February 9, 2014
Music For Cats – A Sadist’s Synth
Important note before reading this post: no animals were harmed in the writing of this article.
That creepy screeching painful moaning that cats make at night when they are in your back yard making out is not on most people’s list of most loved noises. It sounds like they are being strangled while dragged through a thorn bush; not the most musical thing you can think of. So, it is hard to imagine an instrument made of cats. Enter the Katzenklavier: the “Cat Piano.” Supposedly invented by Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century German scholar and polymath with the accolade “The Master of a Hundred Arts,” the Cat Piano combined musical and animal cruelty in a unique way. The idea was this: first take your cats, each one selected for the pitch of its voice and range over a full octave. Then line them up in small cages side by side, their heads sticking out so they can sing better. Next, attach a keyboard to the row of cages designed so that when you press a key the hammer drives a sharpened nail down onto a cat’s tail producing a “note” as the cat squeals. There you have it – your very own Katzenklavier with no concessions to animal welfare. No, redOrbit does not condone cruelty to animals, so please do not try this at home.
In fact, there is no evidence that such an instrument was ever made, but old Kircher thought it should be. He believed that the harmony of music reflected the divine proportions of the universe. His idea was taken up again in the 19th century by another German, the psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil, who believed that watching and hearing a Cat Piano would be good therapy for his patients. Here’s how he described the instrument: “An octave’s worth of cats arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard with 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.” I don’t see this becoming part of the modern day psychiatrist’s treatment plan any day soon, but I can think of a few singers whose voices might be used to the same effect; inflicting sonic torment on prescription, but it’s probably better not to go there.
Did the Cat Organ ever exist? Well, it depends who you believe. A French writer, Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin wrote of a strange procession in Brussels in 1549. At its head was a Bull with a small devil perched between its burning horns. Behind that was a horse that had had its ears and tail cut off, a boy sewn into a bear skin, the archangel Saint Michael, and a “Cat Organ.” The instrument was carried on a chariot and played by a bear. Sixteen cats were arranged in the now familiar body-trapped, head sticking out manner. When the bear hit the keyboard a cat’s tail would be pulled hard to produce the feline note. Ah, they sure knew how to party in those days.
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