When classical music is meant to say: leave

Loud classical music playing overhead didn’t deter this man from sleeping on his belongings at the MacArthur station in Los Angeles on March 29, 2023. Genaro Molina/LA Times/Los Angeles Times

Plenty of observers expressed shock on social media, but this strategy is far more common and widespread than one might think. Music, as the old saws go, may be the fruit of love, or the one art without which life would be a mistake. But it turns out music of all kinds — from Bach to “Baby Shark” — has also been used as a weapon wielded by the powerful against the less so.

Cloying children’s music has been used to deter those experiencing homelessness from sleeping or gathering at particular sites in West Palm Beach, Fla.; the sentimental songs of Barry Manilow have been deployed like kryptonite to ward off unruly teenagers from New Zealand malls; US forces overseas have turned to Metallica’s music in interrogations; and with a few clicks, you can pull up a YouTube playlist of the music famously used to drive Manuel Noriega out of hiding at the Vatican embassy in Panama City. (New parents may also note with a knowing shudder that a combination of sleep deprivation and repeated exposure to Barney songs, among others, was used to break prisoners in Iraq.)

Yet in many cases, the sonic prod of choice appears to be classical music. In addition to Los Angeles, cities such as New York, Toronto, Montreal, and London have all at different times deployed the technique. Always keen to put our own stamp on things, in Boston in 2002 the MBTA tried not Bizet but Boston Pops-style light classics to discourage teens from making trouble at the Forest Hills station. “If this works,” the acting chief of the MBTA Police told the Globe at the time, “Keith Lockhart has a future in the crime-fighting business.”

The Pops itself did not participate in this experiment, Lockhart said when reached for comment on Friday. Addressing the broader policy of blasting classical music as a deterrent, he wrote in an email, “this is a deliberate and heinous misuse of music, and an insult to all of us who try to make art that brings some beauty into the world.”

There are indeed some deeply flawed and odious assumptions at play here — such as the notion that classical is, in its essence, the music of the well-heeled and therefore somehow anathema to people without privilege. Or perhaps the tactic amounts to philistinism distilled to its most pure, saying essentially: We find this music off-putting, and we assume you do, too, so we will spray it like pesticide.

Yet on a deeper level, there is also something Kafkaesque about it all. Those pursuing these policies are ultimately using an art form long steeped in Enlightenment ideals of equality and universal connectedness — “All people will become brothers!” the chorus famously sings in Beethoven’s Ninth — not to spur us toward addressing the country’s unconscionable wealth gap, or resolving underlying structural problems that lead to homelessness. Instead they are using an art form once thought to carry humanity’s highest ideals to hide the system’s most vulnerable from view.

Commuters make their way through the MacArthur Park station in Los Angeles on March 29, 2023. LA Metro had been blasting classical music at the station as a means to deter crime and prevent people from taking refuge underground. Genaro Molina/LA Times/Los Angeles Times

What’s more, these strategies often depend on the music being played at uncomfortably high volumes, and in this way they exploit the hard-wiring of the human sensory apparatus. When something does not appeal to us visually, we may close our eyes, but as the Canadian composer Murray Schafer once put it: “We have no ear lids. We are condemned to listen.” (A spokesperson for the LA Metro said on Friday that, while the program is ongoing, the volume has now been lowered.)

Attempts to use classical music as a weapon of deterrence have been traced back to at least the 1980s, but it should be said that these ideas had fertile soil in which to take root thanks to deeper links in the histories of music and social control. As it turns out, the rules of concert hall etiquette were consolidating across the same years of the early 20th century in which waves of immigration were altering the demographics of cities, and antinoise campaigns were cropping up across Europe and North America. In this telling, as the writer and scholar Christopher Small argued in his seminal book “Musicking,” the concert hall became not only a sacred site for the worship of high art but also the preserve of a particular social order idealized by a white middle class. It would be a place where decorum could be expected and maintained at the very moment that the streetscapes were devolving into what some saw as crowded, noisy spaces reflecting the worst of modern city life.

This history may at least partly help explain why it is classical music that is so often deployed in such cases: “Not because of the actual sound of the music or inherent meaning,” writes the scholar Lily E. Hirsch in her book “Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment,” but “because of its symbolic capital” as an art form in which the rules of an elite are somehow codified. We are battering the ears of unhoused people, in other words, not with the music’s actual meaning but with the most negative of its associations.

And those associations have always been, in their own way, artificial constructions. Not surprisingly, in interviews with the LA Times and other media, some people at the Westlake/MacArthur Park station have responded positively to the music intended to send them packing. “I enjoy classical music,” one unhoused woman told the LA Times. “It wouldn’t keep me out. It will help keep me down here longer.”

I wonder if champions of these policies have heard of groups like Boston’s own Shelter Music, which brings live chamber music performances to homeless shelters and other sites of need around the city, and does so with the intention not of emptying spaces but filling them. “We find our audiences are actually loving classical music so I’m not sure what kind of deterrent it’s proved to be [in experiments like LA’s],” Carrie Eldridge-Dickson, the group’s managing director, recently told me.

Left to right: Brianna Robinson, Carrie Cheron, RaShaun Campbell, Adrian Anantawan, Julie Leven, Ashleigh Gordon, and Javier Caballero during a performance by Shelter Music in 2019 at CASPAR Emergency Shelter in Cambridge. Carrie Eldridge-Dickson

The LA-based violinist Vijay Gupta, founding director of a group called Street Symphony, has taken a similar tack. Gupta, who is also this year’s artist-in-residence at Music Worcester, has recently been performing selections by Bach interspersed with newly composed songs by currently or formerly incarcerated men. In a similar vein, New York’s Heartbeat Opera worked with prison choruses around the country to record the extraordinary Prisoners’ Chorus from Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”

That deeply moving chorus in particular carries forward a vision of dignity and an older dream of a humane society, one that also could be seen as issuing a challenge to our own times. We can continue perversely weaponizing such music — or perhaps, one day, we might try listening to it.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.

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