Moshpits, megacities and Mecca: ‘overwhelming’ new film captures the brutality and beauty of crowds

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There’s an extra edge to being in a crowd these days. Once we might have asked, will this crowd jostle or crush me? Now we ask, will this crowd make me sick? Will this crowd 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 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 tomato fight – with a live orchestra playing in time.

Tognetti himself is not particularly fond of crowds. “I have a personal dislike of 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 rather have seen them at the 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 split into 13 chapters, with footage from around the world of every kind of crowd: a swarm at Coachella, sprawling refugee camps, packed commuter trains, drone footage of protests and close encounters with riots. Some footage was captured by the likes of artist Ai Weiwei and cinematographer Jon Frank, who worked closely with the ACO on The Reef.

Tognetti compiled the soundtrack, zipping between Chopin, Sibelius and Beethoven to modern US composer Morton Feldman and even his own. Each piece gives rise to a different flavour of emotion in the viewer; to handle the dramatic switches in mood between the chapters, the ACO have expanded its 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 Saturday before touring, promises to be intensely emotional and thought-provoking – like the best of the ACO’s work over the last few decades, including 2005’s Luminous, made with photographer Bill Henson.

Throughout the performance the crowds shapeshift: sometimes they are menacing, sometimes celebratory, sometimes uplifting, sometimes dangerous. There is a spectacular clip of a moshpit – hundreds of young bodies hurtling towards each other, colliding without malice – which is accompanied by an original Tognetti composition titled Mosh Maggot. But the most affecting chapter (among many) is Tide, which includes CCTV footage of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Black Lives Matter marches across the world.

“When you see the footage, it’s overwhelming,” says Tognetti. “The marches spread like a tidal wave throughout the world. We didn’t want to imbue the music with operatic drama – we didn’t need to. Like any good art, the more preachy it is, the less room there is for poetry.”

Also overwhelming, even after all these years, is seeing footage of the Cronulla riots, filmed by photojournalist Craig Greenhill. “Some people may say ‘I’ve already 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 free from blame.”

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 really quickly – but what it lacked was an overarching directorial vision and so Jamieson came on board.” The two men picked the work up again during the 2020 lockdown and found that “the last 3% that takes 99% of the money and the time. It’s been a couple of years of crafting and chiselling away.”

The Crowd and I has changed over the decade: “It started off 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 of both: yes, crowds can be dangerous and scary – but as we’ve learned in the pandemic, we also often need and crave communal experience.

Any fear of crowds also hits the bottom line of artists such as Tognetti. The arts need the crowd to survive.

“I hope people continue to buy tickets and please turn up!” he says. “Not to just the gold-plated and big theatrical events but to the ecology underneath – all the smaller shows and venues, or all the undergrowth won’t be here in five years. You have to support it.”

  • The Crowd and I is touring to Canberra (6 August), Melbourne (7-8 August), Sydney (9-14 August) and Brisbane (15 August).

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