THE CROWD & I
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Monday August 15, 2022
I would have thought that putting this exercise into operation was pretty simple. For all that, the process seems to have taken a number of years before it grew into its current form. The construct’s realization came from three prime sources: the ACO’s artistic director Richard Tognetti, film and staging director Nigel Jamieson, cinematographer and editor Jon Frank. Of course, a cast of several assisted this creative trinity, but the actual composite whole boiled down to a sequence of film sequences for the eyes and a collation of musics for the ears.
I’ve seen one of these collaborations before, when Tognetti went into partnership with photographer Bill Henson for Luminous in 2005. I think the surf/water one came my way at some time but nothing remains in the memory about that; Mountain, from about five years ago, remains a personal terra incognita, if not quite nullius. You can find little to take exception to in The Crowd & I; visually, it’s occasionally gripping and at other times tedious; with its musical stratum, the success rate is just about the same. So, much of the presentation fell outside my competence level, and the ACO’s contribution was hard to assess as the body seemed to be amplified for part of the night and the corps had mixed success with some works; not so much with the notes’ production but in how they sounded.
Along with the organization’s 16 strings (one down on the usual number, I think), we heard a flute/piccolo, a clarinet/bass clarinet, a bassoon/contrabassoon, a trumpet, a trombone/bass trombone, two percussionists and pianist Konstantin Shamray. Supplying vocal sounds came six members of Sydney’s Song Company. I think that summary includes all on-stage performers but can’t be sure: for much of the night, the musicians were working in darkness, a black-as-pitch pit situation with some strange groupings being carried out. Further to this, certain moments had you wondering whether you should just give up and watch the films rather than trying to make logical sense out of what you were hearing. For instance, during Ives’ The Unanswered Question, I could have sworn I saw an extra (anonymous) flute taking part in the woodwind ejaculations. The night began with the first movement to Schubert’s B minor Symphony in a Tognetti arrangement where the 15 original winds were cut to five, the result being that both oboe and horn textures were sadly missed by those of us who are asinine enough to revere this splendid fragment.
But some readings succeeded well enough, like the Slow Waltz section of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices that accompanied images of refugee camps and their dispiriting mixture of desolation and overcrowding. A Shostakovich polka supported shots of football crowds in all their natural repulsive mindlessness. The sickening images of the Cronulla riots in 2005 made a fine melding with Tognetti’s own rabid Mosh Maggot, which title is an apt descriptor for each one of those who initiated (from a gutless distance) or took part in this national celebration. Also, the final sequence of a Japanese fast train speeding through a seemingly endless, self-perpetuating cityscape while Chopin’s Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne forged along its troubled, unhappy path made for a conclusion to the evening that transcended much of the program’s main body, colourful though this was in many parts.
In the end, you’re left with an old-fashioned entertainment which, in fact, has no pretensions to grandeur or wide range of thought; more, it’s a look at the multitude and the individual in different contexts: the crowd or I. As expected, the visual component(s) stole most of the thunder and it often required a wrench to give proper focus to what Tognetti and his cohorts were about. I never thought that I’d be distracted from the Molto adagio of Beethoven’s Op. 132 but Michael Wolf’s images of individual faces among a crushed host of Japanese commuters were among the most arresting sequences in this night’s work; as were the succeeding prospects of Hong Kong housing that resembled computer strips straight out of the Matrix films.
It’s clear (to me, at least) that Tognetti, Jamieson and Frank are content to face you with their combined vision and leave open whatever you choose to make of it. (Well, there’s nothing original in that observation: most of today’s arts avoid audience direction.) Certainly, there are crowds galore, some of them obviously Australian (not just the Cronulla sub-normals), some of them close to being in extremis like the refugees coming to land on Samos or Lesbos, others a mass of individual colours that somehow cancel out individuality as in the millions that gather on the banks of the Ganges. Juxtaposed or interspersed with these come single units, like an elder walking into the landscape of the Tanami while the camera pans back until his figure is just a fleck in the spinifex; or like the football fan captured by Dragan Aleksic whose creased face reflects his team’s fortunes from minute to minute but might just as well be witnessing yet another mind-numbing spectacle in today’s Ukraine.
Look, for me, Augustus’ pet put it best: Odi profanum volgus et arceo. It’s clearly a sign of social decrepitude but these days I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in a packed football stadium – and this from somebody who stood from 8:30 am to the final whistle at the 1970 Collingwood-Carlton grand final and who, at the same ground, watched with muted involvement as South Melbourne won their 2005 premiership cup. Despite the much-vaunted bonhomie of sports crowds, any generosity of spirit, tolerance and fellowship can disappear in a split second with an unintentional jostle, just as it can in a bar. What this night made me consider was the essential – for better or worse – isolation that pervades our society.
In the filmed imagery, you saw little sign of benevolence. No, it wasn’t all horror stories but the final message was a contradiction of the dean’s dictum: every man is an island, entire of itself. You may live in one of those Hong Kong pigeon coops, as a tour leader in that city described her home to me, but, just because you are thrust daily into a variety of social complexes, what follows isn’t membership of a philanthropic multitude. For assured social connection, you might have your family; all too often, that’s it. As a counterweight to this gloom, our aboriginal peoples are determined to speak individually of belonging to a ‘mob’; but I suppose that concept is vital if you are part of an all-too-easily dismissed minority.
But the majority of us have no such right of relationship. Friends? Sure, but, as you age, they become ships that disappear into the night. A multiplicity of associations give you a semblance of being part of the main, but all such clannish continents are built on sand; ask any politician. For my part, The Crowd & I impressed as a 15-part kaleidoscope of sombre sadness, bordering on depression; the world’s peoples are varied but rarely are you attracted to join in, even when faced with bland celebrations of the spectacularly little, like Ekka or Moomba. But I admired the probity of the ACO’s construct which persevered in its unflattering vision of humanity as, in line with the Schubert overture piece, unfinished.
You’d like to be optimistic about our future, as proposed in the night’s opening shot of the earth as a vital, beautiful object in space, before the camera zooms in on the globe’s details. As it was presented, our world is – from a distance – a breathtaking objet trouve. But then comes the rot: while you may hope for the dearest freshness deep down things, you rarely find it. Strangely enough, on this night, while recognizing several truncations and arrangements, a sort of buoyancy of spirit emerged, even out of the program’s more tenebrous music, bearing witness to Tognetti’s (assisted?) catholicity of vision.