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Halt, or I'll play Vivaldi!

With its audience dwindling, classical music finds new cachet -- as thug repellent. It can't be what Bach & Co. had in mind.

February 13, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

In the 1982 movie "Fitzcarraldo," a white-suited Klaus Kinski, playing a 19th century rubber baron, steams down a Peruvian river, blasting Caruso on his gramophone toward the damp, dark rain forest and its hostile natives. The phonograph becomes a symbol of the character's attempt to civilize the wilderness -- and of his mad obsession to build an opera house in the jungle.

As odd as it sounds, this very technique has been used lately all over the English-speaking world -- only not as a civilizing strategy but as a way of banishing ruffians, drug pushers and ne'er-do-wells. To clear out undesirables, opera and classical music have been piped into Canadian parks, Australian railway stations, 7-Eleven parking lots and, most recently, London Underground stops.

According to most reports, it works. Figures from the British capital released in January showed robberies in the subway down by 33%, assaults on staff by 25% and vandalism of trains and stations by 37%. Sources in other locales have reported fewer muggings and drug deals. London authorities now plan to expand the playing of Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel and opera (sung by Pavarotti) from three tube stations to an additional 35.

"Music soothes the savage beast," a Boston variety store owner told the Globe after light classical selections were used to squelch teen loitering near the Forest Hills subway stop. "They're leaving, and I ain't seen no fights." The pops-style music, said one of the teens, "makes you want to go to sleep."

Similarly, Police Det. Dena Kimberlin in West Palm Beach, Fla., recalls that after police there closed a bar in an area infested with drug dealers and began blasting classical music from the roof, "the officers were amazed when at 10 o'clock at night there was not a soul on the corner. We talked to people on the street, and they said, 'We don't like that kind of music.' " Subsequently, she says, her department received requests from other police officials to explain exactly what steps it had taken. Its musical selections were mostly Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

What does it mean that classical music is being used this way? After all, it's more than just a strange, deeply literal updating of the Victorian moralist Matthew Arnold, who saw culture -- "the best which has been thought and said" -- as an inoculation against the "anarchy" of runaway individualism and democracy.

The melodious tube stop also represents a bizarre irony. After decades of the classical music establishment's fighting to attract crowds -- especially young people and what it calls "nontraditional audiences" -- city councils and government ministers are taking exactly the opposite approach: using high culture as a kind of disinfectant.

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'CULTURALLY RECKLESS'

"There's something very poignant about the idea of classical music as bug spray, as pest control," says Robert Fink, a music historian at UCLA who calls the phenomenon "one of those many stories about what happens to classical music after it's 'classical.' "

Even as public understanding of the style has hit an all-time low, the music retains some residual prestige, whether it's played to children in the womb or hoodlums in the park, Fink says. "They're choosing it because the music is still in some ways exalted. It's now 'magical': We'll spray it around like some kind of incense."

Other classical music partisans are less moved by the use of serious compositions to repel hooligans. "Music is a vast psychological mystery," writes the pungent British music columnist Norman Lebrecht, "and playing it to police railways is culturally reckless, profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilization."

The appalled columnist contends that classical music would be better employed earlier in the lives of young people, when students are in school -- before they've become delinquents.

Commenting in 2002 about a classical-music offensive in Santa Cruz, Amy Anderson, president of Chamber Music Monterey Bay, said, "I find it sad and scary that the educated and middle-aged folks who would be on a city council are so inclined to think classical music would drive anyone away, rather than the opposite."

Of course, this is not the first time music has been thought to alter social behavior. Throughout most of Western history, it has been seen as a force that worked directly on the body, bypassing the intellect altogether. Plato suggested banning all music that created sensuous or relaxing feelings: Only modes that roused men to military action would be allowed in his Republic. Homer's sirens were famed for using song to lure men to their deaths. In Dryden's poem "Alexander's Feast," even Alexander the Great is manipulated like a puppet by a lyre-strumming musician. "Pre-Beethoven," says Fink, "the idea was that music worked on the body like a perfume or calming drug."

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