Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Night at the concert hall. There is a music to everything. The swishing of dresses. The hushed tones of excitement. The clinking of ice. The creaking of an old concert hall…

The lights dim. Regain their original brightness. Dim again. Is it already time? Voices hush so that the soft accents of swishing clothes can surface over the percussive undertone of polished shoes on carpet; the dry click of empty crystal on the marble counter. And soon, in the absence of the crowd, there remains only the polishing of the cocktail bar’s counter.

Must we follow? Naturally. For the music of this story, even heard from the front row, would scarcely be any easier to believe. So, from silence, we transfer into the amplified din of hushed voices whispering apologies as seats are gained for the main performance. Performance, by an assembled orchestra, of a music deemed by many to be more music than most. Though we will not be so hasty in our judgment of such a delicate affair.

The orchestra is too vast for it to assemble before the audience’s eye. So, like those guests one voluntarily omits to greet at a social gathering, they are simply there, upon the crowd’s arrival. Not to be granted an ovation of any kind. They are, in a word, the help. All dressed in iterations on the theme of servitude, of cogs in a greater machinery; they shall, for the crowd’s benefit, easily fit the part and not be cross if they are summarily ignored. They remain unnamed, for everyone’s comfort. And perhaps there is a music too, to this palpable relief, as felt by the crowd. But we will not dwell on it.

And, here we are. The tuning of the instruments. A frisson of anticipation travels the crowd. We need not specify here, that it possesses its own music. Rather, we will concentrate on the formidable effect that the tuning of instruments wields upon the gathered. How it primes! How it sets the stage. A spectacular auricular décor. Here a symbiosis is gently achieved. For, to say that all attend such distinguished performances for the same reasons would be, at the very least, presumptuous. There are as many unique circumstances that lead a person to the orchestra as there are souls present this night in the concert hall. Not to even broach the idea of the vast array of ways one experiences music. And therein lies the magic of the tuning of the instruments. For in secret, it is really a tuning of the crowd. A homogenisation of emotional states.

The sensitive members of the audience might consider this to be the true start point of the performance. So we will not demean them by mentioning our conversation from before, about the music in everything. Or how we may reasonably hyperbole and stretch our understanding of this performance to the very first vibrations we hear through the amniotic fluid and the wall of the womb.

Hear how the music fades now?

There is one precocious clap, which lingers significantly in the ear even as the precipitation of applause begins to swallow it from memory. And, even through the rain of applause, the confident footfalls of the conductor thunder through the auditorium. The conductor bows graciously. The lights dim over the crowd, and even here there is a subtle music at play. That of the surprise which only a few experience. Those few pedestrians who have not taken the care to study the booklet placed on every seat, which would have informed them that the soloist would not be joining the orchestra for the first musical piece.

The tip-tapping of the baton on the edge of the rostrum. A breath. Then the orchestra, without warning, explodes into a roaring grand opening. The blaring of the horns, the clash of symbols, the deep rumble of the drums.

The crowd is instantly humbled. There is so much noise, in fact, that the first execution of the night will almost certainly not take place until the arrival of the soloist. A fact, most would be willing to forgive. The piece that the conductor has so boldly selected is succinct. After all, the desired effect, that of gaining the upper hand, had been achieved from the very start.

The orchestra concludes sweepingly, and the crowd is silent a moment. The awe is palpable, and perhaps to this emotion alone can we attribute the perfect synchronisity achieved by the subsequent rush of applause. The conductor bows, masterful, in charge. Some of the ceremony of such event is of such mild tedium that, even despite such an explosive start, some stifled yawning can be underheard.

Again some applause. Not quite upon the appearance of the soloist, but on the sound of her first heel striking the ground. I will allow that, perhaps, some overzealous member of the audience, shall we say positioned on the very opposite edge of the front row, might have seen the soloist before anyone else. But please let us not tarry. The crowd must be allowed to get its feet under it, no?

The main bill. At last. Tension fills the air as the soloist adjusts the bench in relation to the keys of the piano and sits. The orchestra organises. The members of the crowd are not savages. In fact, you might have noticed the lengths to which they are described as, if not exemplary, at least average orchestra aficionados. Pages are rearranged last minute. And the decorum of such moments is preserved. Of course, there is some sub-auricular peremptory clearing of the glutinous membranes surrounding the trachea, or windpipe. This however is not an infraction. Quite the opposite. If the tuning of the instruments is truly the tuning of the crowd. Then, the peremptory clearing of the windpipe is the cue to put the crowd in mind of the impending hunt. An ecstatic thrill travels the crowd. Do not misinterpret. This foreplay of phlegm in throat is most revolting. No one present would disagree. To do so would be contrary to the modus operandi of such soirées. Such conscientious objectors can be found across town, where phlegm-inclusionist concert halls—a dying breed I assure you—host concerts of a wholly different nature upon which I will politely decline to comment any further. No, no one present in this music hall would disagree, for it is the very impetus of the affair that only a Machiavellian mastermind would have the discipline to pull off such a sadistic act as clearing one’s throat or, god forbid, cough outright, in a room full of decent people sitting elbow to elbow… A room, should I remind you, which has been specifically engineered to heighten even the most subtle whisper. Vile.

But, hear now the gentle introduction of the string, building on the already tense atmosphere and dying it with hues of mystery, of crime. One can only surmise whether conductors now curate their repertoire to what best befits the mood surrounding the hunt. Favouring pieces not only with dramatic silences and soft solos, but loud unexpected crashes of symbols and concussion of drums. To keep the audience on their toes, you’ll understand. What a enthralling show it creates! And everyone wondering who will be the first to break. Hoping. But not to the point of distraction. Never. Again, these people are not savages. The music is sublime and all are still here to enjoy it. However, when the first movement begins to hint that it is near its natural conclusion, the first cracks begin to appear. A restlessness builds in the hall. Perhaps even an unspoken annoyance with the conductor who chose too brief a piece to allow things to truly marinate in their juices and acquire their zest.

Given the chance, the more skilful will succeed in outlasting the piece altogether to cough during the brief intermission. Which in itself, I am disgusted to say, is also fair according to the rules of engagement. If only barely. Common decency dictates that a noble crowd should turn a dumb ear to such occurrences. However sick, however perverted. To think that these monsters should sit amongst this most noble crowd and have the cowardice to perform their depraved act during the intermission…

The baton is raised. The second movement of the piece, an adagio, promises to be quite combative. And wordlessly, every individual member of the audience prays that it prove inspirational for the marksman. Limber his digit a fraction. All hands raise to their instrument and with a wave of the conductor’s fine hand, the orchestra begins. Not explosive this time, rather, with marked…

Khehe… khehe!

Blam!

Hope it was worth it, you pig…

That everyone in the audience has thought some version or other of this admonition aimed at the now deceased cougher, is a fact of almost scientific accuracy. These truly sick individuals like to cut it close. They cultivate so much phlegm, and hold it too long to be completely sure that they can fully and effectively evacuate it all at once in the brief window offered by the silence between movements. Sooner or later, one of them always slips. It’s a matter of probability.

One less of the scum. The tension is released but only briefly as the orchestra hammers out bar after bar of the second movement. And for all its rhythmic leitmotifs, it is quite shockingly beautiful. Full of surprising depth of feeling. The pianist sways gently with her passionate rendition of works written centuries before her time. And no more persuasive an argument can ever be made that immortality can indeed be achieved, if only by a handful of truly masterful…

Khhaha… khaaha..

Blam!

Rot in hell, you devil!

Now, some might pose the supposition that there is a satisfaction derived from the idea that, as everyone goes home after the concert tonight, the world will undeniably be a better place. And, although I can easily credit such noble reasoning, I do not believe humankind to have such a sophisticated nature as that. I believe there is merely something cathartic to the punctual and irreversible execution. It is not only humane, but just, that such scoundrels should be slept by a swift and soundless bullet, never to awaken again. No one present, I don’t think, would advocate torture rather than the painless death offered to these most undeserving individuals. However heinous the crime, and it is indeed heinous, the crowd maintains a commendable amount of civility, you must admit.

The music reaches a thunderous end. Is there not indeed something to the idea of not clapping between the various movements of a piece? A certain poetry resides there in the silence. Of course, it is never exactly silence, for there are always some who possess such athletic powers of respiration that, even having their windpipe partially clogged by mucous, they nonetheless manage to reach the brief intermission before clearing it. I almost admire their discipline. Their endurance. However despicable. But, we are civilised and in the interest of fair play, we turn a collective dumb ear to the inevitable, if indescribably foul, phenomenon.

The pianist nods. The third movement is about to start. The baton lifts.

Khehe… kheherk.

Blam!

Judicious! Appropriate and judicious!

And indeed, what a marksman we have been offered tonight. It is a detail of course, even if no one would ever argue a wrongful death under such circumstances; that the music had not yet started. At the precise moment of coughing, the deceased cougher was, technically, still within the bounds of the intermission. I do grant you this observation, and how keen an ear you have. However! Surely you’ll agree with the crowd that there was something particularly distasteful and dishonest to the way in which the coughing was carried out? A simply unnecessary, almost vomital, retching at the very end? A detail, yes. But, in the end, when it comes down to split-second decision-making, the marksman, bless him, decided that he could simply not let such lack of decorum pass. A difficult decision to be sure. But judicious. I’m sure you agree.

See now how visually enthralling it is to see the different faction of the strings move their bows at different rhythms from one another. See how the ear confirms it. Both senses merging in a most blissful way. Finale: Alla breve. It is almost intuitive how everything comes gently to a head in this last most tastefully arranged…

Khhe!

Blam!

Filthy dog of a whore!

Why do they do it? Well, I think most would argue that some of us are just born crooked. The sad truth of the matter is that no one ever truly suspects him or herself to be a cougher. And yet, they invariably exist, do they not? It’s a matter of low-risk, high probability. Alas, such a poor grasp of probability is widespread in this day and age… But, say what you will, this particularly rampant sort of ignorance is, in the end, the very bread and butter of these concerts.

Listen here, how the horns perfectly counter-point the…

Clap!

Could someone be so out of their mind? Heresy! The movement was not even near finished. See how the crowd searches, uncertain whether the sound has really surfaced from one of their number. Could it be—as could sometimes happen and be correctly assessed as a forgivable offence—merely a violinist dropping his bow, or sheets of paper falling onto the ground? Oh, how I wish I could pretend.

The crowd remains silent. The disturbance was so unambiguously a clap the ensuing hesitation is justified. Luckily, it did not surface from one of the booths, or our spying upon this most historical evening might have been at an end! Can you imagine the shame of even being suspected of such heresy? Indeed, the infraction is so far removed from adequate conduct at a concert that even the marksman hesitates.

The crowd begins to whisper. Will the deranged perpetrator be allowed to live? Surely he cannot be suffered. So why such hesitation on the part of the marksman? The same marksman who has proven so judicious before? Why is no one screaming for the clapper’s head?

Or, can it be that our conception of everything is so corrupted and wrong? Are the very rules, upon which our society is based, complete hogwash? Dear lord, is the anonymous clapper somehow a visionary? A genius amongst men, such as only come about once every generation? Here to usher a new phase of existence? Pushing the hunt to new and unforeseen heights? A Mozart revolutionising the music scene in 1764. A Sempre Augustus bulb suddenly worth five hectares of land in 1637. A Stalin stepping onto the world stage in the 1930s, suddenly revealing to the world that mass-murdering one’s enemies is child-play compared to the mass murder of one’s own compatriots.

Of course, we can only suspect that such is indeed the reasoning of the crowd. But after such desecration of the natural order of things, such sacrilege of the laws that separate man from beast; who indeed would doubt it? Who could have fathomed the revolutionary effect such a simple gesture as clapping out of turn might have on the world? In the face of such scandalous roguery, the previous conception of the hunt now seems horribly infantile, unidimensional, short-sighted…

The effect upon the whole crowd is… undeniable. The enjoyment of the night’s concert, which had been so effortless, is now irreversibly spoiled. By the grace of God, the orchestra has not yet faltered. The professionals. The saints! The beautiful souls. For, were it not for them, pandemonium would have undeniably broken loose. Miraculously—sure there are a few lagging notes here and there, but you and I are generous by nature—the orchestra is still playing the third movement. Holding us all together. Such regard for music, strictly speaking, is what the marksman is meant to preserve. Can he still be deciding, or has he alread…

Blam!

And, just like that, the marksman has passed his verdict. A warning shot. The clapper remains alive for now. In the general stupor, the crowd is taken completely by surprise by the conclusion of the third movement. A nerve splinting silence fill the hall. When, at length, the applause comes, there are more than a few hands missing in action. However, the timing achieved by the crowd is laudable. Heroic! In the face of such soul-wrenching turmoil.

The volume of the applause suddenly increases. Perhaps the crowd seeks to applaud the humanity of the marksman’s gesture. Indeed, what philanthropy! What grandness of heart! To let the demented clapper, keep his worthless hide.

However, if you focus on the music of the ovation… is there not some tell-tale sign hidden there? A certain madness in the length of the applause. Surely any reasonable crowd would have ceased clapping by now. Perhaps, by force of habit… You’re right, maybe I’m listening too much into this. But, no! Here and there, see? Others have begun to notice. See? Something is brewing.

Despite the continuing applause, the pianist seems poised to begin anew. Her grace and gravity is mesmerizing. By God, you are right! A solo piece! Even a sniff could over power her. Doomed! We are… The applause obediently subsides, and the pianist begins. An arabesque. The pianist goes through the sacred flow of the transference of a written language into a landscape of sound. The crowd is instantly swept away by the playful delicacy of the music. Perhaps I was… misguided. The pianist is truly extraordinary. See how she hypnotises, the martyr. Was she any less…

But no, even if the stands and booths are bathed in semi-darkness, there are hints. The growing madness. Can’t you see it? Here and there through the crowd? See that woman there third from the side? See that glimmer in her eye? Heavens, what has gotten into her. And there! Dead centre, the flushing of that young man’s skin? Has the marksman noticed. Even then, what could he do? Executioner though he maybe, and an erudite, at that; he can’t be equipped to deal with lunacy of such magnitude? Psychosis on such a scale? Can he? Unthinkable. And yet, who else do we have?

The mood shifts noticeably in the auditorium. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when the crowd became aware of its new common purpose, it’s also impossible not to grasp the sheer force of the silent communal acknowledgement. The invisible presence of the marksman, the pianist’s prowess, are perhaps the only thing that now delay the inevitable. There will not be another warning shot.

As the pianist’s hands dance across the keys, in the collective unconscious of the crowd, the notion brews that it must all come together with perfect synchronicity. Wordless though this accord is, there’s certainly no denying its heft and persuasion. So that even those still uncontaminated by madness, soon become virulent with the unspoken countdown to the first clap. In the darkness, all heads begin to nod in unison with an uncanny coordination only the truly insane possess.

Lost in a musical trance, the pianist is helpless against what is to come. But in the next moment, it happens. At once, a thunderous applause explodes into being. The pianist is taken so entirely by surprise that she falls off her bench, slamming a discord of notes on the way.

Madness and delirium consume the crowd. All these previously respectable people clapping out of line. The lunacy of it! The poor pianist hadn’t been halfway through her piece when the clapping had begun. Out of nowhere. No! Not just clapping. Mad laughter and ecstatic coughing too. Coughing on an unimaginable scale. Phlegm flies across the room in prodigious amounts. Nothing, it seems, was an infraction any longer, in the tremendous uproar.

Clap, now! We too must join. Can you not think what will happen to us if we are singled out by such a deranged crowd. We must join in with the wild, unhinged, celebration. Please, if there is phlegm in you, you must find it!

Suddenly, as the crowd cheers in unison, there comes a powerful concussion. As unambiguous as the Clap that has infected everyone. A shot has been fired.

Blam!

Only one. The crowd’s celebration reaches a fevered pitch! It knows it has won. The marksman is dead.

Oh, it comes easier now.

Khehe… kheheerk…

Oh! Could you have imagined such relief? Could you have imagined that we would ever have come here to listen to music?

 

 

Copyright © 2021 by Etienne Robert

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