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.
"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."
In our era, "elevator music" has been used to put people at ease in transitional spaces such as hotel lobbies and train stations. In 1948, the inventors of Muzak came up with what they called Stimulus Progression, a way of inspiring workers to produce more rapidly. Some researchers have concluded that slow "stress-free music" can make people shop 20% longer, and the connection between music and brain activity is firmly established, if not entirely understood.
"But somehow," says Joseph Lanza, author of the newly reissued "Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong," "classical music is too great a substance to be sullied by public use."
"Music has always been vulgar and commercial," Lanza says. Many classical pieces, he points out, were composed as royal commissions. "There's always been something to sell. It's just now that the masses are buying. It's no longer only bluebloods paying court musicians to play something just for them."
Nineteenth century music, he says, became highbrow background music only later. "It may not have had that function originally: People had gone to a concert to listen. But by the time you were able to transmit the sound over the radio or onto a record or CD, the music was no longer in the artist's hands, or the critics' hands."
At least, Lanza says with a dry laugh, he's glad authorities are taking the high road. "I'm relieved that it's classical music that's used to drive them away and not elevator music."
Still, if the goal is just to repel people, why pick classical music? Why not use other sounds that lowlifes would find lame and uncool? Easy listening. Medieval hymns. Phil Collins.
"It had a number of win-win aspects," Ken Newcomb, a city councilor in Duncan, Canada, says of his decision to beam the music of Mozart and the voice of Pavarotti into a public park. "Because of the pastoral surroundings of the park, it made sense for people just enjoying the sun to have it enhanced by some good-quality music." Moreover, "the youth who gathered in the park didn't listen to that music on a regular basis." So they promptly "moved on" to another park in the British Columbia town, says Newcomb, who likes classical OK but prefers the Rolling Stones.
Using opera makes historical sense: The form began as a deliberate civilizing attempt, an Italian Renaissance effort to re-create the theatrical spectacles of ancient Greece. It was about kings and queens, or the battle for power, and opera houses became symbols of the state and the upper class.
But opera's power to fend off troublemakers may be simpler than that.
"Nobody uses Pavarotti as ambient background music," Fink says. "I'd imagine that it just really annoys people: They hear that voice and it's just ineradicably uncool."
KEEPING IT UNCOOL
For his part, Rob Kapilow, a composer, conductor and music evangelist who speaks at concerts and has been a commentator on National Public Radio, is puzzled about the use of classical music and opera to keep menacing individuals at bay.
"What, actually, is going on?" he asks. "Is the content of the music so unpleasant that they don't want to be there? Or does the music create an environment that they would be embarrassed to be part of, because it's not 'cool'?"
People bring their associations with classical music into their experience of it, Kapilow notes. "They listen to this sound, and what comes with it is this whole association of its packaging, which is unpleasant: 'We don't want to be part of that elitist, white-tails, concert-going kind of world.' "
It's these very associations, he thinks, that probably cause public officials to choose classical music as a prophylaxis. "Of all the packages that come to mind quickly, which one is furthest from our images of those thugs? There's not nearly as many associations with Muzak as there are with classical: 'Be quiet, be well-dressed, be polite.' They're choosing the whole world of classical music and not the music itself."
Fink speculates: "If people feel like they're sitting around in a cognac ad or a BMW commercial, it ruins the movie of themselves, it wrecks their soundtrack. It's tough for people to lounge around feeling 'hard' if the music is sending the wrong cultural message."
But what interests Fink most is how "historically incompatible" this idea of music is.
In between the use of music as a drug or perfume -- the "Alexander's Feast" model -- and the development of Muzak in the 1940s and '50s came Romanticism, which constructed the classical canon and declared its importance as serious culture.
In the time of Beethoven and the writer E.T.A. Hoffman, Fink says, classical music built an ideology whereby it was the most profound of all the arts, with a body of great works in which symphonies had as much cultural meaning as the plays of Shakespeare or Racine.
What's strange is that, despite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.
"You pick classical music because it's better than other kinds of music," says Fink. "But the pieces you use for doing that predate classical music as a concept and come from an era when music was the lowest of the arts."
Now, after Romanticism, with mainstream knowledge of serious music at a nadir at the same time it's being used to repel drug peddlers and imbue babies with that edifying "Mozart effect," we're in a strange new era of "reflexive and unthinking worship."
Fink likens it to the practice of the cargo cults that thrived among Polynesian islanders after World War II.
"A plane had come, people had come out of it, and amazing stuff had happened. Sometimes they left things behind. And the villagers created a replica of the plane out of the cargo and worshipped it. They had no idea of why the plane had come or whether it would come again."
So the reason, he says, that you'd pick Vivaldi to civilize public spaces in 2005 is "because there's still a cargo cult of classical music."
If that's true, if classical music has become a kind of talisman, then playing it to socialize the natives -- which means most of us -- is only appropriate. Lanza, the "Elevator Music" author, thinks the great composers might not mind.
"They might be amused," he says, "that centuries later, their music is being used for a time and place they could never have envisioned."