Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Cat-Piano

I first encountered the cat-piano in Donald Barthelme's story "Shower of Gold" and immediately became capitvated by the idea for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Here's the pertinent passage from "Shower of Gold":

That night a tall foreign-looking man with a switchblade big as a butcher knife open in his hand walked into the loft without knocking and said "Good evening, Mr. Peterson, I am the cat-piano player, is there anything you'd particularly like to hear?" "Cat-piano?" Peterson said, gasping, shrinking from the knife. "What are you talking about? What do you want?" A biography of Nolde slid from his lap to the floor. "The cat-piano," said the visitor, "is an instrument of the devil, a diabolical instrument. You needn't sweat quite so much," he added, sounding aggrieved. Peterson tried to be brave. "I don't understand," he said. "Let me explain," the tall foreign-looking man said graciously. "The keyboard consists of eight cats - the octave - encased in the body of the instrument in such a way that only their heads and forepaws protrude. The player presses upon the appropriate paws, and the appropriate cats respond - with a kind of shriek. There is also provision made for pulling their tails. A tail-puller, or perhaps I should say tail player" (he smiled a disingenuous smile) "is stationed at the rear of the instrument, where the tails are. At the correct moment the tail-puller pulls the correct tail. The tail-note is of course quite different from the paw-note and produces sounds in the upper register. Have you ever seen such an instrument, Mr. Peterson?" "No, and I don't believe it exists," Peterson said heroically. "There is an excellent early seventeenth-century engraving by Franz van der Wyngaert, Mr. Peterson, in which a cat-piano appears. Played, as it happens, by a man with a wooden leg. You will observe my own leg." The cat-piano player hoisted his trousers and a leglike contraption of wood, metal and plastic appeared. "And now, would you like to make a request? 'The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian'? The 'Romeo and Juliet' overture? 'Holiday for Strings'?" "But why?" Peterson began. "The kitten cries for milk, Mr. Peterson. And whenever a kitten cries, the cat-piano plays." "But it's not my kitten," Peterson said reasonably. "It's just a kitten that wished itself on me. I've been trying to give it away. I'm not sure it's still around. I haven't seen it since the day before yesterday." The kitten appeared, looked at Peterson reproachfully, and then rubbed itself against the cat-piano player's mechanical leg. "Wait a minute!" Peterson exclaimed. "This thing is rigged! That cat hasn't been here in two days. What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do?" "Choices, Mr. Peterson, choices. You chose that kitten as a way of encountering that which you are not, that is to say, kitten. An effort on the part of the pour-soi to-" "But it chose me!" Peterson cried, "the door was open and the first thing I knew it was lying in my bed, under the Army blanket. I didn't have anything to do with it!" The cat-piano player repeated his disingenuous smile. "Yes, Mr. Peterson, I know, I know. Things are done to you, it is all a gigantic conspiracy. I've heard the story a hundred times. But the kitten is here , is it not? The kitten is it not?" Peterson looked at the kitten, which was crying huge tigerish tears into its empty dish. "Listen, Mr. Peterson," the cat-piano player said, "listen!" The blade of his immense knife jumped back into the handle with a twack! And the hideous music began.

As I said, I'm still not sure why the cat-piano exerts such a powerful thrall over my imagination. Upon first reading the story, I took it as invention, and, being prone to love most any product of Barthelme's prodigious imagination, I turned the concept over and over in my mind. (To place the incident in context, the protagonist, Peterson, has agreed to appear on a television show where people debase themselves for money - the always prescient Barthelme's accurate prediction of reality television almost forty years before the fact.) I thought it was a wonderful fictive device, a chimera allegorically soundtracking Peterson's (a medicore artist) encroaching dread. I've toyed with it in differnt ways for years. I tried to sell the Pitchfork editors on an article about the history of that most diabolical of instruments (nothing doing, of course). And I wrote this pretty mediocre sestina about the Cat-Piano player:

The Song of Remnants (after Donald B.)

A dim room full of apparitions. I perceived a blade,
Absurdly oversized, flashing in the darkness. It played
Tremulous airs like a conductor’s wand. The kitten
Mewed invisibly beneath the dancing knife. Mewed love
And violence like they were harmony. Twinned music
In different keys - major, minor. Other scenery began

To emerge. Empty dish. A tall, foreign man began
To nuzzle the kitten’s soft skull. Dandling a switchblade.
A voice, bereft of impression; a soulless verbal music.
Cheshire Cat grin, hanging. "I am the Cat-Piano Player.
We’ve business. Where one sets the sum of what he loves
Against anathema, I play the song of remnants. Where a cat

Cries for milk, the Cat-Piano Player plays." "But this cat!"
I protested in vain. "It just showed up one day. I began
To feed it milk saucers; it’s true. I’d lost someone I loved;
I needed something to save. Not my fault!" The blade,
I warily eyed. "But sir," intoned the Cat-Piano Player,
"The kitten is here. It cries for milk, doesn’t it? My music

Is what you are owed for your bad faith, for my music
Is the music of imbalanced scales." Purring low, the kitten
Approached me, eyes wet with accusation. The Player
Cleared his throat, and a long, squat lectern stand began
To inscribe its planes on the dark. He gestured with the blade.
"I’ll explain the Katzenklavier," his voice filled with love.

His ears winged out grotesquely like the handles of a loving
Cup, as if his ghastly song required weird hearing. "The music
This device most felicitously yields is dread, that slow blade.
Its body is a wooden case enclosing within eight cats –
The octave, arranged from lowest pitch to highest." I began
To count: sixteen paws jutted from one side, the playful

Twitch of eight tails on the other. The Cat-Piano Player
Moved his lips with mine and smirked. "Fading Lover,"
He chided, "be brave! We are nearly through." He began
To move toward the instrument on lengthy legs. "The music
Is fashioned by palpating the paws and tails of the cats,
Which emit various tones. Now sir, listen!" The blade

Disappeared into the blade sheath. The Cat-Piano Player
Bowed. The kitten purred lovingly as he cracked his knuckles.
I covered my ears in vain, and the hideous music began.

"Shower of Gold" was one of the first Barthelme stories I ever read, and as I plowed through the rest of his work, I began to realize how deeply he drew from obscure histories and folklore. A little internet research soon revealed the cat-piano was historical fact (or the idea of it was, at least), the stuff of fairy tales come to life, and this only increased its allure. Here's Richard Dorsett on a passage from Agnes Repplier's 1939 book The Fireside Sphinx:

From the chapter "Persecution":

"To Brussels is due the unenviable distinction of having produced the first cat organ, in 1549. This triumph of ingenuity was designed to lend merriment to the street pageant in honor of Philip the Second, and is described by Juan Cristoval, a Spaniard in attendance upon the King.

"'The organ,' says Cristoval, 'was carried on a car, with a great bear for the musician. In place of pipes, it had twenty cats separately confined to narrow cases, from which they could not stir. Their tails were tied to cords attached to the keyboard of the organ. When the bear pounded the keys, the cords were jerked, and this pulled the tails of the cats, and made them mew in bass or treble notes, according to the nature of the airs.'

"Such an invention could have afforded, at best, but doubtful entertainment; yet the cat organ was so widely appreciated that German humourists undertook to alter and improve it; and after a time a choice variety of instruments were constructed, in all of which cats were induced by some well applied torture to furnish forth the necessary music."

(((Richard Dorsett remarks: I like that little touch, "German humourists;" it says so much about that nationality.)))

(((bruces remarks: see also Working Note 13.6, "Cat Piano and Tiger Organ," in which cats were alleged to have been whacked by needle-sharp piano keys, rather than having their tails yanked. There was no mention of a cat-piano- playing bear in the other account, and the bear, somehow, seems even less plausible than the cats. One wonders what this bear was supposed to do with his keyboard skills during the off season.)))

And here's a post from Dave Walsh, quoting various sources on the cat-piano, the donkey chorus and the pig piano:

"In keeping with Darnton's methodology and subject matter we might want to look at the cat piano. Athanasius Kircher first wrote about it in his great *Musurgia universalis* of 1650, and it has reappeared occasionally since. 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. The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could not help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy [1].

"The cat piano confirms Darnton's discovery that most early modern Europeans found the torture of cats funny. It also illustrates Kircher's fascination with the relationship between the art of music and the natural production of animal sounds. But for us it is an instrument that has mercifully been forgotten."

"The cat piano was not unique. Schott proposed a donkey chorus, and Pierre Bayle tells us that the abbe de Beigne built a pig piano at the order of Louis XI. In every case the animal instrument was created to entertain a noble patron."

Here's an excerpt from Robert J. Richards's Rhapsodies on a Cat-Piano, or Johann Christian Reil and the Foundations of Romantic Psychiatry:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a book on the treatment of insanity appeared, the analysis and prescriptions of which would help establish psychiatry as a modern discipline in Germany. The book was highly original and, even to an eye accustomed to the depths and shadows of the period, quite extraordinary. Consider, for example, the author's recommendation for treating a patient who, in constant reverie, could not fix attention on relevant external objects: the dreamer should be forced to listen to a piece played on a Katzenclavier--a cat-piano (fig. 1). One would voice the instrument with suitable animals, which would then:
be arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument--when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals--must bring Lot's wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.

This proposal should, I think, awaken the modern reader out of historical complacency as much as the real device was supposed to startle the madman out of a comparable conceptual lassitude. Is this, then, an example of the past as foreign territory, where a distant mentalité ruled, where what for us would be the perfume of the bizarre was for them only the air of the ordinary? Or is it merely a joke? Or is it maybe a bit of both?

Apparently, Wikipedia wasn't buying it:

Why did you delete the article on Catpiano? I know it seems as a hoax but it's not, atleast it is true that it was an idea to cure insanity since it is mentioned in several german books from the time. Most information also points that it was in fact used in practical application. Use a search on google with these keywords (cat-piano, katzenclavier, insanity) you'll find that my information does not come out of thin air and is not a hoax. My article may be small and does not contain A4's of information but it is a small subject and it isn't much more to write about it and I seen several pages on WP that is equally small or smaller than my catpiano article. And does not conform to any of the WP vandalism criteria. Next time you blame an article of Vandalism please EXPLAIN why and pinpoint your opinion to a WP Vandalism criteria.

There's an interesting description of the smell-organ accompanying this cat-piano mention (also mentions the Dead Media project, from which much of my cat-piano info is culled):

We all have a smell organ. We call it a nose. Our proboscis; schnauze; or honker. For Dr. Septimus Piesse, a French chemist, the Smell Organ was something else, however. He believed that simply listening to the enrapturing tones of a church organ was not enough. Much more inspiring and thrilling, he felt, was to experience an entirely new organ: One that translates an opus into an odor.

Can you imagine? Dr. Piesse carefully plotted a range of notes, and assigned heavier odors to the low notes, and sharp, pungent odors to the high notes. A bass clef D would emit the smell of vanilla, while a treble clef B would shoot out peppermint. He hoped that the odors would blend harmoniously in the soft, dreamy compositions; while the smells would be disagreeable in more discordant works. It gave whole new meaning to the expression, "This music stinks."

Another innovative instrument was developed in Brussels back in 1549, and was designed to be played by a bear. Called the Cat Piano, and played by a musical bear, it was an instrument in which there were 20 cats, each with a cord tied to its tail. As the bear pounded the keys, the cords were pulled, yanking the cats’ tails and making them meow and hollar. (How about that, Bev, or Ann?) There was obviously no Brussels chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

These are a couple of old examples of a very contemporary phenomenon: Cool junk that fascinates us for a while and then fades. A new research group called the Dead Media Project is studying this stuff and posting their findings on the Internet. It appears that we are now living in the "Golden Age" of Cool Junk.

Here's another great Dead Media excerpt, Richard Kadrey quoting LES MEDECINES DE LA FOLIE by Dr. Pierre Morel and Claude Quetel and Martin Roberts quoting David Toop's OCEAN OF SOUND: AETHER TALK, AMBIENT SOUND AND IMAGINARY WORLDS on the Man-Tiger Organ:

Cat Piano:

"What should we say about the cat piano? The idea that such an instrument could have existed gives a lot to think about, even if it was built on an experimental basis: a piano where strings are replaced by cats, each of them giving a different note. "It seems that Father Kirchner, a German Jesuit of the XVIIth century with an interest in musical things,gave the first description of this weird and cruel instrument.

"'Not long ago,' says he, 'an actor, as ingenious as illustrious , built such an instrument to cure the melancholy of a great Prince. He gathered cats of differing size and therefore in the pitch of their voices. He enclosed them in a basket specially built for this purpose, so their tails, coming out through holes, were held in tubes. He added keys with thin needles instead of hammers, and installed the cats according to their voices in such a way that each key would correspond to the tailof an animal, and he put the instrument in a suitable place for the pleasure of the Prince. Then he played it,producing chords corresponding to the mewings of the animals. Indeed the keys pressed by the fingers of themusician, by trotting the tails of the cats, would enrage the poor animals and make them scream with a high or low pitch, producing a melody that would make people laugh or even incite mice to dance.'"


"Of all the noise instruments in history, one of the least equivocal in its intent is Tipu's Tiger. Captured in India by the British army after the defeat and death by bullet and bayonet of Tipu Sultan in 1799, this large and amazing object is now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. "The most succinct and evocative description was written by an employee of the East India Company:

"'This piece of Mechanism represents a Royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger, and a row of Keys of natural Notes. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the Cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.'

"John Keats saw Tipu's Tiger in the East India Company's offices and later referred to it in a satire he wrote on the Prince Regent: 'that little buzzing noise,Whate'er your palmistry may make of it, Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor's choice, From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.' "And when the tiger was first exhibited in the newly-opened Victoria and Albert Museum, the public cranked the handle to make it roar with such sadistic, joyful frequency that students in the adjacent library were driven half-mad by the distraction.

"In a technical analysis of the instrument, Henry Willis speculated that 'the intended method of use for the keyboard organ was to run the knuckles up and down the scale to produce the effects of a screaming man being killed by a tiger.'Because the design and materials suggest a European rather than an Indian maker, Willis suggested that the tiger and its victim were constructed by either a malicious Frenchman or a renegade Englishman. "But whoever made this wonderfully macabre sculpture, Tipu certainly enjoyed it. He was obsessed with tigers, for one thing; for another, as a Muslim whose wealth and land had been plundered by the colonialists, he hated the British. Reportedly, he used to circumcise them when he took prisoners. His walls were decorated with scenes depicting soldiers being dismembered, crushed by elephants, eaten by tigers and other fates too obscene for the British major who saw them to form a verbal description.

After approaching the cat-piano abstractly for so long, I've decided that it has to be made concrete. I have a certain friend with whom I'm always coming up with hairbrained schemes; we actually follow through on only a fraction of them. Our most recent, and one that I hope we'll follow through on, is to build a cat-piano. It wouldn't be a difficult thing, the instrument, particularly in Barthelme's incarnation (where the paws are pressed, and no levers with nails need be devised), is very simple. We'd probably display the thing as an art object, but the desire to place live cats in it just once, without harming them, will be too strong to ignore. But holy shit, can you imagine the scene if we booked a show at a local club and played actual cat-piano compositions? A mysterious spate of neighborhood-cat abductions, PETA protests, jaded hipsters slack-jawed with awe! The first Canadian post-rock ensemble to bust out at a cat-piano during one of their protracted crescendos will immediately become my favorite band of all time.