It's not surprising that Duke University composition professor Scott Lindroth would rave about Orfeo by Richard Powers. The novel tells the story of Peter Els, a composer who comes of age during the experimental music scene of 1960s and 1970s. Powers's writing is rich and elegant, full of remarkable descriptions of pieces such as Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Els is a fascinating character, and the book embodies the music of the twentieth century in a way few others have managed.
Lindroth's raving about the book to musicians Jonathan Bagg and Laura Gilbert led Gilbert to reveal that she had grown up with Powers. That conversation from 2014 resulted in an unexpected collaboration, combining a performance of the Messiaen piece with Powers himself reading excerpts from Orfeo alongside a new work by Lindroth, Cadences, which was inspired by the book. Powers's mellifluous recitations weave the performance together, providing an engrossing counterpoint to the music.
The INDY caught up with Lindroth about Orfeo, the music of clouds, and embracing the past.
INDY: One of the astounding things about Orfeo is how Powers conveys the grain of the 1960s experimental music scene.
SCOTT LINDROTH: I just love the way he captures the thrill, excitement, and daringness of it, the idea of possibility. You weren't necessarily as concerned about outcomes as you were about exploration. Powers didn't make it seem like you had to jettison other things in order to do this, which is how it sometimes plays out in a more mainstream description. It was more about, "We want to be part of this." He writes about it so persuasively, even with a technical knowledge that gives it a depth and substance. Music isn't just an effect; it seems like it actually drives the story forward, which is remarkable. I can't think of another book that attempts that.
What do you find most interesting about the book?
His speculations about what a music of the future might be are really exciting, that it could somehow derive from natural and physical phenomena. There are beautiful passages about twigs skittering down a roof, water splashing, and clouds drifting. There's music embedded in there, and it's not just the sounds; it's the ways we represent those phenomena. There's gesture and nuance, rhythm and pattern in there that's not obvious but could be made into music. It suggests an agenda for creative exploration with unknown outcomes, just as the experimental music scene did in the 1960s where it was more about breaking out of societal norms and inventing a new world for ourselves.
How did you approach Cadences and responding to Orfeo?
I thought about trying to work with data-driven music, but I find that it's hard to bring a faithful representation of data into alignment with the narrative and emotional arc that I need in a piece of music. In some ways, the information carrier in Powers's book is the text itself, and I thought, is there a way that I can translate that into music in a concrete way? So I recorded myself reading passages from the book, transcribed them as speech rhythms, and manipulated them the way that any composer manipulates material: embellishment, permutation, et cetera. It gave me a very different palette of musical material than anything I've done in my past work.
The other thing I found really inspiring about the book is that the composer, Peter Els, never disavows any part of his creative life. He owns all of it. I really love that, that he thinks music is a site in which all of these things are available all the time. That was really liberating to me. It provoked me to engage with things I haven't done in a long time, as well as things that I've been doing more recently, and to try to put them all in the same piece.
I'm curious about that autobiographical element of the piece. How did you combine your older and newer approaches to composition?
Like many composers, my background is much more in more familiar kinds of music. I was really into jazz; the rich harmonies, the rhythmic interplay, and the improvisation really drove me. I didn't really learn about classical music until I got to music school. And even though I'm a generation down the road from Els, the excitement of exploring the new music was very much in the air. I threw myself into that world with ardor. In my twenties, I was into using number patterns, arbitrary strings of numbers, and other things that had nothing to do with music to write pieces as kind of a fun speculation. I wasn't worried about coherence or anything like that. It was a provocation: Can I find music in any of those hidden patterns? Some pieces worked, some didn't, but the exploration was really exciting.
As you get older, your interests change. I began reengaging with more familiar kinds of music, especially after I got to Duke. That has been part of my work for quite a while. At the same time, I still like to do those speculative experiments, but they were more frequently used in collaborations with media artists rather than in my concert music. This piece was a way to bring them all together, investing the same amount of energy in the speech rhythms as other more familiar things in music—harmony, tonality, et cetera—to try to make it seem like they're all cut from the same cloth. I feel like I broke new ground as a result. It winds up setting an agenda for what I'd love to keep on doing for pieces to come.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Novel Concept"