How Classical Music Can Help You Hear the Open Road

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The writer, philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford on Sibelius, Bach and the playfulness of “car jazz.”

For a series of conversations about classical music with nonmusicians, I am swapping songs: exchanging pieces with my interlocutors to spark ideas about how their areas of expertise might relate to organized sound.

Matthew Crawford is a writer, philosopher and mechanic. His latest book, “Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road,” examines the social dimension of driving. For our chat, I chose the third movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Crawford selected a recording of the great guitarist Andrés Segovia playing the Allemande from Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor. These are edited excerpts from the interview.

I wanted to pick a piece of music that would relate to driving, to speed and skill. The Sibelius concerto has such a strong sense of motion with the ostinato, that repeated motif in the orchestra — almost like telephone poles against which you can measure the speed of the soloist.

It’s kind of an aural analogue to what they call optic flow. Like if you’re driving in a tunnel with lights — or, as you say, on a road with regularly spaced poles — you get this very palpable sense of the world coming at you in a flow. Psychologists tell us that the sensation of speed is enhanced by that optic flow, especially if it’s a closed-in feeling, where those features are really narrow. With this piece of music you replicate that.

The violin soloist does these loops against that recurrent pattern, sparking some of the joy that comes through in your writing about driving. It has to do with speed and skill and maybe also with how speed highlights skill. It just feels more risky. One misstep, and disaster.

I also thought the piece had quite a playful quality to it — like the best roads. I ended up with this very concrete visual imaging that accompanied the music. For me, the opening low strings and timpani conjured the thrum of tires on the road, which especially in an older car is this rhythmic background. And then you have that ascending violin line that kind of felt like speeding up. You feel something building.

The first time the solo violin comes in, it repeats the phrase note for note. And then it starts going up and there is that escalation.

And in the following 30 seconds or so, it has an undulating quality that reminded me of driving on a tight canyon road, which I do quite a bit; it’s one of the joys of living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It conjured this feeling of the car weighting and unweighting from one side to the other while undulating through these curves.

Sometimes the violin has very active moments followed by the briefest sense of being able to plane without having to add any acceleration, to just coast — and then it’s time to be active again.

There’s even the bits where the violin goes very high that reminded me of screeching tires. And the deep strings come back around the 1:30 mark and it sounds sort of menacing. I immediately thought of the cops!

To me the orchestra is the landscape and the violin is the protagonist. There is a self that is testing its powers against the environment, but is also beholden to it. At 3:18 there is this huge orchestral climax and the violin is out of the picture for a bit. It reminds me of the elation that comes from a changed perspective on the landscape; suddenly a vista opens.

What did you think of the Segovia?

I thought you’d choose something with a sense of motion. But this was more cerebral, the movement of the inner cogs of a mind. Which you write about in your chapter on folk engineering. Why did you pick it?

Building a motor is very much an artisanal activity. The stage I’m at now, it’s been years of preparation. A long immersion in these technical forums, and the feeling of having a mass of measurements and such to hold in your head. Anxiety about getting everything right, or screwing up, or failing to clean something meticulously. Then there comes a point where you just have to get into this Zen state and focus on what’s in front of you. And the stage I’m at is the final assembly. You have to have this calm. For me the Segovia is really functioning as mood music: methodical and yet loose and a little bit light.

There is something very humble about the range of the guitar; its sound is so intimate. Segovia’s performance feels almost improvised. He takes a ton of liberties with the tempo.

When my first child was an infant, I would put her to sleep at night with Segovia playing on a little CD player by her crib. Maybe because of that association it’s a soothing thing for me.

Another thing I wanted to talk about with you in a musical context was the social dimension of traffic. Of humans being agents of their own motion in a shared space where they have to collaborate and be aware of each other. You had initially mentioned the idea of picking something from jazz.

I am interested in the social intelligence that we draw on in sharing the road together. The need to cooperate, to bring a disposition of flexibility to the situation. Especially at a crowded intersection that is not controlled, or where there is a nominal gesture at control that is ignored. It is a highly improvisational way of being together.

The whole push for automation and driverless cars seems to be that human beings are terrible drivers. And to some respect that’s true: as a motorcyclist you can feel the lack of attentiveness of other drivers quite palpably. But at the same time I’m impressed by this kind of “car jazz.” London is impressive to me for its flow. It seems like people there are not quite as obsessed with rule following as here; there are a few liberties here, a bit of deference there.

And flow is this interesting thing. It’s an emergent property of the collective. I see that as a kind of demonstration of certain capacities that are also implicated in democratic citizenship. Extending to each other a presumption of competence. Tocqueville is good on this: how everyday practical activities where we have to cooperate serve as a nursery of the democratic personality.

In the orchestral world there are a few ensembles, like Orpheus, that specialize in playing without a conductor. And the players tell me that they play differently when they don’t have someone policing the flow. While jazz, obviously, has a more palpable sense of freedom and collaboration in real time.

On the one hand it’s more free, but in order to do that, you have to have such a complete immersion in the chart, in the rules, to be able to play with it.

It’s interesting: There is this image of the conductor as the authoritative figure, and as small-d democrats we are attracted to the idea of a more autonomous ensemble working things out for themselves. But on the other hand, maybe it requires greater internal discipline on the part of the players when they haven’t offloaded control of the whole to an external figure.

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