The Safest Ever Show About the World’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “The Crowd”

The Crowd
ACO, ANAM and The Consort of Melbourne
Concept by Richard Tognetti
Cinematography by Jon Frank
Directed by Matthew Lutton

In 1960 Elias Canetti published Crowds and Power, a taxonomy of the crowd drawing on anthropology, sociology, philosophy and psychology couched in a stream of lucid, aphoristic prose. Writing in the wake of the Third Reich, Canetti considered the relationship of the spontaneous crowd to the demonic-charismatic leader. He explored, in an unprecedented way, the survivor whose hidden satisfaction provides a new germ of despotic power.

Waving the book around in interviews, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti and the cinematographer Jon Frank promised a fusion of video and music that would address “the gamut of the crowd experience from alienation to the reinforcement of humanity” (to quote the programme). You can imagine my excitement. Finally, Australia’s premier chamber music ensemble would develop a multimedia programme around some historically significant and eminently relevant intellectual grist.

The ACO, students from ANAM and The Consort of Melbourne proved themselves versatile interpreters of the exciting and diverse programme. In perhaps the most interesting exploration of crowd dynamics (because the exploration is immanent to the compositions and the musicians on stage), the orchestra in Ives, Tognetti, Sibelius, Crumb, Schubert, Dean and Shostakovich is whittled down to the intimate quartets, trios and solos of Debussy, Feldman, Leifs and Chopin.

The music aside, the concert was deeply disappointing and even troubling, given the status and resources of the ACO and the Melbourne Festival. Ives’ The Unanswered Question opens beneath Frank’s beautiful, slow-motion footage of street scenes in New York. Faces and gestures emerge from the crowd in high definition and high frame rate detail. The mise-en-scène situates the fundamental antimony of the crowd as that between the unindividuated mass and the feeling individual. The gently emerging voices of Ives’ piece suits the images, but the cinematic gesture is a cliché, giving the impression one is watching Koyaanisqatsi with better music.

Tognetti’s suite (which sounds like something between the Carmina Burana and the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings) breaks in with thumping timpani beneath a quote from Nietzsche: “In individuals madness is the exception, in groups it is the rule.” Cue footage of Nazi rallies and bodies in concentration camps. The message is clear: Crowds are dangerous. There is nothing in the concert to suggest otherwise, no emancipatory crowd to contrast with the despotic ruler or contemporary political example to put the message into context.

The film then vacillates between interminable footage of football matches, street scenes and images of water, providing a pessimistic and narrow vision of the crowd today. After the tokenistic reference to the political crowd, the real axis of The Crowd is football and nature.

But between the show’s creation in 2010 and reworking in 2013, two important crowd-related events have taken place: The Arab Spring in all its complexity and the increased media hysteria around asylum seekers in all its banal horror. It says something about Australia, about our wilful ignorance of the rest of the world and fear of the crowd that the closest one gets to a spontaneous crowd is a football match or a mosh pit.

We like to talk about crises. Here’s one: The ethico-aesthetic crisis of Australian art music. It is revolting to trot out footage from Nazi Germany and the holocaust in the first five minutes of a concert to demonstrate the violence of the crowd upon the individual—and the charismatic leader upon crowds—and then leave the issue aside for an hour of comic relief. You can’t drop half an H-bomb. The use of images from the Third Reich also suggests that violence is only something that happened overseas and a long time ago. Today it is impossible not to know, despite the current government blackout on the issue, that thousands of people escaping their own crowd-related conflicts are held in woefully inadequate conditions in detention centres in and around Australia. If anything, this issue resonates with Canetti’s ideas about our fear of being touched, the distances we create around ourselves, “invisible crowds” and the self-aggrandising effects of “survival” psychology. Even if it appears impossible to film within these detention centres, surely a clever cinematographer would find ways of referencing the demonisation of this crowd by a few politicians and the media for their own ends.

But wouldn’t that be risky? Wouldn’t that be what crowds are all about?


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

3 thoughts on “The Safest Ever Show About the World’s Most Dangerous Topic: The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “The Crowd”

  1. Incisive review. Would you care to speculate as to some possible reasons why the collaboration produced what it did?
    What of the crowd that gathered for the concert? Was there a sense in which that, too, is dangerous? (And impotent?)

    1. Thanks Michael, I wish I knew more about the creative process of the work. From what I gather Tognetti passed the Canetti book on to Frank, who drew inspiration from it. The artists’ interviews suggest they focused on moments of synthesis between individual pieces and images rather than overarching narratives. There were some great moments, like the two different but flowing tempi of the train and the Chopin nocturne at the end. There is also an aproprioceptive pleasure in watching another face in slow motion—no matter how clichéd the device is—and the emerging, uncertain lines of Ives matched that experience.

      But an important part of post-war theory is its anti-humanist bent, its attempt to explain the more abstract or universal principles that allowed us compassionate, thinking, feeling humans to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust. I think this spirit was lost somewhere in the creative process, only to return in Frank’s attempt to link human crowds to crowds in nature. But there we are getting too universal! Suddenly the laws of the crowd are Laws of Nature, bypassing any opportunity for the crowd to change the world. We’re watching Baraka instead of Koyaanisqatsi.

      As to the crowd at the concert, so long as you weren’t sitting next to the screaming baby up the back or the couple who talked loudly throughout the entire concert in the front row, there was no danger. Concert crowds have been docile for a good hundred years now. If anything, the lack of desire to reflect upon the theme is dangerous because it makes for an easily manipulated crowd. Everyone I spoke to after the concert loved it! One person even reveled in letting it “wash over” them. And moment by moment there was a lot to love.

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