Excerpt from Orfeo by Richard Powers, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 393 pages
    Sep 2014, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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There was method to Fidelio's crooning. If Els held a D, the dog went to E-flat or E. If Els moved to Fidelio's pitch, the dog slid a semi-tone up or down. If a human chorus held a chord, the dog sang a note that wasn't in it. Whatever pitches the pack served up, Fidelio found one that hadn't yet been taken.

In the creature's howling, Els heard the roots of music—the holy society of small discord.

The few solid studies Els could find on the musicality of dogs suggested they resolved only about a third of an octave. But Fidelio always came within a whole tone of any pitch Els sang. Research into the effects of musical genres on dogs claimed that heavy metal agitated while Vivaldi sedated them. No great shock: Els had once declared, in one of the few interviews he'd ever been asked to give, that The Four Seasons should come with the same warning label as any powerful tranquilizer. This was years before the birth of the calm-a-pet industry: Music Dogs Love, Vol. 1, Soothe Your Animal, Tunes to Play While You're Away.

At twenty-one, Els had worshipped at the shrine of Wagner. So he knew about Peps, Wagner's spaniel muse and the cowriter of Tannhäuser. Peps would lie at Wagner's feet under the piano while he worked. If a passage didn't please Peps, the dog leapt up on the desk and howled until Wagner abandoned the idea. There were years when Els could have used such a candid critic, and Fidelio might have obliged. But Els had stopped writing music by the time Fidelio came along.

Like Peps, Fidelio was good health to her owner. She reminded Els when to eat or walk. And she asked for nothing in return but to be part of the two-dog pack, loyal to her alpha and free to howl whenever the music played.

Els read about other musical dogs. There was the bulldog Dan, immortalized in the eleventh of Elgar's Enigma Variations, who growled at out-of-tune singers. The bull terrier Bud had performed a Stephen Foster medley in the White House for Eleanor and Franklin D., five years before Peter was born. Thirty years later, as Els wandered through a John Cage Happening in Urbana, Illinois, Lyndon Johnson and his mutt Yuki performed a duet on camera for a stupefied nation. In the three short decades from Bud to Yuki, biplanes had given way to moon rockets and Aldis lamps had become the ARPANET. Music had gone from Copland to Crumb, from "A Fine Romance" to "Heroin." But nothing at all had changed in the music of dogs.

Fidelio's appetite for singing never wavered. Not for her, the insatiable need for novelty. She never tired of warhorses, but neither did she recognize anything Els played her, however often she heard it. A permanent, moving dance, in an eternal Standing Now: that's how she took in every piece they listened to together, night after night, for years. Fidelio loved all the great landmarks of the twentieth century, but she perked up just as happily to the digital chimes of an ice-cream truck from blocks away on a summer's evening. Hers was a connoisseurship Els would have traded his for, in a heartbeat.

I had no idea what might happen. That's the trouble with making things. You never do.

Excerpted from Orfeo by Richard Powers. Copyright © 2014 by Richard Powers. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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