Is it a concert? A film? A theatrical experience? All of the above, really.

Just when you thought it was safe to venture back into the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, for another Australian Chamber Orchestra tour (how do they do so many, in any given year?), just when you think you’ve go a handle on the length, depth, breadth and shape of the orchestra’s “wares”, Richard Tognetti and team throw another curveball right at’cha.

With The Crowd, the ACO has bent it like Beckham. It’s been and gone, but it’s called The Crowd. My first reference point for anything of that title is a silent film, directed by King Vidor, released in 1928. Ah yes, I remember it well. Especially in hindsight, it’s regarded as a milestone in the art of cinema. For students of history, it was nominated for an award (Unique & Artistic Production) at the inaugural Oscars, the following year. But, as far as I know, this didn’t factor into RT’s thinking on the subject. But Gustave Le Bon’s book of the same name, that harks back even further (to 1895), did. Le Bon’s estimation of the power of the crowd was that of an indomitable force and, rather chillingly, his prescience in predicting the ensuing century would be the era of crowds seems to have been borne out in the blackest of ways, bearing out the social psychology he theorised, in terms of impulsiveness, irritability, volatility, inability to reason, and so on. RT’s other major literary influence in conceptualising this aural and visual adventure has been Elias Canetti: specifically, his tome, Crowds & Power. Canetti’s perspective on the crowd is more esoteric, poetic: he seems to see it as an organism of sorts, a kind of animal, acting in an elemental fashion. Tognetti sent a copy to filmmaker Jon Frank before they joined forces to deliver this cinematic opus, which puts me in mind of Koyaanisqatsi and its oeuvre.

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It’s a big subject to scope, but Tognetti and Frank have done a magnificent job: the project has grandeur and pathos; it will, I believe, prove as much an enduring work of art as Vidor’s tragic narrative. This isn’t the first time the pair have collaborated. In 2010, there was The Glide. Last year, The Reef. The Crowd actually came to fruition in 2011, but this was the first time it’d made it to Sydney, or any other part of Australia. This, because it premiered at Festival Maribor, of which Tognetti is also artistic director (because he just doesn’t have enough to do, apparently). It’s clear they have significant rapport and the proof is in the pudding.

The much augmented ACO took to the stage in very muted lighting, necessary so that we might direct our primary attention to the screen hovering high above. Beginning with Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, in a sequence entitled Preamble, Frank and Tognetti interpolated street scenes in New York, shot with profound romanticism; so much so, it might’ve been Paris, or even the Paris of the south, or Cairo, or anywhere your imagination takes you. Most riveting of all was the woman wearing a head scary and sunglasses, a kind of Hepburn, or Jackie O, an incognito icon, endowing herself with the mystique and consequent allure usually confined to movie stars and other celebrities. For all we know, she’s an ordinary person, caught on camera, catapulted from obscurity to stardom in a moment, guardedly protecting her long-standing anonymity from this suddenly emergent paparazzo. She is the cell, the atom, that makes the crowd: a massive molecular superstructure, entirely transformed by the experience. This is the crowd exposed: the soft underbelly of a single unit, which, standing alone on the pavement, can have has none of the collective impact. It’s an arresting introduction that sits neatly with the imploring, existential solo trumpet if Ives’ vaunted, haunted piece. And the very idea of being alone, on the street, in New York, a metropolis comprising over 8 million people is piquant in its very preposterousness.

Battle For Sanity is the following vignette. It shows a half-naked (hopefully only half) throng of men in a tribal ritual of barracking, by the look of it, for their football team. The title, thus, could hardly be more apt and Tognetti has composed Battle for the Crowd as accompaniment. Indeed, Tognetti has scored many (if not most) of the sequences, which include Mosh Maggot, contextualised to a sweat-drenched, up-close-and personal cinematographic encounter tight in the thick of a moshpit, at Perth’s Festival of Metal. Accordingly, RT has sought to capture the hard, hot edges of the experience, with an industrial soundscape that puts me in mind of the molten productivity of the Port Kembla steelworks, not too far from where he grew up.

By turns,  through sonic and visual suggestion, we’re led into battle, or duped, while watching a man, in closeup, moved to tears. Duped? Yes, craftily: the man, I believe, is at a soccer (sorry, football) match. He might be the coach, or some other stakeholder. I don’t know. But bearing in mind the selection of music, in Jean Sibelius’ Kuolema, the trail of emotive breadcrumbs suggests something rather more intrinsically shattering, such as the aftermath of a battle. Cunning, this alliance of filmmaker and musical director. But if you’re going to be duped, there’s no better way: the scenario is enough to move you to uncontrollable weeping, even if aware of the setup. From closeup to the microscopic universe of entangled vessels, a thicket of anatomical detail. This with George Crumb’s futuristic, anarchic cacophony entitled Black Angels: Sounds of Bones & Flutes.

There are so many dimensions to The Crowd, like Canetti, or Le Bon, or even Vidor, it stands as an authoritative chronicle on the subject, albeit in aesthetic, descriptive and emotional terms. Much imagination has been brought to bear, in the form of a diversity of visual and musical composition. Not only imagination, though, but discipline, which is what elevates the venture from being a grab-bag of heterogeneous tableaux, to a feature film with a profound holism.

With music by the likes of Brett Dean, Morton Feldman, Schubert, Chopin, Shostakovich and yet others, the corporate effect is lifted even higher, there being no more affecting illustration than that scored by the last, depicting a Nuremberg rally as a kind of macabre, choreographed dance.

This isn’t to say The Crowd is utterly flawless (one or two interludes seem topically tangential), but it’s an earnest approach to a very big theme. All in all, the experience is more cinematic than anything else and with a hundred or more musicians on stage, one wonders where the chamber orchestra went. But such is the magnitude of Richard Tognetti’s vision, one makes room.

The details: The Crowd played the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on October 13.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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