22 May 2018

Weaponizing Bach


In the LA Review of Books, Theodore Gioia reports on classical music being used as bum repellent.

At the corner of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.

Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners — specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. “There used to be a mob that would hang out there,” remarked local resident David Allen, “and now there may be just one or two people.” When I passed the corner, the only sign of life I found was a trembling woman crouched on the pavement, head in hand, as classical harpsichord besieged her ears.


Gioia has all sorts of problems with this. It makes classical music elitist and turns it into a class signifier. Using music to chase people away is inimical to recruiting the same people into its fan base. And, finally, any non-performative use separates the art from its own native listening experience.

When Karen and I first visited the kennels of the Casanova Hunt at Weston, the former home of that hunt’s founder, Charlotte Nourse, we found the hounds listening happily to Beethoven. Apparently, huntsman Tommy Lee Jones found classical music had charms to sooth the trouble-making breasts of foxhounds.

Mr. Gioia may stroke his chin and frown disapprovingly, but I think it’s more appropriate to admire the ingenuity of people who find other ways of harnessing the power of art.

I bet representatives of today’s establishment intelligentsia would deplore the use of crucifixes to repel vampires, arguing that Religion was intended to be all-inclusive!

2 Feedbacks on "Weaponizing Bach"


“It makes classical music elitist and turns it into a class signifier.”

So what then does rap music signify?

Steve Gregg

As I recall, back in the days of disco, if the clientele turned too black, the DJs would play country music for a couple weeks to turn the clientele white again.


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