In his 2014 novel Orfeo, National Book Award–winning author Richard Powers explores musical creation within the framework of the natural world-- what we know of energy, matter, and time-- through the character of Peter Els, erstwhile questing composer and “Biohacker Bach.” Jonathan Bagg, Professor of the Practice and a member of the Ciompi Quartet at Duke, found inspiration in Powers' meditations on musical imagination and creation. "When I read Orfeo I was struck both by its penetrating descriptions of music I knew and loved, and by its portrayal of a composer's artistic journey," says Bagg. "There are wonderful passages about what music might aspire to in the hands of a composer of our time. This led me and Laura Gilbert, with whom I run the New Hampshire festival Electric Earth Concerts, to imagine a performance that would weave some of these compelling literary moments into a concert format."
The result is Project Orfeo, a multi-media concert that includes narrative reflection by Mr. Powers on Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time as well as Cadences, a new work by Duke faculty composer Scott Lindroth. The eight movements of Quartet for the End of Time are punctuated by a moving account of the work’s 1941 premiere drawn from the pages of the novel. "In Orfeo, Powers dramatizes the Quartet's origins in a German concentration camp, movement by movement," Bagg says. "To combine the experience of a master writer describing the event and a performance of the music itself creates something quite compelling for audiences. Scott Lindroth’s new piece is also paired with a passage from the novel that is a fantasia about the musical possibilities inherent in the natural world- precisely the kind of thing that Scott himself has begun to pursue in his writing."
"Powers offers tantalizing hints about a new kind of music that is based on quantitative data derived from biological and natural phenomena," Lindroth observes. "The protagonist, Els, attempts to encode music on the four bases of DNA in bacteria, but he also reflects on music derived from splashing water (not the sound of the splash, but the representations of the physical dynamics that characterize the splash), twigs skittering down shingles on a roof, or clouds drifting across the sky. Water and clouds have been the inspiration for many pieces of music, but Powers is suggesting that we can capture the multifaceted physics of those phenomena and represent them as musical sound. It may seem far-fetched," he adds, "but I find this very exciting."
"In Cadences, I decided to work with the text of Orfeo itself, which is the information-carrier of Powers ideas. His prose occupies a beautiful space between narrative and poetry, and I attempted to translate speech rhythms of the prose into musical phrases. Once I had created a number of rhythmic phrases based on the text, I subjected these to musical development: permutations and embellishments vary the rhythmic phrases just as they might vary melodic and rhythmic motives in a classical composition. Working this way pushed me into new territory creatively, but it also allowed me to find an overarching narrative that shapes the music." (Duke composer Scott Lindroth explains how he turned author Richard Powers' words into music-- Interview and Video)
To realize their vision, Bagg and Gilbert enlisted the musical forces of the Horszowski Trio and clarinetist Benjamin Fingland, as well as Richard Powers himself. "At our premiere performance in New Hampshire, the audience was quite moved by the intensity of hearing the author in their presence delivering his hand-picked passages, alternating with very powerful music that seemed a direct response to his words," Bagg said. "We look forward to bringing these talented artists together again for our performance at Duke on September 25. I’m excited to be able to perform Project Orfeo in the magnificent space of Baldwin Auditorium, where you can hear a pin drop. I imagine Richard Powers' spoken component will be even more riveting in this venue."
Project Orfeo is co-sponsored by Duke University's Department of Music and the Humanities Futures Initiative at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Development of the Orfeo Project was supported by Electric Earth Concerts in Peterborough, NH, Avaloch Farm Music Institute in Boscawen, NH, and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke University.
Project Orfeo: A concert of words and music inspired by Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo
Sunday, September 25
4 pm -- Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
$10 general admission; students & youth free
Related Event sponsored by the Forum for Scholars and Publics, Duke University
Words and Music: A Conversation about Project Orfeo
Friday, September 23
12 – 1 pm, Forum for Scholars and Publics (Old Chemistry, Room 116)
The public is invited to attend a casual discussion with novelist Richard Powers, violist Jonathan Bagg, and composer Scott Lindroth about collaborations between musicians and writers, and these artists' experience working together on Project Orfeo. Free and open to the public.