Exchange: Composer cruising Route 66 to put highway to music
If U.S. Route 66 were a symphony orchestra, what would it sound like?
That's a question Dr. Nolan Stolz, a South Carolina music professor and classical music composer, is answering as he explores the historic route, capturing the essence of the highway so he can put it to music.
The composition for symphony orchestras, to be performed in the 2025-26 season to celebrate the highway's 2026 centennial, will contain eight movements, and be titled " Route 66 Suite."
But first, he's got to do his research.
Stolz, 41, who teaches at the University of South Carolina Upstate near Spartanburg, is taking a 15-month sabbatical, and spending 13 months traveling back and forth along the Mother Road between Chicago and Los Angeles.
He was making his third westbound trip when interviewed in Kingman in February. "It's a different experience every drive," he told The Miner.
Stolz stops and talks to locals and business owners, backtracking often. He seeks out old buildings that were standing when the highway was founded, and searches for old sections of Route 66 from the years before it was paved. He stays in old-timey hotels and motels like the El Trovatore in Kingman.
"I'm really soaking in as much as I can," he said.
And he's shooting video, taking photos and taking notes that will jog his memory when he sits down this year to put musical notes to paper in August.
The Kingman area of northwestern Arizona is one of his favorite sections of the old road.
After spending a night in Peach Springs on his current crossing, he said he was struck by the sounds of heavy train traffic.
Noting the highway is often in proximity to train tracks, he said "I'll certainly be incorporating the sound of the trains."
A native of Las Vegas where he got his undergraduate degree, Stolz is no stranger to Kingman, or the high desert. He said he often traveled through Kingman a few decades ago en route to Lake Havasu to play gigs as a drummer in Chuck E. Bumps and the Crocodiles, a band that still performs to this day. "We played the song Route 66 many times," Stolz laughed, referring to the rhythm and blues classic.
He said he never failed to stop in Kingman. "I feel like I have a local connection to this place."
Now, he's mixing pleasure with business. The plan is to complete the Suite by 2024, so it can be worked into schedules for performances by symphony orchestras and concert bands, in the 2025-26 musical season.
He hopes to have his work completed well in advance of the 100th anniversary of the Mother Road in 2026. He'll compose a different version for concert bands at colleges and community groups, which lack woodwinds.
While he's yet to write a note, the composition is slowly falling into place. "I have the concept and the basic structure and some things I want to reflect on," he said.
The opening movement of Route 66 Suite will be titled "A.D. 1926." It will capture the mood of the highway in its infancy, when pavement as well as services were rare.
He's also been searching out ghost towns along the route for the "66 Ghost Towns" movement, and hunting down the locations of the 26 old gas stations – photographed in the 1964 art book "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" by Ed Ruscha – for yet another movement.
He said he is particularly eager to write the movement "Neon Dreams," which will document the neon signs that dominated the route during its heyday, and are still abundant today along remnants of the old road.
Stolz said the neon movement will feature bright sounds and rhythms that echo the cadence of flashing neon signs. But don't think circus music.
"I want the piece to be serious; entertaining but not kitschy," Stolz explained.
The concept, and the research, is not entirely unique. Stolz also composed a symphony about U.S. Route 30 – the Lincoln Highway – when it turned 100 in 2013.
There was no question what the sequel would be.
"Route 66 is the obvious choice," Stolz said. "It's the most famous highway in the world. A whole culture has sprung up around it."