Even as a young boy, Richard Powers heard the call of music. He remembers eavesdropping on a party his parents were hosting in his childhood home. His mother was playing the organ, and his father, an amateur tenor, was leading their guests in song; when they couldn’t find a difficult chord, the pajama-clad Richard stepped out of the shadows and sang its notes with pristine clarity.
Powers has never strayed far from that sound. In 11 novels, the award-winning author, who trained as a physicist, has made music and science his constant sources of inspiration, the twin strands of thematic DNA in everything he writes. His new novel, “Orfeo” (Norton, $26.95, 379 pages), brings those strands together in a bracing fusion of music, bioengineering and government surveillance.It’s the story of Peter Els, a 70-year-old composer, adjunct professor, and do-it-yourself microbiologist. The book begins when Peter’s beloved dog, Fidelio, suffers a heart attack. Peter calls 911 — but the first responders are less interested in their lifesaving mission than in Peter’s home laboratory.
Homeland Security is alerted, and Peter, accused of bioterrorism, panics and flees. Dubbed the “Biohacker Bach,” the reclusive retiree instantly becomes America’s best-known composer and its most wanted fugitive.
In his office at Stanford University, where he is the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing, Powers said that the novel was a way to continue his work at the intersection of science and music — and “to explore the question of the danger of art.”
The germ of the book derived from a real-life incident. In 2004, Steve Kurtz, a conceptual artist based in New York, was arrested on suspicion of bioterrorism after authorities found “suspicious materials” in his home. Kurtz was eventually cleared of all charges, but Powers says the story intrigued him. “What made it so incredibly dramatic was that it was so obvious he was innocent,” he says. “He could instantly demonstrate that he had an exhibit coming up at a major museum weeks later. Peter’s situation is more ambiguous — he can’t point to his curriculum vitae and say, ‘This is what I do.’ ”
Around the same time, Powers was reading “The Rest Is Noise,” Alex Ross’ survey of 20th-century composers. He was struck, he says, by the “convergence of the Kurtz story with this patternmaking urge in musicians and molecular biologists alike.” Powers, who arrived at Stanford as a visiting professor in 2010 and became a full-time member of the faculty last year — he and his wife, Jane, live nearby — notes that Kurtz’s arrest came just three years after the attacks of 9/11.
“This book is set in 2010-11,” he says, “and I started to wonder: Am I writing yesterday’s story? Yet, as I submitted the last draft, all this stuff started happening. William Vollmann writes a Harper’s piece about being suspected of being the Unabomber. There’s Snowden, the prison disclosures. And I realized, no, I’m not exaggerating. We’re talking about a permanent culture of fear.”
“Orfeo” proceeds on two tracks as Peter, on the run, recalls his early life. As a young composer in the 1960s, he rejects neo-romantic music in favor of the avant-garde. He marries a singer. They have a daughter, but the marriage ends in divorce when Peter meets Richard Bonner, a director with whom he collaborates on a large-scale opera.
Eventually, Peter builds the lab in an attempt to create a new kind of music in genetic code. “It’s a way of listening to the world again, returning to a kind of childlike wonder at the discovery of sound itself,” Powers says.
As “Orfeo” charts the character’s path, Powers recounts the progress of modern music, from Mahler and Messiaen to John Cage and Harry Partch.
Powers, whose earlier works include “The Gold Bug Variations” (about Bach and genetics) and “The Echo Maker” (a National Book Award winner), has been steeped in music since his Illinois childhood (that scene from his parents’ party makes an appearance in the book). As a boy, he sang in choruses and studied cello and clarinet. He’s also collaborated with composers, contributing texts to song cycles, and admits to “a closet full” of original scores.
“Orfeo” is ultimately about the creative impulse, which Powers suggests will always be with us. “Each historical moment has its crisis,” he says. “Human hunger is complicated. But we will always want serious things. We have a need to be stretched and to listen to dark and not always easy things. At the same time, we need spontaneous joy — and a good beat.”