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 floorboards, of seats…

The lights dim; regain their original brightness. Dim again. Is it already time? A few shall-wes, followed by a hushing of voices. The soft accents of swishing dresses and pleated pants surface over the percussive undertone of polished shoes on velvet carpet; the dry click of almost empty crystal on the marble counter. And soon, in the absence of the crowd, there remains only the silent polishing of the cocktail bar, of its brass trim.

Must we follow? Naturally. For the true music of this story, even heard from the front row, would scarcely be any easier to believe. So, from silence, we too transfer into the amphitheatre where, at once, we hear an orchestra of amplified breathing and voices whispering apologies. Seats are gained for the main performance, this time by an assembled orchestra of musicians, 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 the guests one voluntarily omits to greet at a social gathering, they are simply there, upon the crowd’s arrival. Pretending to chat amongst themselves. 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 machine; they shall, for the crowd’s benefit, gracefully fill the part and not be cross if they are summarily ignored. They remain unnamed, also, for everyone’s comfort. And perhaps there is a music too, to this palpable relief, as felt by the crowd. Of appropriate misbehaviour. Of rudeness that can not be helped, thus liberating one to fully indulge the breadth of it. A vulgar music upon which, for everyone’s benefit, we will refrain from dwelling.

Ah, here we are. The tuning of the instruments. A frisson of anticipation travels the crowd. We need not specify here, that it too possesses its own music, even though it is not quite what most would agree constitutes music. Proper. 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; a symbolic opening of the curtains, if you will. Here, a subtle symbiosis is reached. For, to say that all attend such distinguished performances for the same reasons would be, at the very least, reductionist. There are, I believe, as many unique circumstances that lead a person to the orchestra as there are people present tonight in the concert hall. Not to even broach the subject of the vast array of ways one can experience music. And therein lies the mysterious magic of the tuning of the instruments. For in secret, it is really a tuning of the crowd. A homogenisation of emotional states. A dissociation of individual means from the common end.

The more sensitive members of the audience might consider this to be the true starting point of the performance. So we will not demean them by mentioning our conversation from before, about the music in everything; or how it may be entirely reasonable to hyperbole and stretch our understanding of the true starting point of this performance to the very first vibrations we receive as embryos through the amniotic fluid and the wall of the mother’s womb…

Hear how the tuning of the instrument fades, now?

One precocious clap resounds, at a signal, no doubt, from the conductor hiding in the wings. The clap lingers significantly in the ear even as the precipitation of the crowds ovation begins to swallow it from memory. And, even through this rain of applause, the confident footfalls of the conductor, striding towards his pedestal, thunder through the auditorium. The conductor reaches his pedestal and bows graciously. To crowd first, then to orchestra, and, one can only suspect, to the hidden executioner. The lights dim over the crowd, and a new more subtle music is at play. The tense music of a slight wonderment 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. It is an unsure music as some patiently await the start of the concert, while others await, poised to clap once again, for the soloist whose absence is growing stranger by the second.

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 awed, humbled. There is so much noise, in fact, that the first execution of the night will almost certainly not take place in the introduction. A fact that most will be willing to forgive. The piece that the conductor has so boldly selected is thankfully succinct. After all, the desired effect—a declaration of authority over the crowd—has now been undoubtedly achieved.

The orchestra concludes sweepingly, and the crowd is silent a moment. The shared angst is palpable, and perhaps to this emotion alone can we attribute the perfect synchronicity achieved by the subsequent rush of applause. Not a precocious clap is heard. Remarkable. The conductor bows, masterful, in charge. Some of the excessive decorum of such events is of such mild tedium that, even despite such an explosive start, some stifled yawning can be overheard.

Again some applause. This time, not quite perfectly timed with the appearance of the soloist, but rather on the sound of her heel striking the ground. A little bit rushed, but we 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, so to speak, yes?

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 I have described them as, if not exemplary, at least above average orchestra aficionados. On stage, sheet music is rearranged last minute, as anticipation builds for the coming piece. Of course, there always 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 throat is the cue to put the crowd in mind of the impending hunt. Accordingly, an ecstatic thrill travels the crowd.

Do not misinterpret. This foreplay of phlegm in throat is most revolting. No one present would disagree. To disagree with this statement, in fact, 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 to believe that only a Machiavellian sadist would pull off such an 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 over centuries to heighten even the most subtle whisper. Vile, I say!

But, hear now the soft introduction of the string, building on the already tense atmosphere and dying it with hues of mystery, of crime. Witty devil, our conductor. One has to surmise that conductors have evolved to curate their repertoire to what best befits the mood surrounding the hunt. Favouring pieces not only with dramatic silences and soft solos, but also loud unexpected crashes of symbols and concussion of drums. Almost…cinematic! That’s the word. Cinematic. To keep the audience on their toes, you’ll understand.

What an enthralling and visceral experience it creates! And everyone wondering who will be the first to break. Hoping for someone to break. But not to the point of distraction. Never. Again, I must insist, these people are not savages. Far from it. Indeed, I can see that some of society’s finest are present among us tonight. No, the music is sublime and all are still here to enjoy it.

However! However, now that the first movement begins to hint that it is nearing its natural conclusion, the first cracks in the fabric of the crowd begin to appear. An almost palpable restlessness builds in the hall. Perhaps, even an unspoken annoyance with the conductor who chose too brief a piece in order to allow things to truly marinate in their juices and acquire their zest.

Given the chance, the more skilful will undoubtedly succeed in outlasting the piece altogether, to cough safely during the brief intermission. Which in itself, I am disgusted to say, is also fair and in accordance with 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…

But tonight is truly unique in this respect. For not only does the first movement go off without a hitch, the brief intermission too somehow manages to remain phlegmless. What a feat! Oh, what promise. And the crowd knows it. Collective nerves as tightly wound as violin strings.

Oh, but watch! The baton is raised. The second movement of the piece, an adagio, promises to be quite combative. Wordlessly, every individual member of the audience prays that it may prove inspirational for the marksman. That it may limber his digit a fraction. All hands rise to their instrument and with a wave of the conductor’s fine hand, the orchestra begins anew. Not explosive this time, rather, with marked…

Khehe… khehe!

Blam!

Hope it was worth it, you pig!

Perhaps you think me harsh. Of course, I see that now. But listen: 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 depraved individuals like to cut it too close. They cultivate so much phlegm and hold it much too long to be entirely sure that they will be able to fully and effectively evacuate it all at once in the brief window offered by the silence between movements. Sooner or later, one of them slips. It’s a matter of probability.

One less of the scum. Is it so bad? Please, be at ease. It is only natural to feel as you do at first. Allow the blissful relief of the crowd to wash over you. Let us return to the music. There is something almost military to how orchestra hammers out bar after bar of the second movement, is there not? And for all its rhythmic leitmotifs, it is quite shockingly beautiful. Full of surprising depth of feeling. The soloist 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 compose…

Khhaha… khaaha..

Blam!

Rot in hell, you devil!

Now, some might pose the supposition that there is a certain satisfaction derived from the idea that, as everyone goes home after the concert tonight, the world will undeniably be a better place. Rid of vermin. 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 primaeval… 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 unworthy individuals. However heinous the crime, and it is indeed heinous, the crowd maintains a commendable amount of civility, you must admit.

The movement reaches its 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. Allowing the whole piece to have its say, uninterrupted, before the crowd can react. 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. And thus escape execution. I almost admire their discipline. Their endurance. However despicable. But, we are civilised and, in the interest of fair play, again 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 now-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.

And how disciplined the orchestra we have been granted tonight. All under the guidance of an imperturbable maestro. They never even flinched, the saints. 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 sublime 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. I too am outraged. 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 just so unambiguously a clap. The resulting hesitation is indeed 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 sacrilege? Indeed, the infraction is so far removed from adequate conduct at a concert that even the marksman is hesitating.

The crowd is whispering. The concerto still winds its wayward journey towards a conclusion. Will the deranged perpetrator be allowed to live? Surely he cannot be suffered. Surely he cannot. 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 in 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, revealing to the world that mass-murdering one’s enemies is child-play compared to mass-murdering one’s own compatriots.

Of course, we can only suspect that such is indeed the reasoning of the crowd. But after such a desecration of the natural order of things, such a sacrilege upon the laws that separate man from beast; who indeed would doubt it? Who could have fathomed the revolutionary effect that such a paltry act as a clap out of turn might wreak 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 angels! 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 fills the hall. When, at long last, the crowd applauds, there are more than a few hands missing in action. However, the synchronised timing achieved by the crowd at the onset of the applause is laudable. Heroic, really, in the face of such soul-wrenching turmoil.

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

However, I have to remark… Something is a little off here? Focus with me on the music of the ovation… is there not some tell-tale sign hidden there? A certain madness in the length of the applause? In the fervour? Surely any reasonable crowd would have ceased clapping by now. Perhaps, by force of habit… Oh, you’re right, maybe I’m listening too much into this. But, no! What’s this! Here and there, see? Others, like me, have begun to notice. See? Something is brewing, I am sure of it.

Despite the continuing applause, the pianist seems poised to begin anew. Her grace and gravity are mesmerizing. But will it be enough? I forget what comes next. By God, you are right! A solo piece, at this time? Impossible. In this tumult? She’ll be buried alive. Even a sniff could overpower her…

Sorry, yes you are right. I’m being dramatic. It’s just… but no. Listen, the applause is subsiding. Let’s regain our seats.

The pianist’s delicate hands rise and fall above the keys, and in the unsettling hush, she begins. An arabesque. The pianist goes through the sacred flow of the transference of a written language into a landscape of sound. Of past into present. The crowd is instantly swept away by the playful delicacy of the music. Perhaps I was… misguided. Please, forgive me. The pianist is truly extraordinary, you are right. See how she hypnotises? The martyr. Was she any less…

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

At once, the mood shifts noticeably in the auditorium. Although it may be impossible to pinpoint exactly when the crowd became aware of its new common purpose, it would be equally impossible not to grasp the sheer persuasion of the secret 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.

The pianist’s hands dance across the keys as, in the collective unconscious of the crowd, the notion brews that it must all come together with perfect synchronicity. Just what exactly it is remains unclear. And, wordless though this accord is, there certainly is no denying its heft and sway. So that even those as yet uncontaminated by the madness, soon become virulent with the unspoken countdown to the first clap. In the darkness, all heads begin to nod in unison with uncanny coordination known only to the truly insane.

Lost in a musical trance, the pianist is blind as to what is to come. The poor devil. The sacrificial lamb…

In the next moment, the unthinkable act takes place. Twelve hundred hands join together for one thunderous clap. A sonic blast that takes the poor pianist so entirely by surprise that she falls straight off her bench, slamming a powerful discord of notes on the way.

Madness and delirium consume the crowd. And from one clap—pandemonium. All these previously respectable people, now 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. Fountains of phlegm flying across the room in an endless gelatinous stream. Lawless. Barbaric. Nothing is an infraction any longer in the uproarious chaos.

Clap, now! I say, we too must join. And swift! 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 unhinged celebration. Please, if there is phlegm in you, you must find it!

Blam!

The crowd cheers in unison. Not even a moment separates the powerful concussion from the crowds reaction. The meaning is as unambiguous as the Clap that has infected everyone. A shot fired. Only one. The crowd’s celebration reaches a fevered pitch. Look how they rave. They know they have won. The marksman is dead. The marksman has shot himself!

Khe… khe…

Oh, it comes easier now.

Khehe… kheheerk…

Cough with me. Now! You must. You must! Clear your lungs once and for all.

Khehe… kheheerrrk…

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

 © 2022 Etienne Robert.  All rights reserved.

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