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An amateur musician and composer, former physicist, and self-taught computer programmer, Powers has become known for his deftness at tracing out the The role of music in novel interrelationships between science, art, and politics with a lyrical virtuosity and breadth of intelligence that have elicited comparisons to writers from Melville to Whitman to David Foster Wallace.
After his makeshift home microbiology lab suddenly attracts the attention of homeland security, Peter Els is forced to flee, paying final visits to his loved ones and friends as he develops a plan to turn his run-in with the security state into his greatest work of art.
Incredibly kind and generous, Powers spoke with me via Skype about his new novel and how music factors into his vision.
Did you ever think of pursuing either as a career? Well, I always thought I was going to be a scientist. I studied a few different instruments growing up. I sang in several groups when I was very young. I studied cello as a boy prior to moving to Bangkok.
In Bangkok, the climate was pretty difficult on string instruments, so at that time I switched to reed instruments and I played clarinet and saxophone. When I returned to the States as a teenager, I took up the cello again and played that extensively through high school and college.
Music was a great love, and it accompanied me at every turn on that journey. I did briefly consider giving my life to it.
But then, words started calling. Did you know early on as a novelist that you would eventually like to have music play such a crucial role in your work? It played a role—a significant role, I think—both in structuring and also to a lesser extent in subject matter in my first two novels.
Was it daunting to start writing about music, trying to touch upon its effect on people through writing fiction? Music is supposed to be so primal and to go so much deeper and farther than words that any attempt to translate it into words can only reduce or diminish it.
You can listen to music for millions of different reasons, and if you consider the fundamental components of music—melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, form—there are styles of listening that emphasize each of those.
For many people the primacy of texture and timbre in music would make any attempt to incorporate it into a narrative, into a verbal construction, a little bit pointless. Other people who are attracted primarily by harmony and the progressions of harmony probably feel more affinity with the prosody of words and the meanings encapsulated in the syntax of sentences and the changing progressions of chunks of story.
That sense of a lingering unfolding of expectation, followed by surprise or satisfaction in moving away from or toward those expectations, is shared across those elements of music and prose. My love of harmonic expectation and progression in music is not unlike my love of cadence and register in prose.
I often read for language and for the unfolding trajectories of sentences and paragraphs.
And it never really felt profoundly odd to me—once I did commit in my third novel, The Gold Bug Variations, to writing about music—to explore the common features between prose and sound, pure musical sound. My other answer to that question has to do not just with taking music as an organizing principle or approach or set of concerns, but with using music itself as the primary subject matter of a novel.
I did that with the three novels that are called my music books. In those novels, I tried not just to put into words the effect of sound on makers and listeners but also to depict music as a cultural activity, as a social act, an historical act, a political act, and to use music not just as the window dressing, the color, of the story but for the story matter itself.
Those themes became increasingly important to me as I ventured into those musical novels. When music itself becomes the subject of a novel, then the characters begin to choose and fight over the stakes of what music means.
Instead of that, I wanted to say what was in that bubbling test tube and to promote the test tube itself and its contents into characters in the story, to give the test tube valences and to show how what the human characters do to each other is very much interconnected with their actual preoccupations in the scientific world.
And I would say the same for my interest in fictionalizing music. There are many, many novels that use music as an incidental stage setting for a story, but there are fewer novels that promote music and musical pieces to the role of character or actor inside the story, where the actual music being made and the issues, the alliances, and the stakes of making that particular kind of music become important to the story.
In a traditional novel—a well-behaved novel—once you start telling the story about your protagonists in the present, you might briefly stop the forward motion of that story to give a little bit of a backstory, and that incidental stage-setting might take a paragraph or two or even a couple of pages, which would be a long aside.
It only becomes clear at the conclusion of this many-page set piece how that experience—the historical origins of that piece and the stakes of that music, in its unique conjunction of aesthetics and politics—is of direct urgency to Peter Els and his understanding of his own life.
My desire in Orfeo was to recontextualize music in a variety of ways: I wanted to describe the way that music is made, fought over, listened to, neglected and revised, and to try to find as many different ways of bringing actual pieces of music into a fictional story.
It helped to have this bridge mapped out between the fictional world of characters and imagined narrative conflicts, on the one hand, and the factual world of twentieth-century avant-garde music as it has been contested in the real world, on the other. The desire to find a form that passes between the imaginative and the actual, between the aesthetic and the political, the invented and the historically documented and distributed—that desire drives me as a novelist.
Is that a kind of dream piece for Peter Els, one that visibly moves the audience yet manages to be politically subversive? The story of this piece is well known in musical circles and is incredibly resonant.
Shostakovich was writing to save his own life without losing his soul. He was trying to compose something that would seem to be a public retraction while still being personally defiant.THE ROLE OF MUSIC COMMUNICATION IN CINEMA Scott D.
Lipscomb & David E. Tolchinsky Northwestern University ABSTRACT [Authors’ note: This paper is an abbreviated version of a chapter included in a forthcoming book entitled Music Communication (D. Miell, R.
MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves, Eds.), to be published by. And I would say the same for my interest in fictionalizing music. There are many, many novels that use music as an incidental stage setting for a story, but there are fewer novels that promote music and musical pieces to the role of character or actor inside the story, where the actual music being made and the issues, the alliances, and the stakes of making that particular kind of music become important to .
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In , musician/composer and acupuncturist Fabien Maman conducted a revolutionary sound-cellular biology experiment showing the impacts of acoustic sound on human cells.
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broadcast. We discuss the fundamental question of ‘what’ music is and the role of music in human culture. We also explore the business of music, and how technology has impacted the production and consumption of music around the world.