Prize-Winning Composer Ketzel the Cat Dies at 19
Ketzel, a 19-year-old cat who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has passed on. The black and white cat was a prize-winning composer, says the New York Times: In 1997, she won a special mention for a piano composition, “Piece for Piano, Four Paws” after her late owner, Morris Moshe Cotel, a retired professor of composition at the Peabody Conservatory, entered her piece in Paris New Music Review’s One-Minute Competition. Ketzel received a special mention for her work, as well as a check for $19.72.
Cotel had noted who Ketzel was in the entry; the judges were shown only the music. Guy Livingstone, one of the judges, said in 1997 that the piece “reminded us of Anton Webern. If Webern had a cat, this is what Webern’s cat would have written.” The New York Times describes how Ketzel’s musical ability was discovered:
[Cotel] 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.’”
Following Ketzel winning her prize, Cotel and Webern biographer Allen Forte began an exchange of letters in which they noted something particular about the notes Ketzel used:
Along the way, Professor Cotel said he realized that Ketzel’s “exquisite atonal miniature” used only 10 pitches of the chromatic scale. “The two missing pitches are G natural and B-flat” — the opening notes of Domenico Scarlatti’s famous Fugue in G minor, known as the “Cat’s Fugue.”
“Piece for Piano, Four Paws” received its world premier in 1998 at Friedberg Concert Hall at Peabody Conservatory; it was performed by then 10-year-old, Shruti Kumar, a student at Peabody Prep. In the Gazette Online of Johns Hopkins University, Kumar described it as a “great piece”:
“[Cotel] told me I have to dramatize the piece, not just play it. I guess it’s a psychological thing. You have to have the poise of a cat to make the audience feel you’re about to pounce on someone.” Technically, she said, that means keeping her arms stiff and her hands held straight down over the piano keys.
Aliya Cheskis-Cotel noted that she had been sure to bring Ketzel to the world premier over the objections of her husband. Ketzel’s piece was the next-to-the-last one on a two-hour program; she was quiet in her carrier until she heard “Piece for Piano, Four Paws”:
“Finally, when it was time for her piece to be performed. 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.”
Cotel himself died in 2008. The New York Times says that, after retiring from his professorship at Peabody Conservatory, he became a rabbi. The Gazette Online said he had “back to the Talmud to understand the events leading up to this week’s world premiere”:
“The rabbis speak of kavanah, a state of mental concentration. Any commonplace event in our day can be transformed and seen in a heightened sense of reality. We are surrounded by miracles if you can only perceive them.”
Including the sounds of a cat’s own musical creation.
“Piece for Piano, Four Paws” can be heard on this collection, Purrfectly Classical.
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