On the Katzenklavier

Nick Richardson

On April Fools' Day, the Wire magazine put out an announcement for an avant-garde music festival in Poland. I was completely taken in; but then, none of the performances mentioned sounded unrealistic. So James Ferraro had written an operatic tribute to the Nokia 3310 that was to be ‘simulcast online using Netscape Navigator’? Sounds like a natural move after his elevator music installation last month at MoMA and his Heathrow Airport-themed concept EP. Matthew Herbert had been commissioned to do a site-specific performance ‘investigating George Formby’s forgotten years’? Well, Herbert actually has put out an album about the life cycle of a pig composed of recordings from pigsties. I was a couple of clicks away from booking my plane ticket before the penny dropped.

The event I'd been most looking forward to was Tim Hecker’s performance on a digitised ‘katzenklavier’. This diabolical instrument was described by Athanasius Kircher in his Musurgia Universalis of 1650:

In order to raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position, a musician created for him a cat piano. The musician selected cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike into the appropriate cat’s tail... Who could not help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy.

It also appears in Musiciana (1877) by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin, who claims that the katzenklavier figured in a procession in Brussels in 1549 that was attended by Philip II of Spain. It was mounted on a chariot and played by a bear.

There are lots of pieces about the katzenklavier online. At least one of them links it to the ‘keyboard cat’ meme of a few years ago, which was perhaps a kind of revenge. None of them, though, seem interested in what the katzenklavier might’ve sounded like. To program Hecker’s digital version would not have been a straightforward matter of collecting and sequencing meows of different pitches; and to construct an original katzenklavier in which each cat sounded a single note in a scale would have been pretty much impossible.

For one thing, the meow is only a small fraction of the cat’s sonic vocabulary: felines possess a vocal range to rival Yma Sumac’s, which is why they’ve always been a subject for musical jokes. As well as meowing, they purr, hiss, growl and ‘chirp’ (to attract mates). Purring’s not something they do only when contented; they do it when they’re upset too. Different breeds meow at different pitches, and some breeds make more sound than others. Sex makes a difference, too. ‘Female cats in heat act like manic stoats,' Geoffrey Hill once wrote. Perhaps most significantly, distress – and I think it’s fair to say that the cats in the katzenklavier would be distressed, especially with a bear at the keyboard – causes the pitch of a cat’s meow to slip. Which means, assuming that the cats in a katzenklavier performance would be getting more and more agitated, that the pitch of the entire instrument would decline as the performance went on. It would get louder too, before fatigue and the loss of vital fluids led to a sad, slow diminuendo.


  • 11 April 2014 at 8:57pm
    Min Wild says:
    There's more. In Christopher Smart's bizarre satirical magazine of the 1750s, _The Midwife, or, Old Woman's Magazine_, which he conducted under the name and persona of 'Mrs Mary Midnight', he had her writing a letter to the Royal Society describing her new improved Cat Organ in loving detail. It is partly a Swiftian parody on inventors. or 'projectors', but it also works as an allegory of the coercions and cruelties of mid eighteenth-century scoiety. It's also painful, and funny. A twentieth-century descendant is the Monty Python sketch, 'The Bells of St Mary's'-- which Youtube will willingly supply to enquirers.

  • 26 April 2014 at 4:57pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    About twenty-five years ago the American children's TV show, "The Muppets", had a demented puppet character named "Senor Jose Suggs". He seems to have been modeled on the live performer of an earlier era, the ventriloquist who went by the name Senor Wences (the man with the head in the box and the gnarled fist made up to look like a blonde film-star). Suggs played an instrument in which he tapped on the the fluffy heads of cute little fur-balls with a mallet - they omitted "ows" or "oches" in discrete tones.
    The conceit had an earlier expression in the comedian Ernie Kovacs's group, "The Nairobi Trio". These were three guys in gorilla outfits, also wearing suits and Homburg hats (or maybe Derbies). They played a catchy little tune, and the drummer would occasionally pound out a drum-roll on the head of the pianist, who would slowly turn his head in annoyance, while the bass-man kept his steely stare at both of them.