The violinist Gil Shaham was battling his way through Penn Station recently when he heard a recording of the Haydn Violin Concerto being piped over the public address system. “I wanted to stay and ask if it was my recording, but before I knew it, I was in a cab and on my way out,” he said.
To Shaham, the anecdote illustrates the powerful (some say, unfortunate) effect classical music has, not in enlightening the masses, but on reducing loitering.
Reports of train stations and shopping malls blaring classical music to chase off vagrants, vandals and ne'er-do-wells have been making headlines for over a decade. Along with Penn Station in Manhattan, New Jersey Transit pipes light classics into its Newark transit hub, purportedly to create a soothing ambiance.
While some artists may cringe at having their performances appropriated for nuisance abatement purposes, the internationally-recognized Shaham saw an opportunity in the concept, and on Tuesday – April 1 – he released "Music to Drive Away Loiterers."
"All those years of conservatory training have endowed me with superpowers to drive away people," Shaham joked with host Jeff Spurgeon. The whimsical collection, released on Shaham’s own Canary Classics label, reissues 15 short pieces and single movements by Bizet, Faure, Mozart, Prokofiev, Sarasate and other composers.
While Shaham's concept is tongue-in-cheek, some quality-of-life campaigners take a more earnest view. Last year, when a Columbus, OH YMCA began playing Vivaldi in its parking lot, a local business leader touted its efficacy to the Associated Press. "There's something about baroque music that macho wannabe-gangster types hate," he enthused.
Others are less enamored with the idea. “We must seek out other pro-sociable ways of dealing with the problem rather than just squirting acoustic insecticide at young people,” Nigel Rodgers, the head of the anti-background music group Pipedown, told WQXR’s Conducting Business last year.
Shaham has yet to receive any licensing requests from police departments or transit authorities, but he envisions a genuine practical application for the CD.
“To be fair, classical music could also drive away doddlers and loafers,” the violinist told Spurgeon. “But we designed this specifically to drive away loiterers. For me, when I pop this in the machine, it makes me want to stand up and walk away.”
Weigh in: What do you think of the use of music to fight crime? Leave your comments below.