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Light Music in New York

John Robert Brown

New York. Summer vacation lately over, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sitting in City Hall. Implacable autumn weather. And as much music to be heard outdoors as if Gabriel had descended with all the musicians from Heaven.

The quality isn't always heavenly, but the diversity of music heard on the street in Manhattan is considerable. It astounds me. A busker in Midtown trundles a full-size upright piano on giant castors. On the sidewalk, with full drum kit and amplification, a six-piece combo grooves behind a singer. Here and there is a Cuban percussionist, Indian tabla player, Andean or Scottish Piper, Chinese Erhu player, yes, even an American saxophonist accompanied by play-along records. In Times Square a couple of lads play clarinet duets, reading from a folio set up on a precarious wire music stand. An intermission comes when a shower of rain falls. Musicians scurry silently for shelter. Umbrella vendors suddenly pop up.

Descending from the street to catch a train I hear yet more unusual music. As subways go, New York' stations are at the fortissimo end of the dynamic range, but through the screech and scurry I recognise a few familiar chords. On the platform, as I approach the source, it's clear that I'm hearing piped orchestral music, yet it's not classical repertoire. It's gentle, melodic; what is it?

Once I hear it properly, there is no doubt. But I can't say whether this is Vivian Ellis I'm hearing, or Robert Farnon. Could it be Ronnie Binge, or a morsel of Melachrino or Mantovani? Whatever the answer, how pleasantly unexpected to hear this polite, delicate sound. It's pure past innocence, transplanted to the noisy noughties. The sound soars softly through the subway. What it is hardly seems to matter.

But why light music? These few urban acres are the hippest, most fashionable on earth. Whatever else it is, isn't light music the discarded music of yesteryear, now cynically junked? After all, this is Manhattan, where the swing era swung to its climax, where bebop was first heard, where most of the great musicals were introduced. This is the Big Apple, ever up-to-date, edgy, fashionable, associated with nurturing George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. In these concrete canyons were born hip-hop and sampling. Minimalism made its debut here. What's the idea behind reintroducing light music, which predates all that modernism?

Lacking an immediate answer, I come to my own conclusions. Light music is nothing if not soothing and gentle. It's an antidote to the compressed, drum-heavy, guitar-laden music that today infests almost every public space. Like classical music, light music can occupy a sector of the emotional spectrum which most pop music never approaches. In the madness of metropolitan transport systems at rush hour, isn't this exactly what we need to hear?

Light music used this way achieves something vital to the classical repertoire: it protects our most cherished pieces from abuse. If a Chopin mazurka, or Elgar's Nimrod, can tug at your heart strings, can touch you emotionally, then to hear a chunk from that cherished piece victimised as background music is more enraging than engaging. I don't want to have my emotions stimulated by a nugget of Orpheus on the Underground, Debussy on the buses. Surely this is the point of introducing light music? What a good idea. Maybe the New York Transit Authority is on to something?

Later I discover that concept of a symphony a day to keep the yobs at bay is happening in Britain as well. In November the Evening Standard reported that the managers of the bus station at West Croydon, plagued by rowdy youths, had introduced classical music to help calm the customers. It had an effect on the gangs who were making the station their unofficial headquarters. Dr Susan Hallam, the Director of London Institute of Education, was quoted as saying that, "Most studies of classical music in these kinds of places show the undesirable elements don't like it and just go away. The police have been interested in it for some time". She added that Ken Livingstone's 'Transport for London' will consider introducing music at all 44 London bus stations.

Classical music to clear the streets? Pavarotti as punishment? The idea that certain categories of classical music can drive people away is shocking. A few minutes reflection makes me realise that the concept is conceivable. It's really nothing new. Isn't it similar to one of the justifications given for introducing the cinema organ in the 1920s? In the days when films were screened non-stop, the electric organ rising from the floor was said to be a good way to clear customers from the cinema before the next show. People moved by music. Isn't that why bagpipes were used on the battlefield - to rout the enemy? Musically, one man's meat is another man's monotony. I think I understand. A friend tells me that club DJs now play music that their audiences hate (I wonder what?) to signify that it's time to go home. And when US forces laid siege to the hideout of the former Panamanian dictator General Noriega, troops blasted him with music from heavy-metal rockers AC/DC. Apparently, Noriega preferred opera.

Wonderful options come to mind. Why not have a police unit, sonically equipped for crowd dispersal, to roam the city streets with an immense PA system? That's PA for Personal Annoyance, of course. The skill would be in making the musical selections. If 'Pavarotti as Punishment' works to disperse crowds of clubbers who are hanging about enjoying themselves, for people with more malevolent intent something stronger is needed. 'Three Tenors as Punishment' should up the stakes nicely, a sort of baton round of tenors against the water cannon of Pavarotti. The next step, the musical equivalent of tear gas or plastic bullets, depends on the circumstances. Florence Foster Jenkins in her famous Queen of the Night recording, maybe? She was said to bring her audience to tears, wasn't she? Or would you prefer Spike Jones gargling the William Tell Overture? Perhaps one could choose Mary Schneider, Australia's Queen of Yodelling, Yodelling the Classics. It's been said that if you haven't heard Madame Schneider then you don't truly understand the masterpieces. The big attraction of all these examples of 'Pavarotti as Punishment'(PAP) is that at least no-one would be hurt.

Then there could be a specialist section. Trouble outside the Opera House? Select ten minutes of uncompromising free jazz - John Coltrane's Ascension, perhaps. That should achieve pretty effective crowd dispersal among lovers of bel canto. And if the jazz fans prove unruly, a little Country and Western music should have them on the run. When being given the anaesthetic before a major operation, jazz drummer Buddy Rich was asked whether he suffered from any allergies. "Only Country and Western music," he said.

So, imagine you are in charge of a city police unit appointed to disperse large crowds from public places. What music would YOU load into your PAP arsenal? The complete 'Sing Something Simple' maybe? Or would 'The Organist Entertains' be more effective at moving people? Kurt Weill enthusiasts, and lovers of standard songs well sung, would vanish quickly were you to play them Bryan Ferry's struggle with September Song. For the C&W fans themselves, should they need moving along, surely a lengthy portion of Pierrot Lunaire, with all that Sprechstimme, would have them heading homewards? If that fails, John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No 4, for twelve radios, may do the trick.

Considering the above possibilities, recordings by Leroy Anderson, Henry Mancini or David Rose, probably coming soon to a sleazy public space near you, seem quite appealing.
First published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Winter 2002. Reproduced by permission
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