Stravinsky on wheels

`WANT a ride?'' asked my friend Dean. I was out walking for the sake of walking, but I couldn't pass up a chance to ride in his van, not when it sounded as if the entire Chicago Symphony was performing from his back seat. His vehicle, I should explain, is rigged with sound equipment of uncommon power and clarity and stocked with cassettes whose labels face out for easy perusal, making the passenger feel as if he is eyeing the playlist of some wonderfully esoteric jukebox. It's the kind of van that seems capable of turning a simple trip to the post office into a musical education.

Several years ago, Dean, an avid fan of Igor Stravinsky's music, found himself in the predicament of being the only person in his household who enjoyed that composer's work. While he was busy savoring the jagged rhythm and the dissonance of a composition, those in the same room were having their patience tested and looked as if steam were about to burst from their ears. Seeing this, he would agree to keep the volume knob at a level they considered suitable, only to find that ``suitable'' had somehow become synonymous with ``inaudible.''

``I've always had a wide-ranging taste in music,'' said Dean, ``but my wife's interest is pretty much confined to Broad-way show tunes. So when she hears Stravinsky, she says, `Are you sure they're not playing the score upside down?' ''

Dean told of the time when he tried to refute her teasing contention that Stravinsky ``was no Richard Rodgers'' and was unable to write a hummable tune. ``I tried to hum something from the Concerto for Strings,'' he said, ``and it quickly sounded like the buzzing of an agitated fly.'' (I should point out that this description was not necessarily meant to concede his wife's point, since it was said with interest, as if he's hoping the fly in question will one day get a recording contract.)

So as to avoid their area of incompatibility, Dean devised a sound room on wheels, a place where he could play all those compositions he felt might be an imposition in the home.

Besides the many Stravinsky works, the selections include Persian santir music, Bavarian yodeling songs (he likes to play these while heading for the ski slopes), avant-garde jazz pieces, a tape of Sousa marches (good as an early morning eye-opener, he says), a piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and an environmental tape. That last item is a recording featuring bird calls and splashing water, which enables Dean to, technically, be idling on a crowded lane of asphalt while, sonically, paddling a canoe across Loon Lake.

I suggested to Dean that his ``musical outcast'' status was similar to that of a teen-ager on our block, a youth who was enthusiastic about a particular heavy metal rock group but was always being told to ``turn down the infernal racket.'' I don't remember the group's name (possibly it was Infernal Racket), but the teen-ager didn't feel he could do without their music, so he equipped his car for sound and now does much of his listening while parked in front of his yard.

``But those fans are so much more organized,'' said Dean. ``They have bumper stickers, T-shirts, even lunch pails, proclaiming their bands, and all of that strengthens their link with other fans.'' He paused for a moment, then added, ``There are no Stravinsky lunch pails.''

Maverick that he is, Dean serves as a rolling reminder of all the alternatives to standard radio fare. Sometimes when we hear him slowly approaching our house, we are reminded of the days when ice cream trucks would announce their arrival by piping a melody. This image of Dean as a neoclassical Good Humor man is somehow apt.

The news for anyone who might begrudge him Stravinsky's occasional dissonance is not good, for he said that he was becoming fond of B'ela Bart'ok's similarly uncompromising music, and as he departed he was slapping his dashboard and making fly noises. I think he was trying to hum B'ela's Fifth String Quartet.

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