To read Powers’ Orfeo is to take a journey of exquisite nuances, to travel the uncharted byways of music as it informs and defines a life, to understand the harmonic undercurrents that lift existence from the mundane to the ethereal, the resonance of a moment, the striking of a note that reverberates beyond the heard.
In this modern-day reenactment of the Orpheus myth, Peter Els is in the closing chapters of his life. Now in his seventh decade, living alone in a Pennsylvania college town with his aging dog, Els is still intent on recreating the intimate revelations that music has brought to his understanding of human existence, a quest for the perfect communion with the universe that music allows. In a pivotal moment on the cusp of manhood, Els is influenced by the genius of his first love, making a choice between music and chemistry, each equally appealing. Now, in these waning years, he has rediscovered his passion for science, seeking the language of music even in the secrets of a petri dish. His home is cluttered with the detritus of musical and chemical experimentation, a homemade laboratory for finding the answers that fascinate and elude him: “Music and chemistry were each other’s long lost twins.”
It is only through the inelegant death of his ancient and ailing pet that Peter comes into conflict with a world transformed by 9/11 and the echoes of terrorism that have stolen the innocence of the country. Retired from his college teaching position, Els has withdrawn. The struggles of career and marriage long behind, the man is most at home in the world of the mind when he is thrust into contemporary issues. Two policemen knock on the door, responding to a confusing 911 call. Made uneasy by the chaos they see and the makeshift lab just visible in another room, the officers make a phone call. A visit from Homeland Security follows, and with it the inflation of suspicion and worries over sleeper cells, of homegrown terrorist lurking in the midst of urban neighborhoods.
Unwittingly made suspect, Peter’s blunt answers and unusual manner of expressing himself create the misperception of a dangerous man. He’s now on the run with nothing but his car and a few hundred dollars between him and the law. Thus begins Els’ journey though modern paranoia and the absence of logic in the face of fear, a road that winds from childhood and the discovery of music as a transcendent language to first love, a heady career doing what he loves, marriage, the joy of a daughter and divorce. All is couched in music, a description of life unfolding through movements, the precise, often raucous notes of genius that make the physical world bearable.
Moments of revelation are highlighted by statements interspersed through chapters, thoughts that define, clarify, and surprise as one man’s thoughtful life and his extraordinary gift for hearing the infinite in the banal are put on trial, hounded from one touchstone to another. A life is relived on the run, but never without the music that inhabit Peter’s consciousness. Beyond the deafening cacophony of the world, Peter Els has created a niche where beauty and symmetry coexist, where communion with the universe is possible, where even fear must fall silent in the face of its own hubris.