Twenty-five years ago or so in London, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang bought a ticket to a soccer match on a lark and found himself surrounded by thousands of screaming fans who occasionally launched into more-or-less unison renditions of an assortment of lewd songs.
When: 3 p.m. Oct. 1
Where: Next to the sculpture, Cloud Gate (The Bean), Chase Promenade, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
“Here I was in this choral experience,” he said. “where no one had auditioned these people, no one had asked them whether or not they could sing. And yet somehow they were all singing this incredible music. The sound was deafening, and it was really exciting and a little terrifying too.”
It was revelation, and he set out to create a musical composition that would mirror this heady experience and be simple enough that anyone, no matter how well he or she could sing, could participate. The result is “crowd out,” which will receive its American premiere Oct. 1 on the Chase Promenade in Millennium Park next to the sculpture, Cloud Gate (The Bean).
The 40-minute choral work was written for 1,000 people, who are called on to yell, whisper, clap and engage in some rudimentary singing that does not require being able to read music. It debuted in Birmingham, England, in 2014 and has been performed twice since elsewhere in Europe. “We’re No. 4 and the first one in America, which is really exciting,” said Lang, who will be in attendance.
The idea for the Chicago presentation originated with flutist Tim Munro, who served from 2006 through 2015 as co-artistic director of the Chicago-based contemporary-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. He has long been a fan of the way Lang, co-founder and co-artistic director of the New York new-music collective Bang on a Can, bends the limits of sound and structure in his innovative compositions.
“I read about this project, and it blew the back of my head off,” Munro said. “How do you gather a thousand people together for a musical performance?” Munro secured the involvement of Donald Nally, who in March was named a 2017 American Composers Forum Champion of New Music. The conductor serves as director of choral organizations at Northwestern University, and he will lead the Chicago performance.
The two approached the Chicago Humanities Festival, which quickly signed on to the project, and Illinois Humanities joined soon thereafter as a co-organizer. “What really interested us was this idea of putting together this 1,000-voice choir, and early on we decided that we wanted this choir to represent all of Chicago,” said Paul Durica, Illinois Humanities’ director of programs.
Because the project aligns naturally with Chicago’s Year of Public Art, a series of initiatives that includes art commissions in neighborhoods across the city, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events is a major funder.
To achieve as broad a participation as possible, Illinois Humanities selected a choral group in each of the city’s 50 wards to spearhead the recruitment of participants and oversee one rehearsal in each of the districts. Among the groups taking part are the Mariachi Tradición Juvenil (Ward 15), Kelly High School Chorus (Ward 12) and Apollo Chorus (Ward 42).
One of the participants in “crowd out” will be artist Sandra Belford, who lives near Lincoln Square and became taken with Lang’s music on the soundtrack of the 2015 movie, “Youth.” She attended a rehearsal on Aug. 30 organized for Ward 32 by the Wicker Park Choral Singers at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western. It drew about 50 people.
“I can barely sing,” Belford said. “No choir would have me. The whole thing is supposed to be kind of chaotic, so I can just add my voice to the chaos.”
On the day of the performance, Nally and 50 crowd leaders throughout the 1,000-member choir will use hand gestures and colored cue cards to signal the section changes during “crowd out” and each participant will have a cheat sheet.
There will be no real differentiation between the audience and the performers and no guidelines for what observers are to do. “They can walk around,” Munro said. “They can stand in one place. They can sit on the periphery and take it all in, or they can grab a group and sing or shout along.”
No one really knows exactly how the final performance will turn out.
“Honestly, I don’t know how people are going to react,” Munro said. “And the other part of this whole experience is the danger of it. We will not gather with all 1,000 people until the day of the event.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.