Music, Fiction, and the Value of Attention

This article by Nicholas Games originally appeared on The New Yorker on 1/27/15.

The protagonist of Richard Powers’s 2014 novel, “Orfeo,” is a composer named Peter Els who, late in life, begins to dabble in biotechnology. Els’s attempts to “compose” in DNA turn him into a suspected bioterrorist fleeing across the country; one of his furtive stops is Champaign, Illinois, where he attended graduate school. In a coffee shop that he remembers from his student days, Els recognizes Steve Reich’s 1995 “Proverb” coming from the speakers. In the bravura passage that follows, Powers describes the way that Els listens to the music:

Another modulation, and the ghosts disperse. He wants the piece to be over. Not because of the thrilling sameness: monotony could almost save him now. Because of the waves of connection lighting up long-dark regions in his head. He knows better, but can’t help it: these spinning, condensed ecstasies, this cascade of echoes, these abstract patterns without significance, this seamless breathing leaves him sure, one more time, of some lush design waiting for him.

In the long tradition of novels about music and musicians, this language is new. The listening being depicted is a cognitive event: it happens in the skull and leaps from synapse to synapse, as if it were registering on a brain scan. The imagery of the fMRI machine was, of course, unavailable to Marcel Proust or Thomas Mann, say, who thought of music more in cultural terms than in cognitive terms (though for Proust the subject was, like nearly everything else, intimately connected to memory). But this new language—the lighting up of regions in the head—resonates, because a kind of folk version of neuroscience has entered everyday speech. Nearly all of us now speak of “chemical imbalances,” hormone levels, and how this or that person is “wired.”


Read the full article on The New Yorker.