Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Railway Age Commentary: A little transit music, maestro!

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

Ever hear of “classical repulsion?” Portland, Ore., Tri-Met is wielding it to great effect to ward off young perpetrators of crimes like vandalism. In other words, if you want to discourage unruly teenagers from spraying graffiti on your system-map displays or light rail vehicles, play Stravinsky instead of Snoop Dog (woof!), or Bach instead of Britney Spears (Britney who?) on your station platforms.

Disclaimer: Your editor has been listening to jazz since he was out of diapers (and that’s no bull), and his grandfather was a violinist in the Newark (N.J.) Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, I am not a musical snob, OK? Some of this modern hip-hop stuff (at least the tunes with a melody) can be pretty good. I happen to like “Sexy Love” by Ne-Yo (Shaffer Chimere Smith, Jr.), though I wouldn’t recommend playing this hot little number on your station platforms, unless you want to risk extreme public displays of affection and arrests for indecent exposure.

But I digress.

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast—or drive it away, as the Los Angeles Times noted in an April 4, 2011 editorial, “Crime and Classical Music: Another Reason Sarah Palin Should Support the Arts?”

“We recently took Sarah Palin to task for dismissing the National Endowment for the Arts as a waste of tax dollars,” the L.A. Times said. “Art, we argued, matters to human development and the economy. In the case of classical music, art also deters crime. More specifically, it sends misbehaved teenagers scattering.

“David Ng at Culture Monster reports: ‘Whether it’s Handel piped into New York's Port Authority [bus terminal] or Tchaikovsky at a public library in London, the sound of classical music is apparently so repellent to teenagers that it sends them scurrying away like frightened mice. Private institutions also find it useful: Chains such as McDonald's and 7-Eleven, not to mention countless shopping malls around the world, have relied on classical music to shoo away potentially troublesome kids.’

“In the latest example of classical repulsion, the regional transit [agency] in the Portland, Ore., area has been playing orchestral and operatic tunes over speakers at light rail stations in an attempt to prevent vandalism and other crimes that result from teens having too much free time on their hands.

“Theories differ as to why teens react to classical music this way. Some experts believe the music has a soothing effect, while others think it has to do more with negative neurological response. Either way, if this genre of music prevents crime by teens, perhaps we ought to invest more on classical music. Another argument in favor of classical music: It can also inspire students in the classroom to learn.

“The Tri-Met light rail service in Portland, Ore., has begun playing classical music at train stations in an effort to ward off the kind of crimes that happen when people just hang around. A bill making its way through the Oregon legislature would expand the program to all light rail stops in Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties deemed high-crime areas by police or residents.”

Maybe this is why the three-phase a.c. traction motor chopper controls on MTA New York City Transit’s R142 subway cars from Bombardier play the first three notes of “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” when accelerating from a stop? It’s technically not classical music, but it sure fits New York!

Here’s a thought for the American Public Transportation Association: We might have the makings of a whole new Arts in Transit program. Why not bring a little culture to the experience of using public transit while fending off vandals and farebeaters? Look at all the major U.S. cities with rail transit systems that have a resident symphony: The Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Philadelphia Orchestra. The Houston Symphony. The Chicago Symphony. The New York Philharmonic. The Pittsburgh Symphony.

There is precedent, by the way, for this sort of program, and Pittsburgh was actually the first U.S. city to do it. “I started putting classical music into Pittsburgh’s then-new subway in 1985,” recalls APTA President Bill Millar, who was general manager of PA Transit at the time. “Today we would call it a public/private partnership: Port Authority of Allegheny County owned and operated the subway; WQED chose and recorded the music; PPG Industries Foundation provided the grant to cover the costs. It made for a very nice sound environment that complemented the world class art (Sol LeWitt, Romare Bearden) we had put in the stations. Others followed. We started with recordings by the Pittsburgh Symphony and later opened the repertoire to other local classical music groups.”

Perhaps the Chicago Transit Authority could commission the Chicago Symphony to produce a “CTA Suite,” underwritten by our erstwhile Tea Party President’s favorite taxpayer’s black hole, the National Endowment for the Arts. Think of the pleasure she’d take in blasting publicly supported passenger rail and music with just one shot of her moose- and wolf-mangling rifle!

A Fifth of Beethoven, anyone?

Oops, that’s disco!

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.