Crowd Out w/David Lang
Crowd Out
All images: David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

Crowd Out

The beginning

Early in 2015, I asked Donald Nally to join me as co-music director for a Chicago performance of David Lang’s crowd out, a work for 1000 untrained voices, written in 2014. It would be the work’s US premiere.

What is the power of a crowd?

When creating this piece, David had asked himself: What is the power of a crowd? What do we as individuals gain by joining with others? What do we lose? crowd out is his answer. Performers are scattered around a large venue, initially indistinguishable from audience members. They whisper a crowd-sourced text. Whispers turn to speech, which turns to shouts, which turns to song. Is this a celebration? A rally? Sports fans at a game? A congregation?

I approached the Chicago Humanities Festival about presenting the work, and in 2016, Illinois Humanities came on board. The work of these organizations complemented one another: Illinois Humanities, whose work brings together communities from across the state to “share ideas that matter,” would gather participants for crowd out; Chicago Humanities Festival, which presents a major annual festival of arts and ideas, would organize the day-of performance.

The project also received a $50,000 grant from the City of Chicago.


Donald Nally, co-music director
I’m interested in creative artists who are questioning how we receive information, how we interact with people. David is at the forefront of that. A piece that is by a crowd, about a crowd.

David Lang, composer
Twenty-five years ago, I was doing a project in London. I wandered through the neighborhood of Islington, where the Arsenal football team had their stadium. I was walking by right as a soccer match was about to begin. And someone was outside selling tickets. You entered this arena, there were 60,000 people, and they’re all singing, yelling, screaming. And occasionally there are these songs that every single person seems to know. A bunch of ordinary people making this music together. Everyone was welcome.

Bindu Poroori, Illinois Humanities
Crowd Out Chicago was an opportunity to develop relationships and have conversations about the state of the arts in our neighborhoods. We didn’t just want to engage with music groups, we wanted to engage with other community organizations. To be part of the conversations. None of us knew exactly what it was exactly going to look like. We just jumped in.

Heidi Hewitt, Chicago Humanities Festival
The scale, the partnership, the amount of players, that made it one-of-a-kind for us. I was a bit skeptical. I know how small Chicago Humanities Festival is, and what an undertaking it would be.

Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
I come from a background as a stage manager in musical theater, and the largest thing involved seventy preteen tap dancers…which is its own bout of chaos. But nothing like this!


Co-director Donald Nally and I discussed possible venues for crowd out over several months. Indoor, outdoor, stadium, park, mall. All had pros and cons.

Donald Nally
There is nothing wrong with the way that the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group produced [the premiere of] crowd out [in a shopping mall], but I had an aversion to the idea that the piece would be involved with commercial activity. We wanted to find an organic setting where a crowd didn’t feel unnatural, where one could choose to be in the midst of the performance, or find a place to observe.

Crowd Out Nally conducts

All images: David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities


Illinois Humanities set itself an ambitious goal: draw participants from all fifty wards of the city of Chicago. Each ward would have a “member ensemble,” but all city residents would be welcome to join. Each ward-based group had its own group leader. Illinois Humanities structured each ward’s rehearsal as part-conversation, part-rehearsal.

Bindu Poroori
We [contacted] choirs, art groups, after-school and church groups across the city. There were days when all we did was walk around a neighborhood, put up flyers, talk to the alderman and knock on church doors. We now know the distributions of denominations, about how people come together in different parts of the city.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna, group leader, Hubbard High School
Any time I have an opportunity to expose my students to something out of their neighborhood, that will give them a new experience, I jump on it. And I thought they might love that it is so unique and weird.

Bindu Poroori
We were looking through the lens of this piece, asking what it means for people to cross neighborhood lines, what it means for people to come together, and why they might be interested or hesitant about a project like this.

Michael “Mike” Jones, group leader, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
A thing that was important was giving them the experience to see something new and different. To go with the kids to meet in Millennium Park. I assumed they were all youth groups. Then to understand that it was everybody, all ages, cultures, genders? It was a great melting pot. I felt really proud for my kids.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The thing that drew me is that it was going to bring people together, to be representative of all fifty wards of Chicago.

Jefferey Thomas, Group Leader, The Hideout
It wasn’t my desire to put together a choir of really bitchin’ singers. I believed I could teach it to the most eclectic community group of people who could sing, or not sing, who were strangers.

I look at the world that we live in right now…I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me.”

David Lang
I look at the world that we live in right now, and I try to compare it to experiences I’ve had in choirs. I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me, I don’t like them, so I’m going to wreck their part.”


The music of crowd out is unusual in that there is no musical score, but rather something closer to a script. The work is divided into eight parts, and in each part David describes waves of activity that take place across four colored groups of performers (called “strands”). For instance, the work opens in this way: “ALL 4 STRANDS: each person independently, speak in a whisper at first and gradually move to normal voice, at a normal pace, repeating sentences in order, with varying lengths of silence between each sentence: I draw deep breaths, I feel more confident and calm…

Donald Nally
It’s a score that you look at and are not sure how it’s going to play out. In a more conventional composition, at any given time you can say “The texture is _____.”

Jefferey Thomas
Theater improvisers would be great group leaders. Cheerleaders would be great group leaders. You don’t have to be a trained singer. Even an alderman would be a group leader. Community organizers and activists would be great group leaders.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I teach high school on the south side, and my students aren’t exposed to much in the classical world, let alone in the contemporary new music world. My first reaction to the piece was, “My students are going to hate this.”


The crisis

Gathering a 1000-strong choir from across the city was no easy feat.

Crowd Out diversity

Bindu Poroori
There were five million moments when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. FIVE MILLION MOMENTS.

David Lang
During the making of this piece I realized the value of having something difficult that you need a community of people to accomplish. It is something very beautiful and powerful to me, people coming together to solve a problem.

Bindu Poroori
A lot of the stasis happened early. It seemed like a behemoth, and I didn’t know where to start. I was scared to have the first conversations, going in with the anxiety of “Who would want to do this?”

Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
You can’t explain [crowd out] in five minutes. You can’t be like, “We’re going to sing ‘Carol of the Bells’ by the Christmas tree.”

Jefferey Thomas
I ended up with several members [from another ward’s group]. They told me that their choir dropped out. And I asked why, and they said, “They didn’t understand it.”

“What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”

Bindu Poroori
If you want to do a project in a city as ethnically diverse and segregated as Chicago is, then the first question needs to be, “What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”

Michael “Mike” Jones
You know what I called it in my mind? Performance art. I thought it was really cool and different, and I thought, “How do I get my kids to buy in?” I told them about the piece, and you could see that confused look on their faces.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I started [rehearsing] the singing first. It was catchy, [the students] could open their hearts to it. When I started introducing them to the text, it was tough. I teach some kids who have tough lives, and the words are isolating.


Crowd Out kids

The text for Parts 4 and 7 includes these phrases, to be shouted: “I feel anxiety,” “I feel awful and I wish to be alone,” “I feel like rushing into tears,” “I feel so alone I could cry.”

Jefferey Thomas
That’s a problem with the libretto. It is kind of jarring. To sing those words, “I’m obsessed with being at the center of attention” in almost a plainchant way.

David Lang
crowd out is very introspective, and it can be a little bit of a downer, because it’s very serious about who you are, what you lose when you’re in this crowd.

Bindu Poroori
When I first started carting this piece around, it was with my implicit endorsement. A group would say, “There are things in this piece that make me feel uncomfortable,” and I felt on the defensive. I wish I’d said, “Here’s this controversial piece, that doesn’t speak to everybody. Now that you’re here, what does it evoke in you?”

Michael “Mike” Jones
[Musical Assistant] AJ [Keller] was really the deciding factor. His strength and confidence, and the way he was able to interact with the kids. Once AJ gave them background and substance, we were able to move forward. You could see them nodding their heads.

Bindu Poroori
At some point in February we made our naive timeline of how things were going to shape up. By May, all fifty groups and the entire schedule should have been put together. And it was a barren wasteland in May. One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.

One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground.

Heidi Hewitt
We didn’t know until July what the final timeline would be, and there was some mystery around what the number of participants would be. There were trust issues [between Illinois Humanities and Chicago Humanities Festival] that we had to overcome.

Bindu Poroori
In May, the Fyre Festival brouhaha was happening, with people turning up and nothing there. I remember thinking, “This is what crowd out is going to be.” It’s going to be me faking for a very long time, then October happening, and people being like, “Bindu, did this fail?”, and me being like, “Yes, it did.”

Donald Nally
I live my life going, “It’s okay if it doesn’t work this time.” A bunch of times I take similar risks, and not every one can be a home run. Once in a while I have to walk away and say, “Well, nobody died.”


Rehearsals took place at the ward level, then each group attended one of four “dress rehearsals” in the week before the performance.

Jefferey Thomas
At the Hideout [dress rehearsal], one person in another group criticized everything I did: “You know, there’s a space in here, and a space in here.” I thought that was wrong, to interpret it in this strict way. He was thinking of it as a “choir piece”, and that there are standards and traditions that must be observed. All the baggage that comes with performing “high” works of musical art. But crowd out is a piece for a crowd!

Bindu Poroori
As we got into the rehearsal process, as we realized that people coming together were so different from one another, it meant that the piece itself took on a thousand different meanings.


Crowd Out Full crowd

The performance

The performance took place on October 1, 2017, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, in front of Cloudgate, known to locals as “The Bean.” Donald Nally directed, with the help of six assistants holding cue-cards. Before the performance, there was an hourlong rehearsal in the nearby Pritzker “bowl”.

Donald Nally
With crowd out, we didn’t actually know how things would sound until we were in “The Bean” whispering. It was like rehearsing a wind octet without four of the players.

Michael “Mike” Jones
It was exciting from the time we gathered at our school. We took a trip to McDonalds, and the students got what they wanted to eat.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The energy of being out with so many people! They were feeding off one another.

Heidi Hewitt
It was a full day of activities, of people getting to know each other. I feel like that is part of the piece.

Michael “Mike” Jones
When we were in the Pritzker, gathering, I wish that we’d had a warm up person or an emcee or a video, to get our minds working together: “Hey, everyone ready for crowd out?!”

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The [short final] rehearsal at the [Pritzker] bowl was more exciting than [the performance], because the sound was different there and it was the first time my students heard all 1,000 people together.

Donald Nally
We had to move quickly in our bowl rehearsal. I would have liked to run the piece, feel the form and structure of it, but we couldn’t do it. There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen.

Heidi Hewitt
When everyone was in the bowl it felt like it was in the 700s, but once we got to “The Bean,” it was so full. It had the power of a thousand.

Jefferey Thomas
Before the performance, people said, “Tell me about this piece. Can we do it?” All of a sudden, someone said, “It’s starting!” And I said to the new people, “Just stand here and watch.” They performed it without knowing the piece.

Donald Nally
The piece began, and it wasn’t just whispering, but also commenting on the whispering from people who weren’t in the piece. And they became quieter, really listening to the whispering.

Kait Samuels
People would come up to me and were like, “Where is the choir performing?” And I’m like, “All around you”.

Bindu Poroori
There were crying children, there were people trying to wiggle in front of “The Bean” to take a selfie. A woman was walking around with a cardboard cutout of Bernie Sanders. Someone overheard a tourist tell his friend, “I don’t know if I like this or I hate this, but I’m not going to forget it.”

Michael “Mike” Jones
I was surprised at the focus of everyone. The only word I can think of is “engulfing.” That’s what I tell everyone when we’re doing performances: When you get like people with the same goal in mind, you’re going to have success. No matter what your color, or age, or ethnicity, or background, the art will bring you together. Art is for all.

Kait Samuels
The gentleman with the hat, the very enthusiastic group leader [Jefferey Thomas], was just a joy to watch.

Crowd Out fun

Jefferey Thomas
I’m wearing this crazy suit and acting like a nutball. I was so focused on my group that I couldn’t focus on the larger work. I don’t even know what the piece sounds like.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I challenged myself to try to keep [the students] on their toes, avoiding rote monotony. When we’d do call and response, I tried to make things different.

Donald Nally
The people shouting together were surprised at the power they had. I was reminded of David Lang’s piece Statement to the Court. He said that while writing the piece he would stand in front of his computer and just shout.

Jefferey Thomas
I was having a conversation with my ensemble. In [the shouting of] Part Seven, I realized that the group was mocking me. I wanted them to taunt me more, really let me have it.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
One of the first comments my students made was, “I wish we were singing more.”

Bindu Poroori
The words on paper have a sense of sadness and loneliness, but when 1000 people were shouting or singing, the words were transformed.

Donald Nally
People commented that I looked like I was having such a good time in a melancholy piece. But it’s such a joyful thing to stand in one of the great public parks and invite the direction of this love and energy.

Bindu Poroori
Emotionally it felt so different from different parts of the crowd, with the amounts of casualness or non-casualness the groups were bringing.

Donald Nally
crowd out is a really intimate piece. It doesn’t look that way on the page, but people came up to me afterwards and said, “I really became very emotional.”

Kait Samuels
I heard a few people say, “Oh, I’ve never been part of a flash mob until now!” It took a lot to not be like, “It’s NOT a flash mob. It is a PERFORMANCE.” But, I thought, hey, at least you’re here, and you’re excited.

Heidi Hewitt
It was very powerful to watch David Lang participating with a group he didn’t know, and smiling, and proud.

David Lang
I went around to every single group and sang with them during the performance. I think I got to experience everyone from every ward of Chicago, from professional people to little kids. I think in a way I had the best experience.

Jefferey Thomas
I bet as a composer that would be amazing, to walk around your own forest of sound.

Michael “Mike” Jones
I was really proud of my kids. If they saw audience members who looked interested, they would say, “Look at this,” or “Follow this.”

Heidi Hewitt
It was lovely having the sign interpretation in and around the piece, and an app made it possible for deaf or hard-of-hearing people to select each “strand color” and follow along.

Bindu Poroori
Illinois Humanities now has this network of cultural organizations, venues, and community groups—a little phone book to help with collaborating across the city. We’re also going to be sending out a survey, and I’m working on a report that brings together notes from the community gatherings.

Crowd Out success

The participants of Mike Jones’ Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy were spurred by their experience with crowd out to create their own version of the work.

Michael “Mike” Jones
They want to call it “singled out.”

Aquantee Hendricks, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
When we arrived, we were some of the only people of color there, and we thought, “It would be funny if they understood how we feel sometimes in a crowd.”

Michael “Mike” Jones
They want it to express what it feels like to be one of the few African Americans in a place. You see another African American, and you give that head nod. We’re all looking for solidarity, whether it is gender, age, race, creed, or color.

Aquantee Hendricks
At first we were just playing around. They started thinking of concepts, the way it could look, how it could start. Incorporating pieces we already have. It started making sense.

Michael “Mike” Jones
I’m excited that it’s student driven. My hope is that it grows, and organizations like Encore [a choir of seniors] would ask, “What does it feel like to be a senior in a crowd?” Or [a group of women], “What is it like to be the only woman in a world where white men make all the decisions?”

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter


Tim Munro is a Chicago-based, triple-Grammy-winning musician. His diverse work as a flutist, speaker, writer and teacher is united by a single goal: to draw audiences into an engrossing and whimsical musical world. Born in Brisbane, Australia, Tim was the flutist and co-artistic director of the chamber ensemble eighth blackbird from 2006 till 2015. As a member of eighth blackbird, Tim performed at major concert venues in 40 US states and abroad, worked as soloist with America’s finest orchestras, curated three music festivals, and premiered more than 100 new works,... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.