(Richard Powers, 2014)


And in that moment, the idea came to him. It assembled itself in Els’s head as he stood and watched Fidelio baying: music for an autumn evening, a ring of thanksgiving, with no beginning or end. He’d signed on for the full ride long ago, and all that remained was to be true to the dreams of his youth and take them to their logical extreme. He could make his great song of the Earth at last – music for forever and for no one…

A few days earlier, on the radio, lying in bed before falling asleep, he’d heard soundtracks extracted from DNA – strange murmurings transposed from the notorious four-letter alphabet of nucleotides into the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. But the real art would be to reverse the process, to inscribe a piece for safekeeping into the genetic material of a bacterium. The precise sounds that he inscribed into the living cell were almost immaterial: birdsong, a threnody, the raw noise of this arboretum, music spun from the brain that those self-replicating patterns had led to, four billion years on. Here was the one durable medium, one that might give any piece a shot at surviving until alien archaeologists came by to determine what had happened to the wasted Earth.

Digitize a composition into a base-four strand, then put the tape inside the player. You’d have to allow for the slow drift of mutation that reworked every genome. But that endless change in the musical message would be more like a feature than a bug. As far as Els knew, the medium was virgin territory. Soon it, too, would be covered with graffiti. But he could get there early and play for one last moment in a newfound land. No storage medium longer-lasting than life.

He would spend his remaining days seeing what might be done in the form, and learning to hear a little of life’s great ground bass along the way. With a little time, patience, a web connection, the ability to follow instructions, and a credit card, he might send a tune abroad again, into the very distant future, unheard, unknown, everywhere: music for the end of time.

The ultimate storage medium, the makings of immortality: this is indeed how people have been talking about artificial DNA since at least 2003, when scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory successfully encoded the lyrics of “It’s a Small World” into the genome of such bacteria as E. coli and Deinococcus radiodurans. In Richard Powers’ 2014 novel Orfeo, the obscure composer Peter Els latches onto the idea for his own musical purposes. Having come of age at the height of musical modernism, Els has spent his life surrounded by people for whom beauty is passé – for whom art is supposed to be dangerous, a threat to the system, a means to wake people up from their complacency. Yet Els’ veneration for tradition survives, and however quaint it may seem, he remains committed to music’s potential for uplift, transcendence,  expressivity. To Els, DNA sequences seem divine compositions, and encoding music into them promises a perfect union of musical and scientific beauty. But when his biological equipment earns him a visit from the Joint Security Task Force, and the news media label him the “Biohacker Bach,” the idea becomes a perfect union of beauty and terror.
Powers’ novel is full of historical detail, from the concentration camp origins of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time to the post-9/11 world of threat Level Orange and music streaming services. Els’s daughter secures for him the same lawyer who represented that “microbiologist performance artist in Buffalo” – a reference to SUNY Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz whose path from artist to bioterrorism suspect provides a clear parallel to Els’ fictional one. In the end, the composer fails to release his musical codes into the bacterial wild but succeeds in capturing the nation’s imagination with the idea – an idea whose realization may be only a matter of time.
Text: Richard Powers, Orfeo (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014), 333.
Image: Scott Korb, “Anywhere, Nowhere, Elsewhere, Everywhere: Music Takes Us Beyond Time in Richard Powers’ Orfeo,” Slate (Jan 10, 2014), illustration by Matthew Roberts