A sonata to scare off scoundrels

April 09, 2000|By Froma Harrop

FOR ME, classical music has always fallen into the "nice things" category. So it was somewhat of a jolt to learn that malls, bus terminals and other facilities that attract a diverse public are playing classical music to keep out the riff-raff. Blast the punks with a Scarlatti motet. That'll fix 'em.

It is especially vexing to read of the classical music being used as a threat at a time when we are supposed to be commemorating the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death. If any of the old Europeans in wigs could resonate with today's youth, it would be Bach. No composer before or since has been as multimedia as the master of the German Baroque. Bach's music can be played by harpsichords, Moog synthesizers, orchestras, saxophones, harmonicas and electric guitars, and still sound wonderful. But I digress.

The use of classical music as a teen deterrent dates back to 1985. In that year, a 7-Eleven store in Victoria, British Columbia, was concerned about adolescents congregating in its parking lot. Someone at the store had the original idea of spraying the parking lot with masterpieces of Western music. The teen-agers fled. Since then, hundreds of establishments wanting to keep unruly youth at bay have launched the ultimate weapons -- Schubert piano trios and Mozart concertos.

And it works. Just the other day, I was passing through the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. The Port Authority has been much cleaned up in recent years. However, as the facility through which thousands of bus passengers enter Times Square on a daily basis, it cannot help but retain a certain, shall we say, earthiness. And what was being sent through the loudspeakers? Dvorak's "New World Symphony." I have no idea how much credit belongs to the music or the policing, but there were no pockets of scruffy teens hanging out.

Why does classical music have this effect on youth? For one thing, it may serve as a signal that conservative grown-ups are in the vicinity. Classical music does serve as an indicator of maturity and money, and so it is used to sell all kinds of high-falutin' products on TV. Diamonds, $40,000 cars, French perfumes, wines.

Actually, a good number of the composers themselves led highly checkered lives that any punk would admire. Consider the wacko genius Mozart, as portrayed in the movie "Amadeus."

One of the more colorful composers was Carlo Gesualdo, a Neapolitan prince. In 1590, Gesualdo found his wife in the sack with the Duke of Andria and killed them both. The double-aristocrat murder brought Gesualdo international fame, O.J.-style, which brought new attention to the madrigals he had been composing. His madrigals reflect the full flower of his madness. They contain dissonances and strange harmonies that sounded weird in the 16th century. Anyone today who is unfamiliar with Gesauldo's work would think it had been written by a modern composer. Gesualdo was someone that the urban gang members might look up to, if they would only gave classical music a chance.

This is wholly unlike Bach, who lived an exemplary life as a meek employee of various noblemen and churches, and as father to a very large number of children. He wrote whatever kinds of music his boss at the moment wanted. And his style was considered old-fashioned by the standards of the early 18th century. Baroque music was losing popularity to newer sounds, but Bach kept pounding away in the old school. Thank goodness.

And so now Bach has become a weapon in the arsenal of shopping-center managers -- a way to make mall rats feel uncomfortable. Let me state that there are certain kinds of so-called classical music that would drive me out of a public gathering place. Offhand, I can think of a few opera arias that would have me looking for a new hangout. I will not name them in this column. (Opera lovers can be quite dangerous.) But Bach? Play on, play on, even if you must do it on the Moog synthesizer. Bach will have me, for one, hanging around.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

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