Readers’ cats: McCoy and Seve (and the violin)

October 18, 2012 • 5:27 am

If you know anything about molecular biology, you’ll have heard of Mark Ptashne, who also happens to be an accomplished violinist (see this 1998 “Scientist at Work” piece about him at the New York Times).  In fact, Ptashne’s own website emphasizes violin far more than biology.  Yet his biological accomplishments are formidable. While on the faculty at Harvard, he was the first person to find a protein that actually regulated gene expression: the fabled “repressor” postulated by Jacob and Monod that would turn genes off (we now know that proteins and other molecules can turn genes on, too).  That accomplishment earned Ptashne the Lasker Prize, often regarded as a precursor to a Nobel. He’s also written two accessible books on gene regulation. At present Ptashne holds the Ludwig Chair of Molecular Biology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Besides being an accomplished violinist, he’s also a cat lover, and so, polymathically, he’s a man after my own heart.  (As you’ll see below, he sometimes plays violin to his cats.)

Out of nowhere, but because he sometimes reads this site, Mark sent me some pictures of his two cats McCoy and Seve. They are Abyssinians—the Stradivarius of the cat world (one of the guys he plays with uses a Strad, which you can see on Mark’s website). I’ve always thought that of all purebred cats, Abys are the most beautiful, for they most resemble wild cats in grace and color (in this case, a cougar).  If I could have any cat, it would be one of these, but if I were to get a cat, it would have to be from a shelter.

At any rate, here’s Mark’s account and photos of his felids:

Sorry the Seve picture is blurry – had to snap fast to get him in that reclining pose.

My first two Abs were (of course) Bob and Ray; they were followed by Nick and Nora (naturally) with Rocky (who was added on to make a threesome).  When all three were gone, deep grief led to my doing the unthinkable – I saw and bought, on the spot, at a nearby pet store, the young McCoy (never do that – ALWAYS go to a breeder as you might know).  He is The Real McCoy (do you know that joke about the sock-tuckers, etc)?  Then Seve came from a more proper source and probably was named while we were watching a golf tournament in honor of the great Ballesteros whose memory was widely invoked at this years Ryder Cup.

PS: Neither guy likes my violin practicing anymore. Seve will sit for long periods waiting for me to stop for a moment; he then rushes in for a little snorkeling (you know what I mean).

Mark and McCoy:

Mark serenading McCoy:

Seve, the other Aby:

I asked Mark whether his own violin was a Strad, and he responded:

No, it is actually a well-known violin called “the Plowden” (1735, made by Guarneri del gesu)—better than a Strad!

Here’s a photo of The Plowden graciously taken by “James”:

How can a biologist (even a famous one) afford such an instrument? Probably because Mark and other Cambridge (Mass.) faculty formed one of the first genetic-engineering companies, which proved pretty lucrative. And when I asked him, presumptuously, how good he was on the violin, he responded:

I wouldn’t quite know what to say about my “skills.” They [i.e., my readers] can get a hint from an old recording on my website (Bach Double Concerto), or on a private CD. The important thing is that I work hard at it and get better than is usually assumed possible for (aging) adults.

30 thoughts on “Readers’ cats: McCoy and Seve (and the violin)

  1. A friend, a photographer, was asked a few years back to take pictures of a Strad which belonged to a musician in one of the big London orchestras.

    She set up the shot, arranging the best possible light in the studio, took some beautiful shots. She returned the instrument.

    The musician contacted her to say that her work had warped the Strad – the lights were too hot for the old fiddle.

    She didn’t get another contract. Bad for her, but sad for the Strad.

    1. I’m surprised somebody would use hot lights for a gig like that. She must have been early in her career and either not have been able to afford flash or not have had the (painfully learned, in this case) experience to know when not to use hot lights.

      If she did use flash rather than continuous lights, then something other than the lights caused the damage.


      1. Yeah, she was young at the time, a lovely woman, but the amount that I know about photography would fit on this full-stop.

        She was sued, in response to Anthony Paul’s point; and my wife and I think, in our befuddled 50s something way, that her insurance covered it.

        She stopped doing the job; she’s the source of the story – tells you something about her self-deprecatory character, she didn’t think it was funny.

  2. My favorite of the Abbys is the red Abby; with chocolate brown in the darker bands of color, the cat literally seems like a red iridescent cat, a cat that has a white hot furnace inside, glowing red on the exterior.

  3. I wouldn’t quite know what to say about my “skills.”

    Having just listened to the first movement of the Bach, and with the Largo now playing in the background, here’s an honest evaluation:

    Very good.

    Neither violinist (of course, I have no way knowing which is whom, but both are superbly well matched with each other) is going to be remembered as one of the great soloists of our time, but both are well worth listening to, and each would hold his own in the section of any major symphony orchestra in the country.



      1. The word I was thinking of to describe their phrasing was, “vertical.”

        A lot of early music specialists like to talk about the “big beat,” where you think of the music not in 4/4, not even 2/2, not even in 1/1, but even bigger subdivisions, with the phrasing leading towards the big downbeat.

        There was a lot of phrasing going on, and a lot of effective use of varied articulation…but it was all small scale, within the measure. Expanding that beyond the barline would add a great deal to an already-good performance.

        Dr. Ptashne, if you’re still reading this…see if you can’t get some coaching with some of your favorite performers, even if they’re expensive big names. I know you’ll have a great time and that you’ll get a lot out of it. You’ve certainly got the talent and have put in the long hours to get you to the point where you would.

        Also consider getting some coaching from people who aren’t violinists. I’m sure Anne Sophie-Mutter would do wonders for your playing…but so would Allan Dean, who’s the trumpet professor at Yale, one of the few survivors of the New York freelance scene who’s still actively performing, and one of the best Renaissance and Baroque musicians I know.



        1. Theory geeks usually refer to that “big beat” as “hypermeasure”. Yes, it is vitally important in most music to think horizontally, in large chunks. This way the performer can really convey the logic of the piece’s architecture; how discrete melodic/harmonic units are delineated and how they fit together/relate to each other. “Vertical” performances wind up sounding static.

          What I was thinking of when I wrote “phrasing” was “breaths”: obvious points of relaxation effected by tiny bits of silence. And slurs (of course, not late Romantic style over-legato slurs). The melodic/motivic modules really pop when you do this.

          Then there are things like rubato/tenuto, messe di voce, and yes, dynamics, even in Baroque repertoire. One of the best ways to delineate a phrase (outside of a breath) is to “pick up” and “set down” the phrase starting slightly softer, blossoming, and concluding softer and gentler. Very subtly.

          (Is there anything more delicious than a well-executed messa di voce, esp when a suspension is involved?)

        2. In playing baroque music, it’s hard to get past “vertical” phrasing because of its emphasis on motor rhythms and “terrace dynamics”. But it can be done to some extent, and in my opinion should be done. Just because this music is lacking in dynamic markings doesn’t mean one shouldn’t vary loudness within phrases. Casals had the right idea when he talked about musical phrases being “rainbows”–get louder when the melody goes up and softer when it goes down–all within the bounds of good taste, of course. The point is not to make the listener aware of what you are doing. From the listener’s point of view it should all be magic, magic.

          There’s an excellent early recording of the Bach Double performed by Yehudi Menuhin and George Enesco. It’s worth listening to from the standpoint of expression. Another example, which I think really brings out the “hypermeasure”, is Wilhelm Kempff’s video [youtube] of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. A truly great performance in my opinion.

          1. Casals had the right idea when he talked about musical phrases being “rainbows”–get louder when the melody goes up and softer when it goes down

            That’s an excellent starting point, and should always be the default position if you’re unsure of what to do…but it’s also one of those rules that can and should be broken to good effect (in certain instances).

            You also have to be careful with brass instruments…the natural tendency is to get louder as you play higher, and it’s easy to overdo it if you’re thinking of adding to that for the purposes of phrasing.

            I think, ultimately, what matters most is to make a conscious decision of what you want to say with the piece, and make intelligent decisions on phrasing (how long each phrase is, how you want to separate one phrase from another, what shape you want each phrase to be, how you want to contrast one phrase with another, etc.) and then follow through on those decisions. If you do that — if you sit down and really think about the big picture and how to express it — then you’ll say something.

            Whether or not what you have to say is worth listening to is another matter, of course….


    1. It looks huge because it is[….]

      Actually, I thought violas looked so big because violists’s heads are so small.

      …sorry. No, that’s okay — don’t get up…I know my own way out….


        1. Yes, that’s the canonical list.

          But, honestly, it’s always good to have a violist handy to check the stage is level. The drool comes out of both sides of the mouth evenly….


  4. I had a friend who had an Abyssinian that he claimed came straight from the Abyss.
    The cat had an interesting way of jumping up to the top bunk in the kid’s room. He would run full tilt at the wall opposite then, bouncing off that, he would ricochet off the ceiling and so to the bed.

  5. My impression, perhaps mistaken, was that most Strads are owned not by the people who play them, but by collectors or investors who make them available to top-rank players on a long-term loan basis.

    1. You’re not mistaken as to many of them, although I don’t know if “most” is precisely correct.

      The sad secret that no one wants to discuss is that these instruments are very likely over the hill…the life-span of an instrument is roughly related to how thin you’re willing to risk making it to get it loud, and how hard you beat on it. Flamenco guitars might last only a few years–a regular acoustic guitar much longer. But not nearly as a long as a violin, which is relatively understressed>

      But a Guarneri del Gesu is approaching 300 years old, Most of the Strads are well past that century mark, and many Amatis older still.

      There are world-class players who say that these instruments sounded better when they played them fifty years ago. I can’t claim that perspective, but nihil aeternum est, and sic transit gloria mundi…

      1. The other part of the equation is that modern instrument makers are making some wonderful instruments, many that rival the legendary ones of the Baroque era. I’ve even heard professional string players describe some of the mass-produced Asian instruments as “frighteningly good” or something similar.

        There’s also a dirty little secret amongst musicians. The instrument can make the musician’s job easier, but it’s the least important part of the equation.

        I learned that lesson many moons ago, when I was attending a week-long master’s class of Charlie Schlueter, the now-recently-retired principal trumpeter of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was a small group of us; just a half-dozen or so. One morning, Charlie wanted to demonstrate something but he had left his trumpets in his hotel room. So, he grabbed whatever was closest at hand, played the passage, glanced askew at the instrument, put it down, and continued making whatever point he had been making.

        The rest of us in the room? Our jaws fell on the floor. Charlie had picked up what, to this day probably remains the absolute worst piece of shit I have ever had the displeasure of playing on in my whole life. The horn leaked like a sieve, you couldn’t play it in tune to save your life, it sounded like a diseased mouse had crawled in there and died…and, yet, Charlie sounded just like Charlie when he played it, maybe just with a slightly different tone.

        I’ve finally pretty much learned that lesson, but it’s taken me years to do so. A good instrument will make your job easier and more fun…but, if you can’t play well on a piece of shit, you can’t play well on the greatest instrument ever made, either.

        (There’re exceptions…a pianist is very much at the mercy of the instrument, for example.)



        1. True about the Asian instruments. I got tired of dealing with TSA and the airlines with my Meissner fiddle…and I live in California, my family is in New England, and my wife’s family is in Cuernavaca.

          So I bought TWO Chinese fiddles–each with a case and bow (Brazilwood, but a good Brazilwood bow is better than a bad Pernambuco one any day). Each for less than $250, shipping included. I chose them both for the looks. One is an Amati copy–gorgeous red. The other is like a bird’s eye maple, but slightly larger grain. There’s a name for the wood that I forget, but it’s beautiful.

          Both are completely playable. They came with cheap steel strings, but I got some perlons from the same seller, and they’re much nicer. Of course they don’t project like the Meissner, but keep in mind that they’re brand new…stringed instruments in general need a few good beatings to find their sound.

          I can’t believe that I sent the Amati copy east without taking a picture, but here are a couple of the birdseye:

    1. I had an Abyssinian earlier in my life. They are stunning visually, and temperament wise. And also very impressive athletes as mentioned above. Mine was a male, possibly the sweetest, kindest cat I’ve met. But, very rambunctious. We named him Ender because he was always “ending” things, and yet he was totally innocent.

      At night he would often curl around my head like headphones and purr himself to sleep. He purred so loud, that I couldn’t get to sleep, and he would keep it up for ten or more minutes.

      He was very even keeled too. At his first vet visit when it came time for the shots the vet asked if he should get an assistant to hold the cat. Ender was just sitting there on the table purring, so I said I didn’t think it was necessary. So the vet pulled out the first syringe, stuck him with it. Ender didn’t flinch, just kept purring as I scratched behind his ears. After the second shot he lazily turned to look and see what the vet was doing to him, but otherwise just kept on purring. The vet said he had never seen anything like that before, and neither had I.

      Unfortunately at a fairly young age Ender suffered kidney failure. Not complete failure but severe loss of function. With special dieting and other care we were able to give him a pretty good apparently happy life for several years, though he became much less athletic. But at about 7 years of age he went sharply downhill, aggravated, it seemed to me, by the death of his lifelong cat companion Kitani, and I reluctantly decided it would be best to euthanize him. That was a very bad day.

  6. I really hope he is a nice guy! (I’m sure he probably is.) I’ve spent my life with the violin as a professional and music educator. It’s wonderful he has the means to own a del Gesu. I’ve listened to his recording and he plays very well–better than Einstein, I imagine!

    Thanks for sharing this story!

  7. Mark,

    That is really quite high-level playing. Some of the trills especially were very well executed. We’re you playing 1st?

    And excellent choice of rep. Leave it to Bach to create something so excruciatingly beautiful out of a simple descending scale (mvt ii). Now you have to get a convex bow and some gut strings (sorry ceiling cat!).

    Regarding the Cremonese violins, here’s an interesting article:

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