The other day on Interstate 65 in Alabama, two women were driving and one cut the other off. And the first began to think, what's that miserable sow cutting me off for and why the hell doesn't she realize that it's been a long day, I'm late already and if anybody in this jagged, nasty asphalt world gave a damn about humanity, they'd teach her a thing or two. And then she revved her own car past the first one, pulled in front and jammed on the brakes, and thought, there, you wretched cuss, take that. And so it went until one of these two women--who didn't know each other and had no criminal records--ended up lying in a bloody pile beside the open window of the car of the other woman, who was crying and thrashing about and saying, "I shot her. I can't believe I shot her."
The other night, I was sitting in a concert hall listening to Chopin in his most tender, most haunted voice, singing about something like how painful it is to have leftover hope when the person you love is already dead and gone. Behind me, a man started coughing.
He kept coughing--slow, unmetrical, unpredictable coughs, one after another. They were stifled coughs, the worst kind, ostentatiously smothered into something like a stage whisper.
An explosive cough from somewhere up in the nether reaches of the balcony is like a thunderclap in the distance; it doesn't necessarily presage a full storm. But these coughs were mean, surreptitious coughs, little furtive coughs that suggested something intentionally rude and provocative. In the stairwell of New York's Whitney Museum, there is a tape of this kind of coughing. Yoko Ono made it and called it "Cough Piece." Maybe a Fluxus thing. It's one of the ugliest things anyone ever put in an art gallery. It certainly doesn't belong in a concert hall.
The music in question was all about the dignity of self-mastery in the face of overwhelming sadness, and here was this man behind me who seemed to be a mass of symptoms and sniffles and coughs and ahems and all the other things that insignificant people do in public as if to say, hey, pay attention to little, insignificant me.
Turns out the man, an elderly man, was unable to walk easily and so couldn't leave the auditorium when he began coughing. I listened to him during intermission: He was a quiet man, an articulate man, a lover of the same music I love. And they weren't the worst coughs in the world. They were quiet. He tried to suppress them.
I felt like a cad. Worse than that. How strange that we can so freely and extravagantly hate a person we've never met, imagine elaborate and Machiavellian motives for them, create a personal demon out of a small man in a nice suit and natty old tie of dubious width.
Road Rage is alive and well and playing in a concert hall near you. Road Rage and Chopin Rage share this: Both are caused by congestion; both happen in public places where people, paradoxically, crave quiet and aloneness; both involve misdirected anger at things about which we can do nothing; both take free-floating anger and direct it, suddenly, at an unknown person.
It's commonplace to say that live performance is about sharing an experience with others. The concert experience is about music and those two thousand other people, about finding in their raptures confirmation of our own ecstasy. When they applaud and cheer and stand, you know that that little, tiny thing inside you that said, yes, maybe this is God, wasn't just telling stories. So we say, by habit, that there is nothing that compares to hearing the music live.
And yet it's so easy to hate it. At the Kennedy Center that evening, the gawd-awful ceiling of the Concert Hall droned down on the upward gaze with all the repetitive tedium of the wallpaper in a dentist's office. The people around you . . . who are they, and what are these tiny scraps of conversation one hears? "And I said to him, like, why not?" Sartre was right: Hell is other people.
The concert hall may be the most civilized place in the world. It has no particular reason to exist except to serve the most refined needs and desires of a prosperous people. Yet I've seen old men brandish their canes at each other in the ticket line of the Metropolitan Opera. I've seen people turn 180 degrees in their seats and slap the noisy person behind them with a program book. I even saw a woman bury her face in a shopping bag filled with fish and berate them, but she may not have been normal.
Our highways are also civilized, no matter how much we like to say things like "It's a jungle out there." They are the emblem of our own particular civilization, its excesses and beauties. We design our automobiles like personal living rooms, complete with phone, fax and stereo system. The highway, at night especially, is beautiful, a place in which we become private atoms in the flow of something larger and more vital.
That violence can erupt in these luxury cocoons, or in the luxury hive of the concert hall, says a lot about that thin line between the ego and the id. It seems to say that we, who manage rage on a daily basis as if it were a slow-draining sink about to overflow, are at our most defenseless when we expect to find private time in a public place. The Chopin sonata that is interrupted by coughing, the quiet drive-time hour with NPR and the remains of the morning coffee are moments of anonymity, communion with oneself made just a little bit less lonely by all the other people around you. And to have them interrupted takes us back, instantly, to the child who saves the red cherry for last, only to have it stolen by his brother.
The Chopin that suffered the asthmatic counterpoint a few weeks ago was perhaps the composer's most death-obsessed work, the Sonata in B Minor. A sonata in which the third movement is a funeral march and the fourth a flurry of wind through the graveyard. The composer, who died of tuberculosis, may well have coughed during the composition and performance of it. Coughing and this music are close cousins. If it could come out of Chopin's head so perfectly beautiful, despite the coughing, why can't it enter the listener's head, perfectly beautiful, despite the coughing?
We expect too much of the concert hall. The ticket is not a contract promising transcendence, perfection and perfect silence. It's a short lease on a seat that will, hopefully, be in earshot of something that we must work at to find beautiful. In our minds, it seems as if a ticket is an invitation to snuggle in the lap of a brilliant performer, receiving personal music addressed entirely to us. In practice, it's more like trying to hear Chopin playing at the far end of a crowded Metro car.
We live with noise, white noise, 24-7 in our quotidian world. What distracts us in the concert hall is the opposite of white noise, something that is difficult to filter out and ignore. Call it, perhaps, black noise, an aural reminder of how quickly some kinds of distraction and annoyance can bypass reason, lay waste to our best civilized rationales, and take root directly in that part of the body that wants to reach out and throttle someone. The question is, if we suppress the urge in the concert hall, or on the road, will it break out somewhere else with even greater fury?