There is an added benefit to being in a crowd these days. When we might have asked, will this crowd crush or crush me? Now we ask, will this amount make me sick? Will this crowd kill me? As new waves of Covid and new strains continue to arrive, we wonder: will we ever feel truly comfortable in crowds again?
Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, has spent the last few years thinking about crowds. From his home in Sydney, the musician and composer has been working on a new production with director Nigel Jamieson called The Crowd and I, which pairs footage of crowds – everything from Black Lives Matter protests to Spain’s annual mass fight over tomatoes – with a live orchestra playing in time.
Tognetti himself is not particularly fond of crowds. “I have a personal aversion to being in them,” he said. “I have been to some arena concerts and would choose not to go again. I saw the Rolling Stones in an arena show, but I would have rather seen them at Enmore.”
What about when he was young? “I was never 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 divided into 13 chapters, with footage from around the world of all kinds of crowds: a swarm at Coachella, sprawling refugee camps, packed commuter trains, drone footage of protests and close encounters with rioters. Some footage was shot by artists such as artist Ai Weiwei and cinematographer Jon Frank, who worked closely with ACO at The Reef.
Tognetti compiled the soundtrack, moving between Chopin, Sibelius and Beethoven to contemporary 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 swings between chapters, the ACO has expanded the ranks for the performance and will feature brass and woodwinds, live electronics and vocalists from the Song Company.
The performance, which starts in Canberra on the Saturday before the tour, promises to be intensely emotional and thought-provoking – like the best of the ACO’s work over the past few decades, including 2005’s Luminous, made with photographer Bill Henson.
Throughout the performance, the crowds change: sometimes menacing, sometimes festive, sometimes uplifting, sometimes dangerous. It’s a spectacular clip of a moshpit – hundreds of young bodies rushing towards each other, colliding without malice – which is accompanied by an original Tognetti composition entitled Mosh Maggot. But the most affecting chapter (among many) is Tide, which includes CCTV footage of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter marches around the world.
“When you see the footage, it’s overwhelming,” says Tognetti. “The marches spread like a tidal wave all over the world. We didn’t want to fill the music with operatic drama – we didn’t need to. Like all good art, the more preachy it is, the less room there is for poetry.”
Also overwhelming, even after all these years, is watching footage of the Cronulla riots, filmed by photojournalist Craig Greenhill. “Some people might say, ‘I’ve already seen this, I don’t need to see this again.’ And I say, ‘Oh yes, you do,'” says Tognetti. “No one is innocent—no one is free of guilt.”
The show’s genesis was in 2008 when Tognetti was given funding to “dream up wicked and wild things. I wanted to do something on crowds and put it together very quickly – but what was missing was an overarching directorial vision, and so Jamieson came on board.” The two men picked up the work again during the 2020 lockout and found that “the last 3% that takes 99% of the money and time. It’s been a couple of years of crafting and chiseling.”
The Crowd and I has changed over the decade: “It started with a more misanthropic bent – crowds are scary, mobs are dangerous. It was easier to be dark than light.” In the final version, there is an interplay between both: yes, crowds can be dangerous and scary – but as we’ve learned during the pandemic, we also often need and demand shared experience.
Any fear of crowds also hits the bottom line with artists like Tognetti. Art needs the crowd to survive.
“I hope people keep buying tickets and please show up!” he says. “Not just to the gold-plated and big theater events, but to the ecology underneath – all the smaller shows and arenas, or all the undergrowth won’t be here in five years. You have to support it.”
The Crowd and I tour Canberra (August 6), Melbourne (August 7-8), Sydney (August 9-14) and Brisbane (August 15).