Caturday felid: Ketzel the composing cat

December 29, 2012 • 6:20 am

When we were crusading for Henri’s installation on the Wikipedia page of famous cats, an alert reader, M. Janello, pointed out a famous cat that was unknown to me. It was Ketzel, a Jewish cat who was the owner of Aliya Cheskis-Kotel and her husband Morris Moshe Kotel. Kotel was the chairperson of composition at the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore.  Ketzel became famous when, well, I’ll let her hilarious (albeit sad) obituary in the New York Times (“Noted composer, who leapt into atonality, meows her last“; July 18, 2011) tell the tail:

Ms. Cheskis-Cotel’s husband, who died in 2008, was Morris Moshe Cotel, who retired as chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory in 2000 and became a rabbi. “He said she [Ketzel] was his best student and her fame surpassed his,” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said.

Ketzel (“cat” in Yiddish) was a one-hit wonder among composers — she never wrote another piece. And her career was launched only because she launched herself onto the keyboard of Professor Cotel’s Baldwin grand one morning in 1996.

He was playing a prelude and fugue from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach, as he did every morning — he worked his way through a different prelude and fugue each day, as a kind of warmup exercise.

On the morning in question, Ketzel leapt onto the piano, landing in the treble. She worked her way down to the bass. Professor Cotel was startled, but grabbed a pencil and started transcribing. He was impressed by the “structural elegance” of what he heard, Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said. “He said, ‘This piece has a beginning, a middle and an end. How can this be? It’s written by a cat.’”

It was a model of brevity, shorter than Leroy Anderson’s “Waltzing Cat” or Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys.” But Professor Cotel set it aside — until he received an announcement seeking entries for the Paris New Music Review’s One-Minute Competition, open to pieces no more than 60 seconds long. “He said, ‘I don’t have anything that’s less than 60 seconds and my students don’t,’” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel recalled, ” ‘but I’ll send in the piece by the cat.’”

Professor Cotel explained the composer’s identity in the entry, but the judges were not told that; they were shown only the music. They awarded “Piece for Piano, Four Paws” a special mention.

“We gave the piece serious consideration because it was quite well written,” Guy Livingston, co-founder and editor of the review, said in 1997. “It reminded us of Anton Webern. If Webern had a cat, this is what Webern’s cat would have written.”

KetzelMay she rest in peace
May she rest in peace

Ketzel lived to a ripe 19 years of age. The Times piece, which you should read, is certainly the funniest obituary I’ve ever seen in the Times:

Ketzel’s piece had its concert premiere at Peabody in 1998 and was later performed in Europe and heard on public radio. And once it was performed at the Museum of the City of New York, with the composer in attendance.

“I said, ‘I’m bringing Ketzel to the performance,’ ” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel recalled. “They said, ‘No, you’re not.’ ”

But she did.

Ketzel’s composition was the next-to-last piece on a two-hour program. Ketzel sat quietly in her carrier in a back row as the big moment approached.

“Finally, when it was time for her piece to be performed,” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said, “the pianist announced, ‘The next piece, believe it or not, was written by Ketzel the Cat.’ From the back of the hall, Ketzel went, ‘Yeeeowww.’ The people were on the floor, but of course she knew her name.”

Ketzel got royalties for her music, too! The Times notes:

. . . like many other musicians — Midori, Liberace, Mantovani and Madonna, for example — Ketzel went by only one name, except when the occasional royalty check came in. The first, for $19.72, was for a performance in Rotterdam. The check was made out to “Ketzel Cotel.”

“We thought, how are we going to cash this?” recalled her owner, Aliya Cheskis-Cotel. “Luckily, at the bank, they knew my husband and knew our credit was good, and they allowed us to cash it. We told Ketzel we could buy a lot of yummy cat food for $19.72.”

Here, from YouTube, is Ketzel’s prize-winning composition. This is 20 seconds long, but a 34-second version—perhaps the one that won the prize—can be heard on the Times page, at the audio link under Ketzel’s picture.

Now I know we have some accomplished musicians and music lovers among the readers; perhaps they can judge the merits of Ketzel’s composition.

39 thoughts on “Caturday felid: Ketzel the composing cat

  1. Now I know we have some accomplished musicians and music lovers among the readers; perhaps they can judge the merits of Ketzel’s composition.

    Oh, that’s easy.

    As Duke Ellington so perfectly put it, if it sounds good, it IS good.

    Sounds good to me!

    I’m also struck by the phonetic similarity of the cat’s name to Quetzalcoatl. One wonders if that’s a coincidence, or if it was intentional.



    1. And then there’s Frank Zappa’s gritty reformulation: “If it sounds good to you, it’s bitchin’; if it sounds bad to you, it’s shitty.”

      I know the above is intended as a lighthearted, fun, cute kind of thing, so I hesitate to comment, nevertheless it does a bring into relief a problem I see with art production and consumption.

      As Gregory Kusnick noted in the stellar photography thread yesterday, we call some accidents of nature beautiful: the Grand Canyon, Mt. Fuji, the aurora borealis, etc. In these instances the thing itself is activating our aesthetic sensibilities.

      I don’t think this is how our reactions to ARTificial creations work. There may be, to some degree, a reaction to raw stimuli that contributes to our appreciation of a work of art, but I think our appreciation hinges much more on how those raw stimuli are manipulated, that is, on the perception (even if that perception is subconscious, if that makes sense) of the skill of the composer/sculptor/etc.

      To draw an analogy with gymnastics: we ooh and aah at flips and such, not because flipping itself is beautiful in the abstract (if that were so, we’d get goosebumps whenever toast fell off the counter), but because we realize that the gymnast has achieved something special, that s/he has worked hard to acquire uncommon skill.

      So it doesn’t make much sense to me to call such accidental creations as we see above “art”, nor does it make sense to me to try to evaluate a work of art based on our reaction to the raw stimuli.

      Quite a lot of art is produced with an eye more to the superficial effects of raw stimuli than to meaningful, logical architecture. Is there a new and unusual technique for getting sound out of an instrument? Well, throw a bunch of that in your piece. People like loud, brassy stuff? Don’t worry about the actual pitches, just make sure there’s plenty of loud brassiness. Etc.

      I’m not convinced that “if it sounds good it is good” is a very reliable criterion.

      1. I think there’s merit in both perspectives.

        First, as somebody else pointed out, when it comes to nature, the art is generally in the actions of the artist fixing the recording — pressing the shutter button on the camera and all the subsequent post-processing and prior setup, in the case of photography.

        But I’m sure you’ve been to technically flawless performances of great works that left you stone cold. After one undergraduate piano recital at ASU, I knew exactly how many holes there were in the tiles in the ceiling. The poor girl never missed a note, never dropped a beat. But booooriiiing! It had all the logical architecture in the composers’s original manuscripts, plus the logical architecture of whoever edited the manuscripts and added expression markings.

        And I’m sure you’ve been to technically flawed performances that were nevertheless quite entertaining. I remember a young brass quintet of kids from somewhere in South America at the Rafael Mendez Brass Institute a few years ago. Technically, they were one of the weaker groups there…but they stole the show, and the unanimous consensus is that they’ve got the most potential of anybody who was there should they stick with it.

        So, yeah. If it sounds good, it is good. The only real question is what it is that makes something sound good….



        1. Interesting story about the ASU recitalist. I think most of us are fairly good at reading nonverbal communication; it’s easy to tell when someone is uneasy, insincere, etc. (unless they are psychopaths)– a little tension around the eyes, stiffness in the shoulders, and so on. In a musical performance, as you point out, everything can be in place and there is no MUSIC. This could be because the performer is using all his/her resources just to PLAY the piece–is focused on not screwing up. I think you have to be confident enough in performance that you are able to give yourself room to take a few chances, depending on how you are feeling about the piece at that moment. You have to convey the impression that you are discovering the piece for the first time, even though you have practiced it hundreds of hours. (Someone once asked the pianist William Doppman if he was going to take the exposition repeat in his upcoming performance of Schubert’s B-Flat piano sonata D.960. He said he wouldn’t know until he got there because it would depend on how he felt he had played the piece up to that point.)

          1. Good gravy, that is a great sonata. I especially like it on fortepiano (Beethoven is great on fortepiano, too, when it’s done well). Here’s a live recital if you want to hear, but the recording quality isn’t that good. The scherzo from this is one of my favorite bits of Schubert.

            Check this out, though, if you want to hear some great fortepiano playing. This is the amazing Kreutzer violin sonata by Beethoven, on period instruments. Viktoria Mullova on violin, with a great young keyboardist named Kristian Bezuidenhout. You can hear all the complex counterpoint in the left hand that is usually smeared over in modern piano performances of this.

            1. Yes, I find that performances with period instruments generally allow the listener to hear individual voices and their interactions better than performances with modern instruments.

              I was at Eastman with Kris Bezuidenhout. Have you ever seen him perform? Great, great performer, and, my, the way he uses his head to be expressive. He may be the only head-banging fortepianist.

              1. I have seen him perform — I was at Eastman with him, too (I’m still here, in fact). I’d love to write a fortepiano piece for him!

        2. I don’t disagree with what you’ve written. Perhaps we’re at cross-porpoises ( 😉 ). Although, I think there’s another good argument to be had about what makes a compelling performance: I don’t buy that it’s a mysterious je ne sais quoi, as many people would have it. How on earth could we effectively teach performance if what makes it compelling couldn’t be articulated with any specificity. And I might even include things like judicious rubato, tenuto, phrase-shaping, etc in the category “technical”. Once you’re doing all that, “compelling” is at least within comfortable reach.

          Anyway, I didn’t really have performance in mind when I wrote my original comment. If something (the musical content itself) sounds good accidentally, I wouldn’t categorize it as a work of art. It would belong with Mt. Fuji et al.

          Poe’s law is sort of applicable here: if many listeners (and, yes, including professional musicians, if they’re honest) are unable to distinguish between a piece written by a composer and something like that in the OP, then something is wrong. But even an uneducated philistine would listen to, say, Bach, and know that no accidental “paw-falls” could have created it. (This is a problem I see with aleatoric music particularly).

          1. I agree with the first paragraph here. One of the first things one learns about music notation is just how much has to be left out. I agree totally that the rubato, phrasing, etc. is a technical thing, but it’s something that comes from learning about style and performance practice.

            When I took my comps one of the essay questions was along the lines of “Over time, composers began putting more and more musical elements into their compositions. For instance, Romantic composers cared more about dynamics than Baroque composers. Discuss this using examples from three composers from different time periods.”

            I think they framed the question in almost exactly the wrong way. It wasn’t a matter of “how many elements went in,” but rather a question of how much of a performance the notation was supposed to constrain, and how much is meant for the performer(s) to handle. Imagine claiming that a jazz musician “didn’t care about rhythm” because the lead sheet said “swing 8ths” rather than specifying the exact durations desired in the notation.

            (This is a problem I see with aleatoric music particularly)

            I think you might distinguish between the kind of strongly constrained aleatory you find in Lutoslawski and the somewhat less constrained approach in Cage et al. On the whole, I’m really astounded by Cage’s oeuvre, and I especially like the interpretation of his pieces by musicians who believed in what he was up to.

            Constrained “free improvisation” has a lot to recommend it when it’s done well, but a lot depends on the musician’s ability to work well within the constraints the composer has designed. If you know Ornette Coleman’s iconic “Free Jazz” album, you’ll know what I’m talking about — it’s all kinds of constrained in several dimensions, and even the “freedom” in the improvisation is unmistakably bop-oriented, given the makeup of the group. Same deal goes for something like Coltrane’s “Ascension.”

    1. I know there are those who think serialism is just random noise, but there really is a lot of great stuff that came out of the Second Viennese School, and Webern’s piano stuff is on that list. Thanks!


  2. Mmmmh, I don’t have a cat, but plenty of chickens… It could work! All I need is a piano and some strategically placed corn, and I could have myself an oeuferture by breakfast.

  3. Thanks for this interesting piece of music culture!

    Atonal music is a different kettle of cats. But it sounds good to me.

    [Presumably selection bias “made” this piece. I wonder what cockatoos can similarly produce around instruments that interest them?]

  4. To take this more seriously than perhaps it deserves, let me opine that the act of composition here was all done by the human. He received the inspiration, recognized it, acted upon it. The “transcription” _was_ the composition. The cat did nothing, the cat was just walking on stuff, as they do. None of which is necessarily to diminish the final product, judgement of which is subjective, but rather the cat’s role in it, which was unintentional and unaware. Suggesting it’s more than that would require a leap of faith I’m not prepared to make. The whole scenario is kind of a metaphor for the way we elevate the mundane inappropriately. It’s like Jesus in the burned toast.

  5. I teach at Peabody (officially the Peabody Conservatory, part of “The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University”) but arrived after Prof. Kotel had retired. But the story of Ketzel lived on, which is how I knew of her (I’ll ask some old timers for more info) and there was general sadness when Ketzel died.

    There wasn’t a memorial concert, though. Ketzel’s complete works were just that one piece so it would have been awfully short.

    As a piece, it’s not bad–an opening gesture, then a few variations on that gesture, then a sudden contrasting gesture at the end, which punctuates the ending–and whether said punctuation is an exclamation point or a question mark is ambiguous, which is the mark of a good composer!

    The only other cat piece I know is by Domenico Scarlatti, the harpsichord composer born the same year as Bach and Handel. He wrote a fugue with a very strange opening subject that (the story goes) was suggested to him by his cat.

    Here is the Scarlatti piece, with an amusing visual animation of the score showing the cat steps very clearly:

    I played this piece a few years ago and it is a great piece. Next time I will program it with Ketzel’s piece as a companion to it.

  6. You know, for a supposedly atonal piece, it’s actually dangerously close to establishing a key in the opening phrase, marginally obscured by the diminished thirds. Although the subsequent cadence helps dissolve this, I can’t help feeling that the piece would have benefited from further exploration of the harmonic space in the intervening progression.

  7. In my opinion, the worth of a piece is to be judged in what it makes you reflect on while hearing it, and after hearing it. We are makers of meaning. That’s why we see purpose in random coincidences. I don’t know how seriously to take some of the previous comments, but I’ll take a stab at being serious for a moment. There is unity here–the first seven sounds heard are dyads (the first one is a bit hard to hear because of the register)–either major or minor seconds. The overall contour is descending, with a change of direction after the third event, suggesting indecision followed by renewed determination. The final event is unique in that it is a melodic interval, and expanded by an octave; i.e., a major ninth. It wonderfully suggests the cat, having tiptoed over the keys in stealth fashion, decides to launch itself off the keys. So the variety enters in several ways–register, interval size, dynamics (very subtle), length of time between events (I hear an accelerando toward the end), and finally, an obviously different event in at least 3 ways: successive pitches, short duration, and interval size. So all the necessary elements for a good piece are here, after all!

  8. Oh, and why, I wonder, is it subtitled “60 seconds for piano” when the whole piece is played in under 22 seconds?

  9. So the cat “wrote” it. Assuming it’s merely an accurate transcription, that raises all kinds of aesthetic questions, not unrelated to the question “If you knew it was painted by an elephant, would it still be a work of art?”

  10. Hmm. I don’t quite hear the connection to Webern aside from the brevity and the relative sparseness of events — especially not to Webern’s mature 12-tone music.

    I made a hasty transcription, but I don’t have a piano in my apartment to verify that I got it right. The piece could indeed be interpreted as structurally more tight than just some random chords, but I think some of this might have to do as much with the structure of the piano keyboard and the width of the paw interact in a non-random fashion.

    If I’m hearing this right, the first four chords form a linear Major 7th chord (down a major-3rd, down a perfect-5th, up a major-third), and the half-steps that make up the chords ensure that the top pitch of the gesture is the same as the bottom (separated by an octave or two). This would be a very good beginning for a longer piece, and I can think of a number that start with a little kernel like this which is then developed and spun out in all kinds of ways.

    A classic is the 3rd movement of Schoenberg’s op. 23.

    (The third movement starts at 2:00). The opening five-note motive permeates the entire piece, making all kinds of rich connections.

    The opening chords of the Ketzel piece, taken as a chunk, has plenty of good structural features, but to me none of the “ideas” in the piece are followed up on in the way a Webern or a Schoenberg would have done (and Webern is the master of doing this in the fewest possible notes).

    1. Out of curiosity: I wondered, given the recent discussions (here, and at Choice In Dying) about “ways of knowing” and knowledge, if anyone had any thoughts about how much of this kind of musical analysis counts as “knowledge,” and in what respects.

      1. It certainly counts as knowledge, the way one can know how to make a soufflé, or even build a skyscraper. I don’t think the fact that music, or haute cuisine, is a human invention and not something independent like biological forces or physical laws means we can’t know things about it or say true/false things about it.

        I think the trouble begins when we try to evaluate something. Physicists don’t try to determine whether gravity has more merit as a force than the strong nuclear force; the question doesn’t make sense. I may have what many others would call exceedingly narrow taste, but I will try to provide thoughtful arguments and reasons for preferring music a over music b. But I will also not claim that my arguments do anything like demonstrate truth, the way physisicts’ experiments demonstrate truth. I think this is where the difference between the arts and science lies. It’s not that there isn’t knowledge to be gained about art.

        1. I should also point out that we do gain about music or cooking is achieved scientifically: one observes that when albumin is heated it gains structural integrity. One hypothesizes that combining it with leavening in a baked dish will result in a raised food item that should retain its puffed up state after cooling. One tries this out. One now knows how to make a soufflé.

  11. One of the best operas of the 20th century — Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges — includes a cat duet.

    Yep, they’re sexing. Great trombone and horn parts at the end.

    I urge you to watch the whole thing. It’s only about 45 minutes long, and is some of the only “real magic” I know.

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