Friday, March 6, 2009

Road music

Come Sunday, we’ll begin buying an extra hour of afternoon daylight – yes, it’s daylight-saving time again – and in these parts the temperature is expected to hit 80. And in modern America, recession or no recession, that means a lot of us will have the uncontrollable urge to hit the road to some point beyond the usual commuting-and-shopping radius.

I’ll be day-tripping to Goochland County to hear Paul Jacobs’ organ recital – not exactly a trek to the wilderness – but I’ll surely be tempted to take some winding country roads on the return trip.

No member of my generation (I’m in the high-boomer cohort) can contemplate a drive of any distance without thinking about suitable music for the trip. As a high boomer-turned-highbrow, I'm conflicted: Part of me associates road-tripping with rock ’n’ roll and R&B – Chuck Berry, Stax-Volt and Motown through early Rolling Stones and The Band to the Grateful Dead and Ry Cooder – while my other self sifts through classical pieces that would be appropriate for country roads and rural vistas.

For some time now, it has been perfectly respectable, even borderline-obligatory, for classical-music writers to exhibit knowledgeable empathy for pop culture – to assess the relative merits of Beniamino Gigli and Roy Orbison as bel canto tenors, for instance – but I’ll spare you any such musings here. This isn’t about cross-cultural musicology; it’s about assembling a soundtrack for the road.

High-flying voices wouldn’t make my cut, anyway. They’re too distracting for a trip I’d like to return from in one piece. The same is true of a lot of other music. I don’t want to drive at speed on unfamiliar roads while listening to music that demands too much concentration. So I generally avoid solo voices, solo and chamber instrumental music and most concertos.

My favorite not excessively demanding classical road music is the baroque orchestral suite, something like Handel’s "Water Music" or one of the Bach suites for orchestra. (But not the "Brandenburg" concertos or Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons" – their solo and concertante parts are a bit too attention-getting for this purpose, I think.) A number of Telemann’s orchestral suites, such as "Hamburg Ebb and Flood" (the other great baroque "water" music) and several pieces from "Tafelmusik" (I especially favor the Overture in D major for trumpet, oboe and strings that opens Part II) are good for driving. So is the "Drottningholm Wedding Music" of Johann Helmich Roman.

One thing all these pieces have in common – and that separates them from the "Brandenburgs" and "Seasons" – is moderate tempos, even in faster sections. A lickety-split pace in any music is a temptation to reckless driving, and that temptation is compounded by the even speedier ornaments and grace notes of baroque music. The tempo giusto of the first air in Telemann’s Overture in D major strikes me as near-perfect cruising speed.

Classical-period serenades, divertimentos and cassations grew out of the baroque suite – all are essentially collections of airs and dances – and most of them make comparably middling demands on the listener’s concentration. Mozart’s big "Posthorn" Serenade (No. 9 in D major, K. 320) and smaller "Serenata notturna" (No. 6 in D major, K. 239), as well as the familiar "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" (Serenade No. 13 in G major, K. 525), are eminently road-worthy. Less so the "Gran Partita" (Serenade No. 10 in B flat major, K. 370a), which I find too content-rich for undistracted driving.

Romantic and modern examples of this genre worth considering include Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 in D major, Dvořák’s two serenades, one for strings, the other for winds, and the Serenade for strings of the Swedish composer Dag Wirén. (You might add the Tchaikovsky serenades; I dislike them.) Brahms’ Hungarian dances, Dvořák’s Slavonic dances and Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies fit our parameters, too – but, again, beware of especially speedy tempos, especially from Dvořák.

Many works from the British "pastoral" school – think Vaughan Williams, Delius, Butterworth, non-"Planets" Holst, Peter Warlock – make nice driving companions. So, for those so inclined, do a number of contemporary works associated (more or less) with the minimalist school; for driving purposes, I would recommend Michael Torke’s orchestral tone poems named for colors ("Green," "Orange," etc.) – although I find them better suited to interstate highways than country roads.

And, of course, there’s Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony (No. 6 in F major), a pretty obvious choice for a trip to the country, and a better bet for lowland driving than many "scenic" late-romantic orchestral works. I would save the likes of Mahler’s First and Richard Strauss’ "Alpine" symphonies for higher altitudes and longer drives.

Drive and listen safely.

POSTSCRIPT: A reader recalls a 2004 study by Canada's RAC Foundation, suggesting that loud music and fast tempos can impair driving: