Jhere’s an added benefit of being in a crowd these days. Once we can ask, will this crowd push me or crush me? Now we ask, is this crowd going to make me sick? Will this mob kill me? As new waves of Covid and new variants continue to arrive, we wonder: will we really feel comfortable in crowds again?
Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, has spent the past few years thinking about crowds. From his home in Sydney, the musician and songwriter has been working on a new production with director Nigel Jamieson called The Crowd and I, which combines footage of crowds – everything from Black Lives Matter protests to the annual mass tomato battle in Spain – with a live orchestra playing in time.
Tognetti himself doesn’t particularly like crowds. “I have a personal dislike of being in them,” he said. “I’ve been to concerts in arenas and I would choose not to go back. I saw the Rolling Stones in an arena, but I would have preferred to see them at the Enmore.
And when he was young? “I’ve never been in the moshpit – I didn’t want to break my arm. That would be the main thing. »
A decade in the making, The Crowd and I is split into 13 chapters, featuring footage from around the world of every type of crowd: a swarm at Coachella, sprawling refugee camps, crowded commuter trains, drone footage of demonstrations and close encounters with riots. Some footage was captured by artists like Ai Weiwei and cinematographer Jon Frank, who worked closely with the ACO on The Reef.
Tognetti compiled the soundtrack, moving from Chopin, Sibelius and Beethoven to modern American composer Morton Feldman and even his own. Each piece gives rise to a different flavor of emotion in the viewer; to handle the dramatic mood changes between chapters, the ACO has expanded its ranks for the performance and will feature brass and woodwind, live electronics and singers from the Song Company.
The performance, which begins in Canberra on Saturday before the tour, promises to be intensely emotional and thought-provoking – like the best of ACO’s work in decades, including 2005’s Luminous, made with photographer Bill Henson.
Throughout the show, the crowd changes shape: sometimes threatening, sometimes festive, sometimes uplifting, sometimes dangerous. There’s a spectacular clip of a moshpit – hundreds of young bodies rushing towards each other, colliding harmlessly – which is accompanied by an original composition by Tognetti titled Mosh Maggot. But the most touching chapter (among many others) is Tide, which includes CCTV footage of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter marches around the world.
“When you see the images, it’s overwhelming,” says Tognetti. “The marches spread like a tidal wave across the world. We didn’t want to imbue the music with lyrical drama – we didn’t need to. Like all good art, the more moralistic it is, the less room there is for poetry.
Also damning, even after all these years, is to see footage of the Cronulla Riots, filmed by photojournalist Craig Greenhill. “Some people may say ‘I’ve seen this before, I don’t need to see it again.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yes you do,'” Tognetti says. “No one is innocent — no one is blameless.”
The show’s genesis dates back to 2008 when Tognetti received funding to “imagine mean and wild things.” I wanted to do something about the crowds and get it in place very quickly – but what was missing was an overall director’s vision and so Jamieson came on board. The pair returned to work during the 2020 lockdown and found that “the remaining 3% take 99% of the money and time. It’s been a few years of creation and chiseling.
The Crowd and I changed over the decade: “It started with a more misanthropic bent – crowds are scary, crowds are dangerous. It was easier to be dark than light. In the final version, there’s an interplay of the two: yes, crowds can be dangerous and scary – but as we’ve learned during the pandemic, we also often need and crave a shared experience.
Any fear of crowds also affects the results of artists such as Tognetti. The arts need the crowd to survive.
“I hope people will continue to buy tickets and please come!” he says. “Not just for theatrical events and big theatrical events, but for the ecology underneath – all the little shows and venues, or all the undergrowth won’t be there five years from now. You have to support him.
The crowd and me is on tour in Canberra (August 6), Melbourne (August 7-8), Sydney (August 9-14) and Brisbane (August 15).