More than 20 years ago I was performing in London and staying at a friend’s flat near the Arsenal stadium. One day, between rehearsals, I decided to go and watch a match. I’m not a big football fan, and I was there alone, feeling lonesome and a bit miserable. But as the match began, an amazing thing happened. Everyone in the stadium started to sing, and I found myself in the middle of a giant 38,000-strong choir. There was a huge repertoire of songs for every emotion – joy, defiance, taunting, encouragement, elation – and many hilarious ones of imaginatively lewd sexual ridicule.
It felt like being at a concert. But this was a crowd of everyday people, not professional singers, and they were singing and yelling and talking, all at the same time. It was exhilarating. We are not nearly so clever at our sporting events in America.
The experience has never left me, and the germ of the idea that was planted in my head in north London all those years ago has finally taken shape in a new piece, Crowd Out. For 1,000 voices, appropriately enough it premieres in England this weekend.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally like crowds. Of course, we are often in them. Many of the things we do in life are done in the presence of many other people. We can get a sense of community and strength from being part of a crowd, and often the environment of the crowd helps to shape how we feel about the purpose that brought us together. Religious crowds, sports crowds, military crowds, funerary crowds, political crowds: as the Nobel prize-winning author Elias Canetti noted in his landmark study Crowds and Power, the crowd takes on a life of its own, depending on its purpose, often regardless of the individual natures of the people within it.
I live in downtown New York City, in a very busy neighbourhood. When I moved there, more than 30 years ago, it was a sleepy, broken-down artist district. But over time the designer shops moved in and the art galleries moved out, and my street became overwhelmed by swarming masses of people. International tourists, shoppers from New Jersey, idling double-decker tour buses, film crews, food carts, bar hoppers – they are all camping out in front of my building, usually for about 18 hours a day, every day. I open my front door and I am part of a crowd, whether I want to be or not.
I decided to write a piece that would look at the individual in a crowd. I wanted to see if I could understand how I personally feel about being in one – about the balance between the things that we gain from being in a large group of people, and the things we lose. I am curious about what happens to me, as an individual, when I am trying to be part of a community.
There might be a huge number of singers in Crowd Out, but unlike many such works for massed voices, my interest is strictly on the individual. What is it that we gain by joining with others, and what is it that we lose? How does the innate, overwhelming nature of the crowd crowd out the things we are each most committed to, as individuals? In particular, I am interested in the kind of crowd created on the internet, how millions of individuals are now free to share endless information about themselves with others around the globe. We have never been more connected in time and text, and yet paradoxically never more emotionally separated.
Each performance (after Birmingham, Crowd Out is being performed in Berlin, then at the Spitalfields festival) will involve at least 1,000 local people, all amateurs, and each will be overseen by conductor Simon Halsey, who will be the only person reading music.
The singers talk, shout, whisper, clap and even sing set lines of simple text. The words themselves were crowd-sourced – they are search engine auto-completions of the sentence When I am in a crowd I … Every sentence begins with I and is a personal statement from someone, somewhere, about how that person feels inside a crowd. I didn’t use all the answers – I took out those that referred to specific people, that insulted a person or group, that said anything – good or bad – about a particular religion or nationality or gender, that endorsed or disparaged a particular commercial product or activity, that were pornographic. My interest was to make a text that would seem in some way universal, a list of feelings we might all be capable of having as individuals within any kind of crowd, wherever and with whomever we might find it.
I tried really hard to make a piece of music with a real shape and a real emotional trajectory. But I also have to say that I had a lot of fun. Just the idea of having 1,000 people yelling all together I AM ALONE makes me very happy.