We’ve all been there. Maybe it’s in the simplest, most affecting andante of a Mozart concerto. Maybe it’s right before Debussy’s faun languishes into ecstasy while the delicate ping of the crotale shimmers in the soft summer air. Maybe it’s in the hushed last minutes of Mahler’s Ninth, when the music is just barely breathing, the composer’s faltering heart struggling to beat, his soul’s transmigration from this earthly life teetering on the brink. The musicians are in rapt concentration. The pianissimos are as intimate as a whisper. The concert hall is transfixed.
And then, suddenly from somewhere in the back: “WHOARGGGHHAAAARRRAAAAAACK!!!”
Some cretin in a suit and tie in Row Q with his mind on autopilot has just let rip with a super sized hacker that is the audible equivalent of tossing a bag full of wet coffee grounds and broken eggshells at the Mona Lisa. Everyone in the hall hears it, musicians, conductor, the audience, even the ushers. You try to regain your composure. But it’s nearly impossible. Images of harsh punishment, of sentences handed down by hooded judges, of cruel executions with blunt instruments dance in your mind. You’d like to take this concert hall terrorist by the short hairs, strip him naked and hang him upside down from the loge for all to see and publicly rebuke.
The phenomenon of aggressive throat clearing in public settings is a subject best analyzed by behavioral psychologists. I myself think that much of the barking and hacking one hears at a concert is an unconscious expression of profound psychological discomfort, a discomfort brought on by feeling caught in a confined space with a large number of people all sharing emotions of extreme delicacy. The music expresses an intimacy that is simply too much for some audience members to tolerate in a public setting. They very likely are not even aware of their unease, but they reach out desperately for an emergency valve, an escape hatch from the confines of their deep feelings of internal discord. So the loud cough, most likely completely unconscious, is a way of saying “I can’t handle this, folks. You all may be crowding round Mahler’s deathbed for one final intimate confession. You may be letting Debussy whisper opium secrets into your ear. Perhaps you like being ravished by Takemitsu’s lush penumbras. BUT I AM OUTTA HERE!”
The other reading of the pathology of concert hall hacking says simply that people in a public place cannot bear a vacuum, and when a diminishing pianissimo in the hall goes below a certain minimum, the audience members will automatically compensate by contributing their own compensatory noise.
Concert coughing can be broken down in to several discrete categories. Herewith a rough itemizing:
1. THE IN-BETWEEN-MOVEMENT-PATTER: (This is sort of a classical music version of “The Wave” that sport fans love to do to distract themselves when their team is losing the game.) You know how it goes. A movement comes to a close. There is a general relaxing of the performers’ body language. Musicians adjust their stands. Maybe there’s a slight hint of retuning from the stage. It’s a moment of structural articulation. OK, but it’s also time for “The Patter.” That would be the light wave of ritualized coughing that spreads throughout the hall. This says, in effect, “I saved this all for now, so that I wouldn’t deface the music. Honest! I don’t really need to cough, but I just want you to know that I am such a well-trained and seasoned audience member that I know how to behave.” The conductor waits patiently for the patter to peter out. Time for the andante. Baton raised. Upbeat poised. BUT NO! One more ever so delicate “oo-ka oo-ka” from the first balcony adds one last discretionary coda to the coughing.
2. THE SOGGY-PHLEGM ANARCHIST HOOEY: This one can crop up at any point, being the result of a genuine biological condition. Guy in the next seat came to the concert with a chest cold in full bloom. Should have stayed home, of course. At the very least he has a civic responsibility to tamp down those gurgling, fruity eruptions originating deep inside his bacteria-infested lungs, but he doesn’t give a rat’s ass. Forget the music, friends. Just focus on staying out of the airborne toxic cloud that surrounds him and his unlucky neighbors.
3. THE NERVOUS TICKLE-IN-THE-THROAT BENCH ROCKER: This person is just too scattered to be at a concert. She checks her Blackberry between movements, causing a pale fluorescent glow to emerge from beneath her seat. She adjusts her body sixty-seven times before finding a comfortable position. She’s put on way too much cologne—“Down South” it’s called, the one that comes in that phallic salad-dressing bottle and is guaranteed to cause anyone in the same zip code to double over in anaphylactic shock. The cloud of suffocating scent surrounding her threatens to provoke spontaneous gasping among her neighbors. Now comes that fiendish little itch in the back of the esophagus. Her perfume is causing her and everyone in her vicinity to break out in uncontrollable croaking. All the seats in her row begin to creak and tremble, and since they’re all bolted to the floor together, they rock and roll in sympathetic vibration with her spasms. She rummages theatrically in her purse for a lozenge. You can’t really blame this person, but you wish she’d just take it outside into the lobby.
4. THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD: This is usually launched by an unwilling spouse, more often than not a sixty year old man who would much rather be home watching ESPN. The wife bought season tickets without even telling him. Doesn’t know what he’s listening to and hasn’t opened a program book in twenty years. Only musical composition of substance he recognizes is “Light My Fire” by the Doors. Without question this person is genuinely bored to death and would give his right arm to be ANYWHERE else but here. Cannot stand another minute of it. Fires the only weapon he has. But it’s a good one, a forty-decibel howitzer of a dry hack loud enough to wake the dead. That’ll show these effete turd blossoms!
Have I forgotten more categories? Your contributions gratefully accepted.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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