There’s an extra perk to being in a crowd these days. Once we could have asked, will this crowd push me or crush me? Now we ask, will this crowd make me sick? Will this mob kill me? As new waves of Covid and new variants keep coming, 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 Sydney home, the musician and songwriter is working on a new production with director Nigel Jamieson called The Crowd and I, which combines footage of crowds – from Black Lives Matter protests to Spain’s annual mass tomato fight – with a live orchestra playing on time.
Tognetti himself is not particularly fond of crowds. “I have a personal dislike of being in them,” he said. “I’ve been to a few arena shows and would choose not to go again. I saw the Rolling Stones at an arena show, but I’d rather see them at 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 divided into 13 chapters, with footage from around the world of every type of crowd: a swarm at Coachella, sprawling refugee camps, crowded trains, footage of drone protests and close encounters with riots. . Some images were captured by artists such as artist Ai Weiwei and cinematographer Jon Frank, who worked closely with ACO on The Reef.
Tognetti compiled the soundtrack, ranging 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 deal with the dramatic mood swings between chapters, ACO has expanded its ranks for the performance and will feature brass and woodwinds, live electronics and vocalists from the Song Company.
The performance, which kicks off in Canberra on the 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.
Over the course of the performance, the crowds change shape: sometimes menacing, sometimes celebratory, sometimes cheering, sometimes dangerous. There is a spectacular clip of a moshpit – hundreds of young bodies bumping into each other, crashing without malice – which is accompanied by an original composition by Tognetti titled Mosh Maggot. But the most poignant chapter (among many) is Tide, which includes CCTV footage of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter marches around the world.
“When you see the footage, it’s impressive,” says Tognetti. “The marches spread like a tidal wave across the world. We didn’t want to imbue the music with operatic drama – we didn’t need to. Like any good art, the more preacher there is, the less room there is for poetry.”
Also impressive, even after all these years, is seeing footage of the Cronulla riots, filmed by photojournalist Craig Greenhill. “Some people might say, ‘I’ve seen this, I don’t need to see this again.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yes you do,’” says Tognetti. “No one is innocent – no one is blameless.”
The genesis of the show was in 2008, when Tognetti received funding to “dream about wicked and wild things. I wanted to do something for the audience and put it together quickly – but what was lacking was a comprehensive vision of the direction and so Jamieson came on board.” The two men resumed work during the 2020 lockdown and found that “the last 3% consume 99% of their money and time. It took a few years of crafting and chiseling.”
The crowd and I have changed over the decade: “It started with a more misanthropic trend – crowds are scary, crowds are dangerous. It was easier to be dark than light.” In the final version, there is an interplay of both: yes, crowds can be dangerous and scary – but as we learned in the pandemic, we also need and crave community experience.
Any fear of crowds also hits the bottom line for artists like Tognetti. The arts need the crowd to survive.
“I hope people will continue to buy tickets and please show up!” he says. “Not just for the big gold-plated theatrical events, but for the underlying ecology – all the smaller shows and venues, or all the undergrowth won’t be here in five years. You have to support him.”
The Crowd and I are touring Canberra (August 6), Melbourne (August 7-8), Sydney (August 9-14) and Brisbane (August 15).