Seventy year old avant garde composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police outside His DIY microbiology lab the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to extract music from rich patterns beyond the ear s ability to hear has come to the attention of Homeland Security Panicked by the raid on his house, Els flees and turns fugitive, waiting for the evidence to clear him and for the alarm surrounding his activities to blow over But alarm turns to national hysteria, as the government promises a panicked nation that the Bioterrorist Bach will be found and brought to trial As Els feels the noose around him tighten, he embarks on a cross country trip to visit, one last time, the people in his past who have most shaped his failed musical journey And through the help of these people his ex wife, his daughter, and his longtime artistic collaborator Els comes up with a plan to turn this disastrous collision with national security into one last, resonant, calamitous artwork that might reach an audience beyond his wildest dreams This was a reading experience unlike any other I can recall I felt like an anthropologist walking into a lost civilization or a birder spotting an extinct species Richard Powers novel is fresh, original, and a totally unexpected gift.It takes a prodigious talent to tackle an esoteric subject like music composition while still allowing the subject to be accessible to those not literate in its unique language This story was captivating, challenging, awe inspiring and tender I just found it am This was a reading experience unlike any other I can recall I felt like an anthropologist walking into a lost civilization or a birder spotting an extinct species Richard Powers novel is fresh, original, and a totally unexpected gift.It takes a prodigious talent to tackle an esoteric subject like music composition while still allowing the subject to be accessible to those not literate in its unique language This story was captivating, challenging, awe inspiring and tender I just found it amazing.One of the elements that engaged me so much was the protagonist s total dedication to his vocation It was stimulating and thought provoking to follow this character as he allowed his life to be totally subservient to his passion to create or, perhaps, release music Powers is an inventive writer and the language of his novel is beautiful, yet never overblown.It is wonderful to discover a contemporary writer with such an original mind I was very fortunate to be introduced to Powers through FirstReads Don t miss this book To Els, music and chemistry were each other s long lost twins mixtures and modulations, spectral harmonies and harmonic spectroscopy The structures of long polymers reminded him of intricate Webern variations The outlandish probability fields of atomic orbitals barbells, donuts, sphores felt like the units of an avant garde notation The formulas of physical chemistry struck him as intricate and divine compositions Peter Els was supposed to be a chemist who composed music as a hobby To Els, music and chemistry were each other s long lost twins mixtures and modulations, spectral harmonies and harmonic spectroscopy The structures of long polymers reminded him of intricate Webern variations The outlandish probability fields of atomic orbitals barbells, donuts, sphores felt like the units of an avant garde notation The formulas of physical chemistry struck him as intricate and divine compositions Peter Els was supposed to be a chemist who composed music as a hobby Instead, he became a composer who creates bacterial cultures in his spare time He was at university to be a chemist when he ran into a young lady named Clara She changed his mind about musicAt eighteen, hearing these songs while holding Clara s breasts was like graduating from the Crayola eight pack to the rainbow box of sixty four She was charming, inspiring, and full of advice laced with sex She was a heady cocktail, irresistible, and so self assured that to question her would be like questioning everything It was true love for him, after all, he changed the whole course of his life for her Unfortunately, Peter was just a pit stop for Clara, there are many, manymen out there that need her particular brand of persuasion She is a muse, but quite possibly an evil one or certainly an irresponsible one How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul We join Peter Els, in mandatory retirement from teaching music, working with his dog Fidelio, named for the opera by Beethoven I presume, on tonality It seems the dog has a genius for howling to music I can t imagine why one of his neighbors had not visited Els with a cudgel in hand He is also doing a lot of reading and ordering interesting things over the internetIt made no sense that a few staggered chords could make the brain love an unmet stranger or grieve for friends who hadn t died Nobody could say why Barber moved listeners and Babbitt didn t, or whether an infant might be raised to weep at Carter But all the experts agreed that waves of compressed air falling on the eardrum touched off chain reactions that flooded the body in signals and even changed the expression of genesSo maybe Els missed his calling, possibly changing the world through chemical research He certainly didn t make his mark as a composer He may have been brilliant, but not in a marketable wayPeople now made music from everything Fugues from fractals A prelude extracted from the digits of pi Sonatas written by the solar wind, by voting records, by the life and death of ice shelves as seen from space.Brain waves, skin conductivity, and heartbeats anything could generate surprise melodies String quartets were performing the sequences of amino acids in horse hemoglobin No listener would ever needthan a fraction of the music that had already been made, but something inside the cells needed to make a million timesThe time NOW was tailor made for a younger Els, but he is not willing to be shelved as yet, he is working on building a DNA strand that will allow him to code music into genes How do you learn to do something like that Easier than learning Arabic he insists The cops show up and confiscate the remains of his musical dog view spoiler Fidelio has a stroke probably induced by excessive howling hide spoiler , his chemistry set, and nearly everything else he owns They get everything, that is, except the Bioterrorist Bach Els finds himself on the run Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute in England have found a way to store all of Shakespeare s sonnets on synthetic DNA that takes up a speck sized space at the bottom of a test tubeNo one so much as glanced in his direction, let alone pegged him as the deranged Pennsylvania bioterrorist Bystander effect, Genovese syndrome He was safest now in crowds And crowds of the young, who tended to look away, embarrassed, from anyone careless enough to have let himself get oldEls has a lot to figure out while he is a fugitive Made for art, made for memory, made for poetry, made for oblivion He has people to find People to see, maybe one last time, who are scattered from the Dakotas to California He needs to talk to them, explain things before he disappears, possibly forever into the bowels of bureaucracy They will catch him of course, it is only a matter of time Richard Powers makes these wonderful connections all through this novel You are in the brilliant mind of Peter Els, but I couldn t help stepping back and marvelling at the brilliant mind of Richard Powers as well I was notating, sometimes several times on the same page, interesting sentences, conceptional thoughts, some beyond my brain power He also brought back an afternoon I spent with my son trying to expand his musical horizonsthe thing he knew, it was five a.m and the clock radio was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit , so soft and sad and slow and minor and faraway that the haunting tune might have been Faure s Elegy I was having limited success in convincing my son that great music existed before 2012 I was flipping through what I consider my hotlist, the playlist I put on when I m chewing up miles and miles of highway I was starting to despair that nothing was going to catch on with him when I put on Smells Like Teen Spirit A half a second before he was buried in his phone answering what I m sure was an inane text message from a friend when his head snapped over and his eyes found mine Who is this I don t know what those opening chords did inside his brain, but it was as if it opened up new vistas of not only music tolerance, but music enjoyment Richard Powers has a long neck, so he can see further than the rest of us.Richard Powers has a BA and an MA in literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign He originally had chose to pursue physics, but he discovered he loved to read That relationship with reading is the main reason why he decided not to pursue a PHD He observed that graduate students and professors had lost the ability to enjoy the pleasure of reading A sin if there ever was one He has been a finalist at all the major prizes and did win a National Book Award in 2006 What I enjoyed about this book is that he made me feel smarter, and I also loved the way he mixed, rather masterfully, the story of Peter s life with the complexities of music and science There will bePowers s books queuing up in my future reading If you wish to seeof my most recent book and movie reviews, visit also have a Facebook blogger page at Prefatory thoughts on the nature of geniusIn this era of grade inflation and trophies for showing up, let s assume that the genius label is still meant to be rare It refers, of course, to an exceptional intellectual capacity manifesting itself in extraordinary creative works or IQ scores in the extreme right tail of the distribution I ve now read two Richard Powers books and both have made me think early and often of his own rare brand of genius Part of the pleasure in reading him is his dept Prefatory thoughts on the nature of geniusIn this era of grade inflation and trophies for showing up, let s assume that the genius label is still meant to be rare It refers, of course, to an exceptional intellectual capacity manifesting itself in extraordinary creative works or IQ scores in the extreme right tail of the distribution I ve now read two Richard Powers books and both have made me think early and often of his own rare brand of genius Part of the pleasure in reading him is his depth of understanding in things like music, science, and the creative process Beyond that, his word choices and analogies are consistently brilliant The MacArthur Foundation identifies genius in a wide variety of fields Powers qualified in 1989 as a 32 year old His topics may not always be at the fore of the popular imagination, but this is not to say that he fetishizes the obscure Are your ears burning, Mr Pynchon Powers does not choose specialized subjects to disguise vague conclusions I think he simply focuses on new patterns and innovative relationships that are best expressed using less common elements e.g., avant garde music, molecular genetics.Certain geniuses can explicate only from within the eleventh dimension of string theory Others can, or at least try to, convey thoughts through clear, precise language Powers is the latter kind with an added ability to translate the former.Powers is the type who knows how to connect Any one of us could qualify as Salieri to his Mozart, which is no slam on us It s a recognizable genius one we can appreciate even if we can t produce it ourselves At the same time, I can t say for sure that there aren t layers of smarts outside my ability to perceive But I m fine with bones tossed outside my reach as long as I can stretch my rope just enough to snag a few Roughly 80% of the time, when a writer is described as cerebral , it s meant as a bad thing All head and no heart, by implication I like to think that with this book the word can apply without baggage I ll argue that human emotions do feature in this one, and work pretty darn well buttressing the brainy parts.The premise and basic plotPeter Els is a retired composer now in his seventies with time to experiment in his home lab on a project involving bacteria It s a quiet life until the day he calls 911 about his dying dog As a follow up to see if Els disposed of his dog properly, the two agents who visited started questioning him about the Petri dishes with mysterious cultures The explanations Els gave did not satisfy them The next day, while he was out, a task force in hazmat suits began removing his equipment He might have tried intervening at that point, to explain how he was using the four building blocks of DNA to encode a musical sequence, but he felt the need to clear his head before making his case The longer he delayed, theHomeland Security paranoia accrued Soon he was portrayed as a bio terrorist At that point, he ran The book was structured as a bi linear narrative While elderly Peter was on the lam, young Peter s back story unfolded, starting with an all encompassing love of music as a child In high school he met a girl with musical appetites matching his own and followed her to Indiana where she studied cello As she introduced him to Mahler and second base, it was like graduating from the Crayola eight pack to the rainbow box of sixty four She convinced him to change his major from chemistry to music composition where harmony pushed outward in everdaring border raids on the forbidden After his girlfriend left him, he went to grad school in Illinois where he met his wife to be a singer and his bigger than life friend and collaborator, Richard a manic impresario To his credit, Els knew that his greatest composition was his daughter with whom he spent many creative hours while his wife supported them However, once Richard re entered the picture with a big project in NY, Els could focus on nothing else, and he lost his happy home life The rest of that earlier thread was spent catching up to the first one, with interesting musical interludes and personal connections along the way.Therein lies the nubEls, and to an extent Powers himself, wanted awe surprise suspense Refreshment, a sense of the infinite And change eternal mutation Then, finally, coming clean Beauty That sense of the infinite was something that resonated Composition was turned into a giant search across near endless possibilities I haven t done the math to confirm this quote, but it s plausible Even a three minute piece could run topermutations than there were atoms in the universe And you got three score years and ten, to find one that was sublime Then, in one of the many inserted text boxes curiously enough, capped at 140 characters , Els asks Does it hurt to know that any piece of music, however sublime, can be turned into a unique large number I may be quote happy in this review, but when it comes to Powers, I can t help it The job of taste was to thin the insane torrent of human creativity down to manageable levels But the job of appetite was never to be happy with taste Els was conflicted with hisremote niche in the music world What s the fear, Peter Failure Success The wisdom of crowds Knowledge of what his notes must sound like, to everyone who isn t him Els wanted to stay true to his outr artistic vision, but also recognized the trade off between that and connecting with a large audience At one point, his wife pegged him as a closet extrovert You want to live in a hermitage in Times Square, with a big sign pointing to you reading, hermit Relationships and metaphors, most with at least half a heartIt became pretty clear that Powers was getting at all kinds of ties those between music, the brain, the body at its most visceral, scientific inquiry, literary fiction, and his own approach to writing I wouldn t try your patience with words of my own, but don t mind lengthening this withof his These were responses to interview questions It s that tension between the music of pattern, the music of the cognitive brain and the music of body, the music of pure spirit that infects his life at every turn Music is both those things And human beings are both thinking creatures and feeling creatures And the art that hits on all cylinders, the art that moves us intellectually and bodily and spiritually, is what we re after But to capture all those things in the same vessel is a very, very difficult task And this, when an interviewer asked about ways in which science and fiction are analogous A good novel and a well designed experiment are both speculations into meaningful pattern Consensual wisdom has it that science is about rigorous patterns out there and art about soft patterns in here But I am increasingly convinced that those two vectors are hopelessly entangled with each other Meaning in both science and art depends on a whole lot of active processes trying to unite the beautiful to the true And both science and art make their way by lots of good faith blundering toward the significant I must try to show that there is in fact a solid middle ground to stand on, a shared common earth beneath the feet of all the humanists and all the scientists There is, I think, such a shared view of the world It is called bewilderment That whole head over heart thing some have said Powers brings about is, to me, refuted in this work I did care about Peter and those he was close to, and not just as abstractions Stories effecting empathy are some of the best metaphors around, don t you think Music Appreciation 401This is not an intro course It supper level That said, even without much of a background in music history or theory, I was completely drawn in.Snippets covered the beauty of sounds in nature especially bird songs , the rich overtones within a single note played on a piano, and the risky circumstances surrounding Shostakovich s Fifth Symphony in Stalinist Russia There was also a longer, dramatic description of Messiaen s Quartet for the End of Time first performed in a Nazi prisoner of war camp The next and penultimate quote, I swear, highlights both great advice Els gave to a student, as well as inspiring words that Powers might have applied to any number of artistic endeavors, including his own writing Let no one persuade you of a single thing Study your hunger and how to feed it Trust in whatever sounds twist your viscera Write in the cadences of first love, of second chances, of air raids, of outrage, of the hideous and the hilarious, of headlong acceptance or curt refusal Make the bitter music of bumdom, the sad shanties of landlessness, cool at the equator and fluid at the pole Set the sounds that angels make after an all night orgy Whatever lengthens the day, whatever gets you through the night Make the music that you need, for need will be over, soon enough Let your progressions predict time s end and recollect the dead as if they re all still here Because they are One last quote that I m not even sure I understand, but seems appropriate classical music s real crime was not its cozy relations with fascism but its ancient dream of control, of hot wiring the soul He pictured Faust looking at his own neurons on a monitor his bottomless hunger laid bare, his desire for mastery swirling through his brain like cigarette smoke curling in the air As full knowledge filled the seeker at last, Mephistopheles, at his elbow, would sing, Now we re both paid in full Powers and prosodyI promised noquotes But with all the ones above, you can decide for yourselves whether this guy can write He mentioned to an interviewer that at certain stages of certain books, he dictates his words into a machine Sound is important to him, the rhythm and the lilt This was especially true in the parts where he described musical works Even before I d read this, I felt like the artistry of his prose was another part of his genius The fact that I was reminded of this nearly every page speaks volumes that turned out to be aliteral statement than I intended sorry.The ending may not satisfy fans of resolution, but the well chosen words packed an emotional wallop for me I read it five times to get every crumb of meaning that Powers seemed willing to give Closing the saleThis was a nominee for both a National Book Award and a Booker Prize But I won t say it s for everyone If the needle on your like meter didn t move for any of what I ve described, give it a pass At the same time, don t necessarily be scared off by topics that look implausible, dense or remote And know, too, that any challenges the man called cerebral presents are not meant to be nebulous.As geniuses go, Powers is a generous one Chances are you ll feel smarter by association, not dumber by contradistinction After failing to get past the 50 page mark a few years ago, thought I would give this challenging and head scratching novel another go Was it music to my ears , not quite, a shame it wasn t accompanied by Orfeo The Soundtrack Don t think I will come across anything like this again, it s certainly original, as it s composition is made up of sounds, symphonies and germs.Richard Powers writes of a character you can t help root for, that being the Bioterrorist Bach Peter Els, a seventy year old After failing to get past the 50 page mark a few years ago, thought I would give this challenging and head scratching novel another go Was it music to my ears , not quite, a shame it wasn t accompanied by Orfeo The Soundtrack Don t think I will come across anything like this again, it s certainly original, as it s composition is made up of sounds, symphonies and germs.Richard Powers writes of a character you can t help root for, that being the Bioterrorist Bach Peter Els, a seventy year old Avant Garde composer, who courses a stir for homeland security They are spooked by the ominous looking lab equipment he has accumulated for his hobby, the exploration of microbiological engineering, or to put it in simply terms, messing with DNA in the hope that music spreads unpredictably like a virus from human to human, expressed by a structure that moves elegantly across time, transported by a series of echoing motifs Els s has a narcissistic Postmodern desire to make new from old, and his Romantic sensibility that soars besides images of birds, flight and song.He flees his home and takes to the road after his equipment is seized, and a story arises that his playing around with nature had lead to people being infected by a bacterial killer bug Here the novel takes a poignant look back over the life of Peter Els, a life fuelled by one big passion, classical music It s evocatively written, as Els s struggle to resolve inner and outer contraries on art, life, tradition and originality, past and present His road trip is like a trip down memory lane and a getaway doubling as a last gasp pilgrimage to his ex wife, Maddy, his fractious brother in provocation, Richard Bonner, and, finally, his beloved, but betrayed daughter, Sara Loved ones, who seem to have played second fiddle to his music The book is awash with incident, both then and now, and there are sections of pages at a time when the prose seems to lift up and carry the reader as an orchestra might, the words working in perfect consort But here lies my biggest problem, there are glorious, mend bending, descriptive passages on music that tease and temp, you will want to stop, head to the record player and stick on a soothing, minimalistic piece by one of a number of classical geniuses My vinyl collection is about 95% Jazz Damn.There was much to be impressed with, some wonderful and exuberant writing which was moving in places, but frustrating in others, to my Great annoyance Because it s a book I so wanted to fall in love with Like when my ears were first blessed with the sounds of Claude Debussy.But ultimately, for me at least, the novel was too clever for it s own good, like it was written solely for a Peter Els type of person It s not a casual read, and requires total commitment all the way To the virtuoso reader it probably ticks most boxes If only the maestro had emitted organic soundscapes every time I turned a page