Perfect Sound Forever

Three Composers Who Embrace Flatulence

by Gregg Wager
(December 2008)

Those of us raised on the three "B"s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) might always have wondered, a little bit too hard, perhaps, about this particular instance of alliteration. In all that excess contemplation, we might have even realized that there's something very musical about pronouncing several "B"s together.

Pronounce the "B"s together and we have, well, something that sounds like flatulence. In our own colloquial usage of language, many ways of depicting flatulence have been devised, but there are also ways of depicting flatulence in music. Of these three "B"s mentioned above, at least one of them thought that passing gas was funny and depicted it in his music as a form of humor. At least two other composers did this as well, out of humor.

Of course, by no means is this intended to be an exhaustive list of this type of humor in the history of music. It must also be stressed that it's part of striving for adulthood and an aura of gravitas to cast aside childish thoughts. In our modern American society, this usually includes pooh-poohing fecal humor (and, yes, this particular pun was intended). My apologies for foregoing this social norm in an effort break ground on a musicological topic that I believe has some merit.

In fact, I have courageously risked both my reputation as a mature adult and my continuously developing aura of gravitas by taking on the topic of this article. Even so, today's ethics of musicology and scholarship also require that provocative topics not be diluted by timidity, social norms, or censorship. The fact is, three famous composers much admired for their musicality, innovation, and flare for style deliberately depicted flatulence in their music.

Today, one ought not engage in hagiography using the more traditional practice of elevating dead composers by omitting details thought below the dignity of a saint or paragon. There might still be those laypeople who believe that saints and paragons do not fart, but professionals require a more sophisticated outlook.

I have accepted that I cannot win over every scholar as to the importance of mimicking the sound of passing gas in music, but I can at least make the case that we should truthfully look at music for better or worse. Nonetheless, I imagine that there are those readers who will simply find this article tasteless or even derogatory to the dignity of our great culture, and it might be in their best interests if they stopped reading now.

On the other hand, let's keep in mind that a warthog distinctly passes gas in a Disney children's movie called the Lion King. In fact, this occurs while the warthog is singing a song and at a dramatic moment in the song. Even if composer Elton John accused this animated warthog of butchering his song, the farting was not censored, even though the film was intended to teach higher moral values to children.

Otherwise, I am happy, even eager to examine the issue. The three composers I would like to serve as examples of depicting flatulence in their music are: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), and Frank Zappa (1940-1993).

Before providing illustrations from each of these composers' work, one ought to point out some more general observations about how all three handled this task. In our own experiences with flatulence, we know it can be high-pitched, soft (even inaudible), and come out in short, staccato bursts. Yet these composers only depicted it one way: low-pitched, loud, and with a substantial duration. Nonetheless, these composers have depicted flatulence according to three distinct different categories of flatulence, which I have assigned the following terms: 1) the rumble; 2) the honk; and 3) the boom. Any way you slice it (or should I say, cut it), there is something altogether musical about this strange function of the human body. Perhaps it is the musical aspect of flatulence that gives it such humor in the first place. That might be also why all three composers depicted flatulence in a humorous way.

1) The Rumble: Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 8 in F, Opus 93 (1814), 2nd movement.

The Beethoven symphonies have been written about every which way, but I don't believe anyone has ever indicated that Beethoven was probably depicting farting in the 8th Symphony. Allow me to proudly claim this discovery on behalf of musicology.

Keep in mind we are in an era when a musicologist named Susan McClary writes a provocative post-modern analysis of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (see Minnesota Composers' Forum Newsletter, Jan. 1987), claiming that in the recapitulation to the first movement Beethoven is depicting the violent rape and murder of a woman. It was well known that Beethoven wasn't as smooth with the ladies as he probably wished he could be. He was known to be enamored helplessly to a local farmer girl half his age, who used to torment him. Nonetheless, McClary's exegesis has been controversial, not because Beethoven might have had violent fantasies he lived out in his music, but because one cannot prove in the slightest that Beethoven was depicting anything at all.

There have been other odd claims that Beethoven may have been drunk when he wrote certain symphonies. Benjamin Britten thought that the 4th Symphony might have been written when Beethoven had had a few too many. Clara Schumann's father, Friedrich Wieck, said something similar about the 7th Symphony.

Probably Beethoven didn't write any of these symphonies in one evening, which is usually the duration of being drunk, so it doesn't make much sense that he would actually use alcohol for his muse, unless he deliberately wanted to hear what a "drunken symphony" sounded like and got drunk every night before beginning to work. Just the same, I would tend to doubt this theory.

Nonetheless, there is something peculiar about the 8th Symphony, and the second "slow" movement is especially strange. The composer doesn't exactly sound as if he might have been drunk, but there is a queasiness created by the gravity of repeated notes, which wear against the frivolity of an otherwise light opening theme. It proceeds in a triple meter in 6/8. It's an elegant setup when first heard. Then the dynamics come in a little bit too loudly and abruptly. Something is not quite right with this movement, as the ensuing release (the rumble) suggests.

This rumble makes rare use in Beethoven's symphonies of 64th notes (or "hemidemisemiquavers," as they are called in England). Beethoven uses 64th notes in his nine symphonies three other times: as written out ornaments in the slow introduction of the 2nd Symphony and Funeral March in the 3rd Symphony; and as a tremolo cadence in the slow movement of the 4th Symphony. In the 8th Symphony, these 64th notes are a combination of both: an ornamental up-and-down of the first five notes of F major, in the contra basses, supported by tremolos in the other strings.

The duple meter of the 64th notes rips or cuts through the established triple meter prodigiously. The overpowering contra basses play these notes and the observant listener will hear an imitation of flatulence.

Not only does this contra bass line depict flatulence, over and over again, but after every riff, there is a brittle aftermath in the strings and winds that probably depicts the ensuing foul odor that flatulence brings. The final cadence to the movement sounds like the end of a comedic overture, and the 64th notes hold the final chord of the cadence.

No doubt some who might think that I have too much imagination or that I'm besmirching Beethoven's decent and outstanding character, will challenge my hermeneutics. I'm sticking with my interpretation, under the understanding that if McClary can be controversial, I can be equally explosive. Beethoven's 8th Symphony is a joyous and humorous exercise in composing music and ought to be finally heard for what it is, even if it should never be played in a crowded elevator.

2) The Honk: Karlheinz Stockhausen, HARLEKIN (1975) for solo clarinet

I hope the recent death of Karlheinz Stockhausen might serve to shed light on his entire career. Unlike other composers, he never had dry spells and composed up to the very end of his life. Too often, only his early works of the 1950s are what he is remembered for. One should consider that according to his catalogue, most of the nearly 300 works he left behind were written after 1970. These works are not nearly as difficult to penetrate as some of his early works, but require a different kind of knowledge to fully understand them.

HARLEKIN for solo clarinet might be a good place to start for anyone wanting to expand his or her knowledge of Stockhausen's later work. This work requires the clarinetist to dress in a costume, dance, and act, but one can easily listen to a recording in order to get the humor, which includes the most obvious example of music depicting flatulence in this article.

You might not know that a clown named Harlequin originates out of the traditional improvisatory Italian theater known as commedia dell'arte. The clown traditionally wears a costume with a large two-color checkerboard pattern, with the squares rotated 45 degrees into diamonds.

In a spoken introduction to HARLEKIN (Stockhausen likes to spell out the names of his pieces in all-capital letters), the composer describes Harlekin as "a spirit with a bawdy sense of humor, who does terrible things." This is a diplomatic way of saying that at one point in the piece, this clown is going to bend over and fart in your faces.

Stockhausen wrote HARLEKIN for his close friend clarinetist Suzanne Stephens, whom I've been lucky enough to see perform the work. There is an abridged version of the piece called DER KLEINE HARLEKIN, which is a PG-13 version (i.e., without the flatulence).

The fart is the central statement of the piece. I can't imagine Stockhausen dreaming up this moment without the help of Stephens, who probably demonstrated the effect for him in the first place. She bends over, placing the bell of the instrument between her legs. As she rests in this position for a moment, with her backside squarely facing the audience (essentially "mooning" the audience), they clearly see a large hole in the general area of her derriere. This hole is actually the bell of the clarinet resting flush against the clarinetist's crotch. The imagery is unmistakable, and the audience should be able to anticipate what is to come.

Then Stephens plays the lowest note of the clarinet loudly and the fart lasts for a few seconds (the honk). Afterwards, Stephens makes a grimace, takes apart her instrument, and runs a cleaning swab through it, making sure she has wiped away any possible soiling.

I once asked Stockhausen where he got the idea for HARLEKIN, and he simply said that Stephens had a sense of humor that reminded him of the character. I also noticed there was a tavern near Stockhausen's old apartment in Cologne called "Harlekin," although this could be a coincidence.

It's quite possible that Stockhausen depicted farting elsewhere in his music, but this moment in HARLEKIN stands as the most obvious example. Whether or not Stockhausen actually serialized the fart (that is, included it in a row) requires further analysis.

3) The Boom: Frank Zappa, "Disco Boy" from Zoot Allures (1976)

Zappa was no stranger to controversy in his career as a rock musician and songwriter. Part of the controversy usually stemmed from the misconception that he was unusually cruel in mocking the different stereotypes of people in his songs. Most famously, his song "Jewish Princess" stirred emotions of anti-Semitism in those who believed the song was a racial slur.

In all fairness, Zappa was not a racist and often employed musicians of many different races, not to mention styles, into his music. His mocking of stereotypes was by no means as vicious as it might at first seem. After all, in this famous song "Jewish Princess," a recurring lyric is "I want a nasty little Jewish Princess…" He never said that he did not want one.

There are a whole category of songs in Zappa's oeuvre that appear to mock some sort of stereotype of people out of American culture: "Catholic Girls," "Wino Man," "Bobby Brown," among others. If you listen carefully to the words, Zappa does not hate these people, and although he is certainly amused by their problems, which are usually brought upon by themselves, he also sympathizes with them in his own way.

"Disco Boy" serves as a good example. One might think that Zappa is viciously mocking the world of Disco music in the 1970's, but if you listen carefully, the main character in this song is a guy not unlike any other: he is motivated by success ("the Disco thing made you think someday that you just might go somewhere…"); sex ("she's going to fall for your line and feed you a box full of chicken delight…"); and, unfortunately, the words of a domineering mother who afflicted him permanently by making him associate cleanliness and grooming with the bathroom ("run to the toilet boy and come your hair...")--which is, after all, not really his fault.

Of course the Disco boy makes mistakes, silly mistakes, but there is a sense that he is learning from these mistakes, however slowly. In this sense, the Disco scene is not that much different from many pop music phenomena, and we ought not hate the people who succumb to shallow pastimes. If anyone has any doubt about the importance of Disco music on electronica music, trance, and other forms of modern dance music, they should read my article, "Vasquez, Levan: Paradise Glossed." (New York Observer, Vol. 14, No. 41, 30 Oct. 2000: 22.)

If you search on the Internet for the lyrics for "Disco Boy," you should note that somebody transcribed the words to the song incorrectly, completely distorting a crucial moment in the Disco boy's story. The incorrectly transcribed lyric appears as: "You'll never go on duty that's what you think…" This mistake has been reproduced too many times on the Internet to correct, let alone count. The correct lyric should read: "You're never gonna doody, that's what you think…"

So what happens to the Disco boy? Basically, he grooms himself meticulously with his nagging mother in mind, gets out on the dance floor, allows the excitement of the moment to bring him to a moment of near ecstasy, and then suddenly needs to relieve his bowels. Instead of doing the sensible thing, he doesn't want to leave the excitement and, in his own strange way, even thinks that the pretty people on the dance floor are somehow superhuman and don't need to engage in base human functions. The Disco boy tries to hold it in ("You're never gonna doody…").

Following this frustrating and futile moment, there is a long instrumental section in which the word "doody" appears at the end of every phrase. Then at the end of the instrumental section, what happens is even rather gruesome: a long, loud occurrence of the sub-contra A, the lowest note heard on the piano (the boom). There is irony here, since this sub-contra A is played on a synthesizer, which in theory can play lower than this traditional bottom limit of the pitch spectrum.

One might find the low note simply a fun way to end the section, without any symbolism attached to it. Franz Liszt used this sub-contra A in his only piano sonata, perhaps suggesting a crack of thunder, but he famously stated that there was no "program" to his 39-minute work. Nonetheless, I interpret (using a similar methodology to McClary's Beethoven analysis mentioned above) this sub-contra A as symbolizing the Disco boy finally relieving himself. Since bowel movements are not noisy affairs unless accompanied by a significant amount of flatulence, this low note is my third and final example.

In recapping these three depictions of flatulence: for Beethoven it was a rumble; to Stockhausen it was a honk; and for Zappa it was a boom. Other than these subtle differences, which are more nuances than anything else, all three composers imagined flatulence occurring in the low register and of rather long duration. They also depicted it humorously, which is admittedly a matter of taste in the long run.

If two out of three of my exegeses take hold (the Stockhausen is too obvious to challenge), one will never listen to these works in the same light. That might not be something an honest musicologist should brag about, but at least one should always consider the alternative: integrity dies when remaining silent about these things, once they are discovered; in other words, ignoring these facts may make silence, but it would also be deadly.

ED NOTE: Who Cut the Cheese?: A Cultural History of the Fart By Jim Dawson (Ten Speed Press, 1999) also notes that Mozart was enamored of flatulence.

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