Saturday, 11 June 2016

Orfeo by Richard Powers

It took me a long time to understand this book. It's about music, but the main character is a composer who, as you learn more about his life, doesn't seem to like music very much. As one of a group of composers who don't like music very much. It baffled me and annoyed me, and I could not make it make sense.

Then I remembered.

Probably just under twenty years ago, I was in a third-year Theories of the Theatre class.  8:30 am, twice a week. It was, by far and large, a good class. But there was this one thing. We'd been talking about non-mimetic theatre, and I found it an intriguing idea, if one that I was a little baffled by. Trying to do theatre that in no way represented any aspects of the real world, most specifically anything human or animal?

Interesting. I'm willing to try it, see what it's like, even if I secretly suspect it's an effort doomed to failure. It's an interesting idea, one that can stretch your horizons as you try to imagine what non-human theatre pieces performed by humans could possibly look like. It'd be avant garde and inaccessible as hell, but there should be a space for pushing the boundaries. For every hundred pieces that are not much more than theatrical wanking, you might find one nugget of genuine gold. 

That being said, there was this one guy in that class. This one guy leaped on this the idea of non-mimetic theatre like a hungry tiger (Terrible analogy, as I immediately start referencing animals. Scarcely a non-mimetic simile in sight.) He became obsessed with the idea that not only was non-mimetic theatre an interesting or challenging idea, but that it should be THE. ONLY. THEATRE. EVER. BEING. PERFORMED.

If you were trying to do anything human, you were selling the fuck out. You weren't revolutionary, you weren't radical, you were...bourgeois. Or something. Trying to explore human emotion on stage was so utterly passe and ridiculous and emotionally and ethically bankrupt. (See, though, I thought of myself primarily as an actor, and I always had that little voice in my head telling me I liked being a human exploring humans.)

Remembering that guy, and that class and the way I'd sit there are feeling like maybe I was bourgeois, but I also wasn't fooling myself that there was one true way to do theatre, and it was to only pursue the least human aspects of it, remembering that made me understand this book.

Because the composers and directors in this book are like that guy. They're so intoxicated with the idea of doing something revolutionary that they spurn anything that isn't ideologically pure, and since ideological purity is probably unattainable, they settle for looking at music that anyone could possibly enjoy or relate to as utterly bankrupt, ignoring the revolutionary possibilities inherent in art.

That made this book fall into place. I didn't like the main character a whole lot more, but his life made more sense to me. The years he spent trying to find that music, only to hate everything he wrote if it appealed to someone else, or had an uncanny connection to to something in the real world, even while he loved making music with his young daughter at the piano more than anything, seeing it as something that he had to keep just for them. Sharing with the world would rob it of its purity.

Gods save me from people wanting purity above all. 

This composer looks back on his life while he's on the run from Homeland Security, having been caught at his fairly innocuous bioengineering hobby in his basement, and having it utterly misconstrued. We only find out gradually what he was doing with the bioengineering, but first we have to find out how he got to where he was, to the ways music shaped and warped his life, to the ways in which he wanted an eternal ideal more than he wanted imperfect life. (And the secret ways he liked imperfection.)

When it comes, the revelation is strong, particularly when it relates to his musical sense.

This is a difficult book, particularly when you don't have a heavy music theory background. I do not. But once it fell into place, it fell into place hard, and I ended up getting it in a way that up to that point, I'd thought impossible. 

Me, though, I'm good with small and personal and imperfect.


  1. I liked the non-mimetic theatre perspective you applied here. You always have such thought-provoking reviews, Megan. I agree that this one truly was a challenge, but I figure the stretch is good for us. -- Steve H.

    1. Thanks, Steve! I am glad I stuck with it, and that it all fell into place for me eventually.