A little dinner music

ONE of my household duties is the choosing of suitable music to accompany our meals, and although I now consider myself a proficient selector, I did not arrive at this state without a good deal of trial and error and indigestion. When we first purchased a stereo system, we set the two speakers parallel to the dining table, realizing that, although we are avid music lovers, mealtimes would likely be our only opportune listening moments.

At first I was enthralled with the system's fidelity, and I recall a Sunday meal being taken amid the noise of my sound effects ``demo'' record. I remarked excitedly at how realistic it sounded when the locomotive seemed to be traveling from left to right speaker, never realizing that the train had to drive over my wife's mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts to get there. This was perhaps the low point in my experience as mealtime program director. My choice lacked subtlety and nuance.

When it was suggested (in a rather loud voice) that I play music records, I turned to one of my favorite composers, Beethoven. He is, of course, a powerhouse, and the vigor of his fast movements invariably inspired me to wave my fork around in conductor fashion (music conductor, not train), to the consternation of my dinner companion, who had read, and seemingly memorized, Emily Post's etiquette books.

Beethoven's slow movements had a different effect. They seemed to speak of courage in the face of enormous suffering. But they made us feel so dolorous that all dinner conversation would trail off into a whisper after only a sentence of two, unless we happened to latch on to a topic that suited the spirit of the music -- suitable topics being the sinking of the Titanic and the Hindenburg disaster.

After some experimenting, I concluded that the music of the Romantic era, from Beethoven through Tchaikovsky, was too passionate to eat with, too much grand emotion. We needed to be able to consume a fish stick without being whipped into a frenzy or moved to tears. We needed something even-tempered. Perhaps Baroque.

Unfortunately, the only Baroque-era composition on hand was Handel's ``Messiah.'' We annually attend sing-along performances of this work and found we could not play it during dinner without both of us vocalizing between bites. It was great fun, but if talking with your mouth full is verboten, then singing ``How Beautiful Are the Feet'' with food stored in your cheeks like a squirrel would surely make Emily Post beg to be excused.

Again, the balance between a proper dining experience and a satisfying listening experience had not quite been struck.

More recent compositions proved equally problematic. When my older brother lent me some records of works by 20th-century composers, we attempted to dine to the music of Edgard Var`ese. By then, I guess we thought we were just a couple of auditory/gustatory daredevils. The moment the needle met vinyl, a barrage of percussion burst from the speakers, causing us to drop our utensils. I suppose these sounds of crashing cutlery could be perceived as audience participation of the sing-along ``Messiah'' sort, only more modern.

Slowly a play-list of suitable selections -- mostly from the Classical or Baroque eras -- began to take shape, but not without some valiant sacrifices being made by our digestive tracts.

I'm convinced that there is no better way to take one's meal than with the accompaniment of fine music. Still, one must be on guard, for even when playing these approved selections, I occasionally find myself chewing in rhythm and struggling with the urge to wave the conductor's fork. Richard Sorenson

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