Techno Music and the Cat Piano: Everything New is Old Again

Cat Piano, 1883.

Cat Piano, 1883.

I love tech, and with each day it seems that we see something cool and totally new. But then, sometimes I run across things that remind me that some things we think are new started a long time ago.

This time around, the reminder comes courtesy of John Glassie in A Man of Misconceptions: The Life Of An Eccentric In An Age of Change. The book is a biography of Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest and scholar who lived and worked throughout Europe in the turbulent 17th century. Kircher is a fascinating and eccentric guy. He was a linguist and natural philosopher (what we now call a scientist) working in the turbulent dawn of the scientific revolution. He was on board with the notion of measurement and observation-based science, yet so steeped in traditional explanations of physical and medical phenomena that he never really committed to either one fully. He did some genius stuff, but also got many things completely wrong.

What surprised me, though, were two things that he developed in the 1640’s: a technological music composition system and the cat piano. And here I thought these were both invented to be used for today’s top 40 radio…

Mathematical Music

Kircher lived in one of the the artistic capitals of Europe (Rome) on the heels of Palestrina (often regarded as the greatest of European Catholic composers). Yet, he thought that the music he heard sucked. (That sounds familiar.) Glassie shares some great quotes from Kircher, where he complained of hearing “the same twittering, the same cluckings, the same phrases everywhere until you feel sick and angry.” He couldn’t avoid the “notable abuses and faults”. . .”amid so great a throng of musicians.” Indeed, he was appalled that “such wretched compositions, prone to so many errors and defects, should appear every day, often in the leading places.” (Glassie, 122) So, Athanasius, what do you really think?

To help fix the problem, he decided to figure out a way to empower people to write their own music. He developed an algorithm that would compile songs for voice (up to 4 part harmony) by running equations. His system generated music by stringing together values that corresponded to musical phrases he had written out—and there were hundreds of them!  And it wasn’t just a method; he also built physical “musarithmetic arks” that would generate these songs so that “anyone, even if he has no musical knowledge, may…compose tunes.” (Glassie, 123)

Basically, Magic Garageband instruments and loops, without the “playing it for you” part.

Biological Instruments

The other thing that he is known for inventing was the “cat piano.”  Kircher’s friend Kaspar Schott described the piano, saying that Kircher:

captured living cats, all of differing size and consequently of different shrillness and depth of voice; these…he enclosed [in a chest] in such a way that their tails…were fastened and led through to certain determined channels. Upon these he furnished keys constructed with most slender pricks in the place of mallets. . . . In proportion to their differing tonal magnitude [a.k.a. pitch] he arranged the cats so that individual keys corresponded to their individual tails…. When it was finally played, it produced the sort of harmony as the voices of cats are wont to supply. For when the keys had been depressed by the fingers of the Organist, since with their very pricks the puncture their tails, the cats, driven to a state of madness, thundering with piteous voice now deep, now shrill, were producing a harmony arranged for the voice of cats, which thing both moved men to laughter and was able even to drive the mice themselves to the fields. (Glassie, 121)

Cat Piano

Cat Piano, 1657.

Basically, a real cat precursor to the electronic voice in Nyan cat or the sampler Dr. Demento’s 1989 dogs singing Jingle Bells (plus an extra helping of animal cruelty).

These make we wonder how innovative we really are.  Do we really have new ideas, or just better execution? It is easy to imagine that those who lived 400 years ago were somehow different from us, even simpleminded. But maybe they weren’t so different after all.

Not sure, though, if that means we’re simpleminded or Kircher was ahead of his time.  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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