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Route 66 inspires itinerant composer

Nolan Stolz stands in front of the El Vado motel in Albuquerque
Alice Fordham
Nolan Stolz stands in front of the El Vado motel in Albuquerque

Composer Nolan Stolz is lunching at the El Vado motel in Albuquerque, which first welcomed guests in 1937, one of the first motels on Route 66.

Opened in 1926, the road was the first all-weather highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles and has been celebrated in popular culture in all kinds of ways.

Stolz is taking a different approach. "I'm working on the Route 66 Suite for orchestra," he says, over burgers. "And I'm driving up and down Route 66 for 13 months, going back and forth between Los Angeles and Chicago, just getting inspiration."

Stolz teaches music at the University of South Carolina Upstate. His most famous composition to date is about the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road for cars in the United States. He was looking around for his next project

"Route 66 was the most obvious choice, right?" he said. "That's the most famous road in the world, really. And with Route 66 turning 100 in 2026, I've decided to get ahead of it."

I wonder if it feels natural to turn the experience of driving long distances into a piece of classical music.

"I wouldn't say natural, no," he said. "It's certainly an abstract idea. But there are certain aspects of the road that you can think about and relate that to music. With the Lincoln Highway Suite, I did it by region.

"There's the California movement, there's the New York and New Jersey movement, there's the Great Plains movements – called Prairie View."

But the new composition is going to be different. "Everything is more on an aspect of Route 66 that I want to bring to the music." One section will draw inspiration from the neon signs along the road, another from the trains.

"There are many, many trains in the desert part of 66." said Stolz. "Out here in the desert, it's right there."

He said this symphony is going to be longer than his previous work, up to an hour

"Yes, I'm trying to represent America in the music, expansive sounds, and Route 66 is expansive," he said. "So it needs to be big."

Stolz is driving through every part of 66 several times. When we said goodbye he said maybe he’ll catch me back here in the summer, on his sixth pass through Albuquerque.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.