, he takes flight, and his chase—with dozens of flashbacks to his earlier life—becomes the central narrative of this exquisite novel.  I say “exquisite” because although the chase is at the center of Powers’ story, Orfeo is more precisely about one man’s saga to create avant-garde musical compositions that will take music into directions it has never entered before.

Here’s the incredible opening of Powers’ novel.  When his fourteen-year-old dog, Fidelio, starts hemorrhaging, Els calls the county emergency services (911, presumably), but by the time they arrive, the dog is dead.  Still, the men from the rescue squad, tromp around Els’ kitchen, attempt to revive the animal, and eventually tell him that he needs to call Animal Control for disposal of the body.  After they leave, Els buries Fidelio (his “lab animal, his experiment in musical universals”) whom he had trained to recognize tonalities. Then a couple of days later, two men from the Joint Security Task Force visit him because the
Orfeo,_Richard_Powers,_covermen from the rescue squad told them about all of the lab materials in Els’ kitchen.  He’s questioned about “bacterial cultivation” and confesses that he’s been teaching himself cell biology. Their questioning response: “But you’re manipulating the DNA of a toxic organism?”

Els makes a number of errors in his cavalier response to their questions.  One of the officials points to a framed Arabic manuscript on the wall, “showing an old system of musical notation.”  That was after Els has glibly stated that studying genetics is easier than learning Arabic.  Then the men depart, taking some of Els’ equipment along with them, and they also tell him not to go anywhere.  Then, a day or two later, after he has been on campus where he’s taught for many years, and is returning home (but still a block or so away) he observes “Men in white helmets and hazmat suits,” carrying equipment out of his house.  Others in hazmat suits are digging up Fidelio.  He’s far enough away from his house that he isn’t noticed, so he eases his car in the opposite direction and flees. Orfeo may be about a musician’s lifelong career to break into new areas of musical composition, but it is just as much about the United States, post-9/11—the new world we have sanctioned, with the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, the increased surveillance of the individual as our freedoms and rights are taken over by the government.

As an undergraduate, Els was originally a chemistry major, until music took over his life and led to advanced degrees in musical composition.  If it’s difficult to be a successful writer in the United States, it’s much more difficult to become a composer.  For years, he says, there were “more people onstage than in  the audience,” at the performances of his compositions. Thus in his declining years, he decided to fuse the two main interests of his life, as he continues to search for inspiration in the entire world around him as he writes new compositions.

“Music is awareness flowing in through the ear.  And nothing is more terrifying than being aware.”  That he would eventually search for inspiration in chemistry, in DNA, and the fact that his experiments would be considered subversive to a hyperactive vigilant government attempting to prove to its citizens that terrorism can be prevented—both are inevitable.

As he will explain to a longtime friend whom he calls after he has begun his flight, “There were, in a single cell, astonishing synchronized sequences, plays of notes that made the Mass in B minor sound like a jump-rope jingle….”  I’ve “been trying to take a strand of DNA, five thousand base pairs long, ordered to spec from an online site, and splice it into a bacterial plasmid.”  Or, as he will subsequently tell his daughter, he’s been “biocomposing,”  “trying to put music files into living cells.”  He might eventually “send a tune abroad…into the very distant future, unheard, unknown, everywhere: music for the end of time.”

Orfeo is an elegant book, filled with vast swaths of music theory, the obsessional undertakings of a man who gave his heart and soul to pushing music into new dimensions.  As Els flees the men whom he realizes will put him in prison in order to use him as an example—as he realizes that everything is stacked against him—he also tries to repair some of the failed relationships he had with the people he once loved.  Visiting his long-time collaborator, his wife, and his daughter, his thoughts flow in and out of musical notation, transforming him into a modern-day Orpheus.

Orfeo is another major novel of the new year.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo.

Norton, 352 pp., $26.95.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email:


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation wasted $32.2 million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians