A Composer's Adventures

FLASHMOBS—THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

flashmob

A flashmob in Sabadell, Spain, with the participation of 100 people from the Vallès Symphony Orchestra.

I got sucked into YouTube with several flashmobs happening in malls, train stations and other places in different parts of the world. Some of the scenes are worth sharing.

The great attraction to me is the spirit and goodwill of these events. To hear familiar music performed in new environments for an unsuspecting public gives it new life. Suddenly ordinary “shoppers” sing a scene from Traviata or Carmen in a department store. It completely reframes the music for me, as if a great director has turned a mundane world into a work of art. The people who are lucky enough to be near a flashmob are obviously delighted to see these scenes unfold in a familiar place. Suddenly spirits are lifted and everything seems possible. Here is a wonderful example.

The instant connection that is made between these opera characters and the general public really defies the notion that opera is an art form for the elite. When people hear it, they usually love it — as they do by the millions when the MET in New York transmits operas directly to movie screens around the world. The cost is close to a movie ticket. The “elite” label probably comes from the high price of going to an actual opera house, and the formal dress and behavior. Gone are the days when opera audiences booed and threw tomatoes.

Here is more flash-mobbing, which the performers seem to love as well.

Also dance flashmob events like these scenes in the Antwerp train station and in Moscow plaza are just plain fun and appeal for their energy and spontaneity.

The formality of music and dance concerts has always been awkward to me. The same goes for jazz. I especially feel I’m an outside observer when jazz is played in large halls and I’m sitting in a row of chairs instead of enjoying my beer in a club. The jazz musicians probably feel the same way, because they are generally less spontaneous in formal halls.

How can concert halls and opera houses imitate the feeling and excitement of flashmobs? Perhaps this is a question for architects and acousticians to work out — how to connect the public to the performer and remove what is known in the theater as “the fourth wall” and invite the listener in.

If you look at any of the links to flashmobs you’ll see in people’s faces what I’m talking about — curiosity, smiles, laughter, dancing, children waving their arms and jumping up and down, all the signs of happiness. The crown prince of Bhutan, Sasho Wangchuck, has just declared that his country is focusing on the “Gross National Happiness” rather than the GDP. Perhaps he is a fan of flashmobs.

Michael Colgrass

6 Comments

  1. I’m so glad that you have written about these Michael. They ALWAYS make me cry and I think it is for the reason that you articulate…connection; surprise; elevating the mundane. We did a flash mob (Bolero) here at Cornell during commencement activities in the spring…a big hit.

  2. These are marvelous. I love the incongruity and of course that’s what gives these situations their charm. I’m sure that the performers also get a great kick out of it as well. I expect we’ll see more and more of it. Of course the advertising agencies are sure to get in on the act and that will be a big drag – I’m sure they already are…

    As a jazz musician I don’t always feel that I need to be having a beer in a club to enjoy a performance. A club is OK as long as there isn’t a plethora of yahoos. Some jazz music suits a concert setting, only because of it’s subtle or sophisticated nature. I like your idea of the architects getting involved in addressing this option. Actually I did the first performance of my Body Electric band in a large room (not usually a concert venue just a large university meeting room) with the audience around me. We, the musicians, faced each other in a circle and the audience was seated around us. I really liked doing it that way. The musicians could see and relate to each other easily and, of course, hear each other. It might be pointed out that someone’s back was always to the audience but then the audience could see all of the other members. I also liked the idea that we were ‘playing to the center if you will’ and the audience was honoring the same idea. There is a bad quality video of that performance here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odD6kdpjxSc

    Theaters in the round exist but I don’t believe they are popular – you would know Michael. I remember doing gigs on the circular stage at Ontario place and the stage revolved but the revolving aspect was a bit strange.

    • Bruce,

      Your comment about theater-in-the-round caught my attention because I have always enjoyed that kind of venue. I remember seeing a young Dustin Hoffman in a play called “Eh?” at Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village back in the early sixties. It was my first time “in the round” and appreciated being only a few feet away from the actors. Later I saw productions of Three Sisters and Hamlet at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which I still remember because of the proximity to the stage and feeling of intimacy.
      I also recall so many jam sessions I either played in or attended in small rooms in the Chicago area. No, I didn’t need a beer in my hand—just the atmosphere and ambience was enough.

  3. Cynthia,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m sure you had fun doing the Bolero as a Flashmob at CU. I’ve never been in the presence of a flashmob myself and look forward to the time when I will get caught in one by surprise somewhere out in public. One of the delights for me in viewing videos of flashmobs is the look of surprised curiosity on the faces of young children. I find it interesting that some adults look suspicious at first, especially men, as if they were saying “What the hell is this?”

  4. I love flashmobs, so often we get caught up in a routine: wake up, do a job, lather-rinse-repeat; and I think that flashmobs remind us that life is meant to be enjoyed, that seizing the day means loving every minute of every day, and that humans are never meant to be isolated.

Leave a reply