The Immortal Cough

by Michael Upchurch


If you ever had your Bach, Beethoven, Bartók or Britten on 33 RPM vinyl or 78 RPM shellac, you will have heard my Great Aunt Tilda—even if you’ve never heard of her.

She appeared on every prestigious classical-music label—Deutsche Grammophon, Archiv Produktion, Philips, RCA Red Label, CBS Masterworks—from the late 1930s to the mid-1970s. (She did not, fortunately, live long into the 1980s, by which time, thanks to the digital re-mastering of recordings from the vault, her legacy had been all but obliterated.)

In our family, when she came to visit, we did our subversive best to be prepared. Candy bowls were filled with cough drops. Medicine cabinets were stocked with cough syrup. We laid in copious amounts of Vicks VapoRub.

All to no avail—for Tilda would no more have considered tampering with her chronic chest congestion than Louis Armstrong would have agreed to clear his throat in order to get a cleaner, less gravelly vocal sound. Nor would she ever have dreamed of seeking treatment for her numerous allergies—allergies that kept her “instrument,” as she called it, in fine form from early March through late July.

She encouraged us to mimic her, though none of us was remotely in her league. She wasn’t a large woman, yet her cough had the resonance of a depth-charge going off. Even as a teenager she’d been endowed with formidable bronchial powers.

The first preserved record of her gift was the debut of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, with Zoltán Székely as soloist and Willem Mengelberg conducting. This was in March of 1939. Although war clouds loomed on the horizon, attempts were still being made to adhere to some kind of concert-hall normality. One token of this normality was the presentation of new compositions by internationally acclaimed composers striving to make their final cogent musical statements before their civilized world was swept away by six years of destruction and genocide.

Tilda was just seventeen years old, with all the precocity that teenagers sometimes have. She had been a fan of the earlier thornier Bartók, especially his chamber works, and from the start of this new piece, with its gentle strummed-harp opening, she had her doubts. As the music progressed and its violin pyrotechnics spoke as much of serenity as angst, her displeasure increased—and she felt the urge to make her displeasure known. Bartók in his prior compositions, to her mind, had masterfully conveyed a sense of threat or cosmic annihilation about to overwhelm humanity, and it seemed absurd to her that, with Hitler at the border, he was now offering his listeners something that conceivably could be construed at moments as serene or even playful. She registered her disapproval with a tentative “A-hem!” during a quiet interval somewhere around the twelfth minute of the Allegro non troppo. She then proceeded to grow more and more eruptive and clamorous until, by the close of the piece, she was practically rivaling the percussion section in her contributions to the musical proceedings.

The 1973 Hungaroton vinyl issue of the concert, which she bought the moment it came out, had been technologically cleaned up to reduce the surface racket of the original 78 RPMrecording—and it made her furious. Most casual listeners to the LP would say the noise had not been reduced nearly enough. But not my Great Aunt Tilda. Her throaty commentary, she fumed, had been all but eradicated. Nevertheless, she insisted there were still a few moments, especially during the central Andante tranquillo, when the vestiges of her performance could be audibly discerned.

We listened closely, but we weren’t convinced—just as we hadn’t been convinced by most of the earlier LPs she claimed to have appeared on: Bernstein’s live recording of Mahler No. 2, for instance, or any number of Stokowski projects for the Decca label. The one box-set where she almost had us believing her was of Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim taking on all the Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano at the Edinburgh Festival in 1970. Certainly the coughing on the 1976 EMI vinyl issue was copious—to the point where it was impossible to pick out Aunt Tilda’s rumblings from those of the crowd around her.

Still, she insisted that we try.

She would coax us into quiet as the diamond needle descended onto the vinyl groove. And then, after a minute or two, in a passage where du Pré and Barenboim slipped into a lull in the music and their devotees responded with pulmonary spasms of every shape and hue from gunshot ricochet to earthquake foreshock, she would exclaim, “There! Right there! You hear?”

Gathering from our expressions that we hadn’t—that, in fact, we had no clue how to pick out her coughs from everyone else’s—she would grow impatient. She would lift the needle, always clumsily, and heavily replace it so we could listen to the same passage again. And again. And again.

In this way, the record became increasingly plagued with scratches, tics and divots, to the point where, even if my great aunt had been a consumptive in the last stages of her disease, the damage to the surface of the disc would have wiped out all the evidence she was so eager to share with us.

She didn’t give up, however. What she did instead—and this she considered to be a privilege she was conferring on us—was take us to actual live concerts where she could demonstrate her art in situ. It didn’t escape us that our parents, both of them ardent classical-music lovers, never consented to be part of these excursions. My father—who was my Great Aunt Tilda’s nephew—was the main obstacle here.

“It isn’t just that she coughs,” he would complain. “It’s that she can’t sit still for more than five minutes. And she always wants to change places with the person in front of her so she can see better. She can never just let the music wash over her. She has to nudge you every five minutes to let you know what she thinks of the performance and to ask you what you think and whether you’re enjoying it. She’s always wanting to confirm that you’re having the same kind of experience that she is. I mean—it’s just impossible to go to any kind of show with her!”

For us, it was not impossible.

First of all she was in total agreement with us that a milkshake constitutes a balanced meal unto itself, and after informing our parents that she would be taking us to lunch, she reliably purchased milkshake after milkshake for us—any flavor we liked—before advancing to the concert hall.

Second of all she almost always managed to get us aisle seats where no towering adult could interfere with our line of vision. We had a perfect unobstructed view of the musicians—and they, if they had wanted to take advantage of it, had a perfect unobstructed view of us.

My mother sent us off on these excursions with a five-point set of instructions on appropriate concert-hall behavior.

1) No talking

2) No whispering either

3) No candy-unwrapping

4) No kicking the seat in front of yours

5) No nose-picking

My father added: “Be sure to go potty right before the concert starts—and at every intermission.”

Also: “Don’t forget to thank your great aunt nicely. But try not to follow her example in anything she does.”

With this pep talk in mind, we would hop into Tilda’s ancient Plymouth station wagon and off we would go, ready for our next big musico-acoustic adventure.

* * *

If we had been baffled by how subtly and elusively she figured on the LPs that she played for us (recording engineers, she complained, were getting better and better at censoring her catarrhal contributions with every passing year), we were unmistakably put in the picture by our actual concert-hall experiences with her.

We were still a bit timid about following her cues (“Remember—” she would say, “never clear your throat until the performance has actually started”), but we observed her raptly as she launched into action.

Certain pieces we heard over and over again because they met our great aunt’s “conditions.” Ravel’s “Bolero” and “La Valse” were particular favorites. Both commenced in a near-inaudible way. The hushed snare-drum rat-a-tat-tat at the beginning of “Bolero” and the muted groaning double basses at the opening of “La Valse” gave her the canvas she needed on which to unroll her own phlegm-flavored motifs.

She also had an uncanny instinct for choosing concert halls where any noise the audience made could instantly overwhelm the quieter sounds of the orchestra. In her purse she had a notebook in which she kept track of the acoustical traits of various venues, categorizing them as “favorable,” “workable” or “impossible.” She also chose her composers according to how little volume they utilized in their compositions (Morton Feldman was a favorite).

She impressed us with her boldness. She awed us with her variety of cough textures. But she was not—and this was what came as the biggest surprise—alone in her endeavors.

She had company.

Not all of them were coughers. Some were sneezers. Some were snifflers. Some, after too rich a pre-concert meal, were belchers. Others were throat-clearers who approached but did not quite tip over into respiratory convulsion. Quite a few stayed busy with their fingers, waiting for a lull in a Beethoven tempest or Wagnerian bombast before bringing out their cellophaned candies and lozenges to unwrap. Still others were chair-squeakers. There was even the odd covert masturbator, contributing a stifled grunt or two to the overall concert mood.

And then there were the program-rustlers—or even better, the program-droppers! It was amazing how much noise, at a well-selected interval, a falling concert program could make—almost as loud as a hand-slap.

At chamber concerts, my great-aunt was in her glory. Schubert, she felt—especially in the Adagio of his Quintet in C or the Andante un poco mosso of his String Quartet No. 15—was practically begging for her irregular percussive commentary. At the one Ravi Shankar concert she took us too, she responded with her own ongoing pulmonary raga—while back home, defending herself against potential accusations of concert disruption, she would play us recordings of Glenn Gould where he audibly hummed and moaned all the way through the Goldberg Variations.

“There—you see?” she asked. “Even the pianist does it sometimes.”

She had many theories about the practice of her “art,” and she would sometimes share these with us when our parents were out of earshot.

She believed in the Cough as Talisman, she said. She believed in the Cough as an Emblem of Human Frailty. She believed in the Cough as a Harbinger of Chaos in the Realm of Aural Order. She believed in the Cough as a Trickster Revered by All the Malcontents in the Orchestra. (“Of whom there are a surprising number,” she informed us.)

There were even conductors, she noted, who delighted in raising their batons between the movements of orchestral masterpieces, as if to guide the audience’s great pneumonic outpouring toward its optimal possibilities before the music recommenced.

It took a special gift, she said sternly, for audience members to override these conductorial instructions and make their own instinctive disruptions, whether at the pause between Presto and Adagio, or during the Adagio itself.

“And you, my dears,” she declared, “are learning from the best.”

She was generous. She welcomed competition. She enjoyed the challenge of pitching her efforts against those of the snorers, the stomach-growlers, the foot-tappers or even certain players on-stage who occasionally would get a kink in their backs and, shifting in their seats, make a squeak or grating sound against the floorboards.

While she savored a friendly rivalry with her colleagues, she resented interference from alien species—a barking dog, for instance, or a horsefly on the loose. There was one English chapel where she had gone to attend a performance of Benjamin Britten’s string quartets only to be upstaged throughout the concert by the penetrating chirps of sparrows fluttering somewhere in the rafters. (“You would think they’d have a bird wrangler,” she griped.)

But her hostility never extended to the musicians themselves. For her it was a revelation when the concertmaster’s G string broke and he had to play around its loss until the movement came to an end and he could replace it. And there was also nothing she enjoyed so much as when a percussionist accidentally dropped his sticks or collided with his gong as he whirled around to strike his snare drum.

“It shows us that he’s human,” she pronounced.

We were young. We weren’t always able to follow her arguments in the way that she intended.

“Why? Did you think he was a Martian?” I remember asking her when I was eight or nine.

“No, dear,” she answered gently. “I mean ‘human’ as in ‘flawed’…‘human’ as in ‘imperfect.’ And imperfection is where the heartbreak lies.”

“The heartbreak?”

“Yes, the heartbreak,” she affirmed. “And heartbreak is at the core of all the best music.”

“Even the Beatles?”

“Yes, dear, even the Beatles—especially now that they’re getting a little bit older.”

* * *

In memory, it feels like an eternity that she shared her gifts with us. But in actuality, it was only 15 years or so between the time I was old enough to go to my first concert with her and the time when, in my early twenties, I attended my last.

Of course it was a hemorrhage that took her. You can’t tax your lungs like that, month after month, season after season, without shredding them to ineffective tissue.

My mother and father accompanied us to her memorial service, which turned out to be our first chance to share our great aunt’s world with them—a world they had, for reasons of noise sensitivity, steadfastly avoided for years.

All of Tilda’s longtime associates were there: the chair-creakers, the lozenge-unwrappers, the snifflers, the sneezers and the snoring snoozers. Even the covert masturbator took part from the very back pew. Together they made their own kind of symphony, creating elaborate timbres, tempos and crescendos. With no musicians to hamper their efforts (apart from a sporadic church organist), they came into their own. My great aunt would have loved it. She would have been proud of them. And I suddenly felt stricken at the thought that it had never occurred to her to invite us to a memorial service like this for one of her older colleagues—those fellow bronchial legends of the past who, surely, must have predeceased her. I suppose she felt we were a little too young to join her at these death-centric social occasions. Or maybe my father had put his foot down and refused to let her take us.

As the crowds filed out of the memorial chapel, their sense of camaraderie stayed strong. It emerged in their murmurs and their sighs, in their hackings and harrumphs, in their volatile chair scrapings as they rose to leave and in their sand-papery foot shuffles as they headed toward the exit.

And then it was over.

Over—and impossible to duplicate.

It’s true, I have the recordings. My great aunt, perhaps sensing that I was more attuned to her legacy than some of my siblings, bequeathed them all to me.

But immortality when it’s frozen like this—when it can only be experienced by placing the same needle in the same vinyl groove for the umpteenth time—isn’t entirely satisfying.

After all a cough, infinitesimally repeated, is not the same thing as “life everlasting,” however animated it may sound.

My only consolation comes when I’m in the concert hall itself, where my own modest specialty—tapping my toes while swaying in my seat—brings my Great Aunt Tilda back to me.

Sometimes I even think I can hear her there—more clearly, at any rate, than I can on the 78s and LPs she left me.

There, as I tap, the tradition continues. There, her wayward principles persist, imposing their own fine forms of flaw and imperfection on the ever-tyrannical order of the score.

MICHAEL UPCHURCH is a novelist, literary journalist and arts writer whose novels include Air, The Flame Forest and Passive Intruder. His short fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Moss, Golden Handcuffs Review, Foglifter and The Seattle Review. He lives in Seattle with his husband, film critic John Hartl.