Richard Powers: A Musical Theory of Everything

Richard Powers is indulging us in a runaway riff on music, in a little room in the Boston Athenaeum, on the top of Beacon Hill, overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground, after a marvelous reading and talk out of his new novel, OrfeoPeter Els is Powers’ protagonist in the book, a 71-year-old chemistry professor and lifelong amateur composer whose only wish before he dies is “to break free of time and hear the future.”

He wants to map “a shortcut to the sublime,” something like the DNA of music, “something in music beyond taste, built into the evolved brain.” The main thread is the eternal mystery of the music behind the music. On the way to a blazing confrontation with Homeland Security, the novel is a retrospection on Peter Els’s life and loves, and also on the old center of gravity in Western music, tonality, in the disruptive 20th century. In the tradition of the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” I asked Richard Powers to hang our conversation on a few favorite pieces among the scores that figure crucially in Orfeo. They turned out to be Gustav Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder,” Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” 

Richard Powers is referred to as “the most ambitious novelist in America,” a writer of Melvillian scale in our midst.I couldn’t help telling him that for his mix of erudition, imagination and lyricism, I can’t think of anyone else like him. Richard Powers is a Midwesterner at the core, now living in California and teaching at Stanford. Under the spell of the Boston Athenaeum, the antique Brahmin library, he is jolted by flashbacks of his Boston period. Drawn by the mystique of Emerson and Thoreau, wanting to “walk those streets,” he arrived 30 years ago in his early 20s, a self-taught computer programmer living in the Fens and frequenting the Museum of Fine Arts where he was knocked asunder by August Sander’s stunning triple-portrait of three German farmers in 1914.

The photograph inspired Richard Powers’ first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, and changed his life. World War I changed the lives of those farmers, Powers continued, no more than digital tech and culture have changed all of our lives in three decades. With Robert Zucchi’s nudge, I’m tickled to add a bit of transcript, and that photo!

RP: It wasn’t all that long ago and yet it is very difficult to connect that world to this world. And the primary difference, of course, is the complete transformation of space and time at the hands of the digital. And we have so normalized that, it takes a deliberate effort to realize that my consciousness in 1985 is completely unreachable to me now because of everything I’ve internalized about what these incredible prosthetics have done to us, and can do for us. It’s a mixed legacy, of course. I now have access to all the music ever written, and I’ve got this in my pocket right now, and you can name whatever you’d like to hear and we could listen to it right now; and the downside of course is that we either won’t do that, or we will do so for two or three minutes before our attention is distracted and we begin to look for something else, or notification comes in telling us that something much more exciting is happening somewhere else. That’s an immense story, and I can’t do justice to it in a soundbite, but it’s important to remember that in a way comparable to any revolution in the human story or in human consciousness wrought be technology since the beginning (with the possible exception of, maybe, writing) I think we have lived through something that changed what it means to be human.

CL: And we wonder if E. M. Forster would say, ‘Only disconnect.’

RP: It’s funny ’cause Forster has that great story in the early 20th Century, around the time Mahler was writing the “Kindertotenlieder,” called “The Machine Stops.” Look it up. It has something to do with, you know, we’re all living in cubicles and we’re all being mediated. He’s got a vision of the online world already, and the guy wants to see his mother. He wants to meet the woman out of whose loins he sprang, and this is considered the most unnatural thing a person could want. I hope I’m paraphrasing it right, but just this idea that at this moment of modernism somebody is already seeing just where the ability to manipulate time and space and to mediate our experience through machines could possibly lead us: we would read the story and laugh, but in fact we have to some extent become that thing that Forster most feared.

Richard Powers with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athenaeum, January 22, 2014
August Sander's most reproduced photo, a John Berger favorite, "Young Farmers, 1914," in Westerwald.

August Sander‘s most reproduced photo, a John Berger favorite, “Young Farmers, 1914,” in Westerwald.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    This conversation is so richly discursive that I would favor a transcript over a podcast in any attempt to digest it all. No matter that it demands another listen from me…so has everything else I credit with enriching my mind. Thank you Christopher and Mr. Powers for the liberality of your interests and the deep personal culture you bring to your heuristics here: inciting the listener to reimagine the associations between music and its effects…on the body as sensations, as (sometimes unruly) emotions, and whether spiritually or temporally, as Sehnsucht, a complex form of yearning. The reminder, and explication, of the idea that music can be transgressive is illuminating. We who remember our elders’ hostility to rock ‘n roll recall their belief that rock was dangerous because it was subversive of institutionalized culture. They were right; and although rock is mostly not my music, I appreciate a lot of the social changes the anarchy in rock made possible.

  • chris

    Thank you, Robert Zucchi. So I’ve added some transcript and a knockout photograph.

  • Francisco Noya

    Dear Chris: Greetings from Providence, it is great to hear your voice on the airways again. And thanx for a fabulous and thought provoking conversation with Richard Powers, a lot to ponder here. Be in touch.

  • chris

    Thanks and a warm salute to the resident conductor of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Francisco Noya, a great musician and a spectacular gent. So glad you enjoyed Richard Powers, Francisco. I am playing Messiaen’s Quintet for the End of Time night and day since I met him, and feel myself getting to know a great spirit and a breakdown / breakthrough moment in all the history of music. What do you think? I so miss seeing you, and must get back to hear your band. No end of thanks for reaching out. CL

    • Francisco Noya

      Come back any time Chris. And enjoy “The End of Times” . . .

  • Very wonderful interview and I look forward to reading the book. I did an analysis of the first song of Kindertotenlieder when I was in grad school at New England Conservatory. My focus was on how Mahler used musical language and tone color to convey the poem’s paradoxical treatment of light – the poet’s pain at the light of the world after “a light went out in my tent [world].” The exposed dissonances created by the major 7th and ninth intervals between the oboe and flutes at the top of the score would not be tolerated in traditional harmony! But by creating these dissonances in the highest instrumental registers, Mahler is not allowing us to experience any harmonic relief in the light. I studied with Robert Cogan at the Conservatory whose work in music theory is revelatory on so many levels. Perhaps you would consider a show devoted to his work (Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music).

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