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Prize-Winning Composer Ketzel the Cat Dies at 19

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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5:29AM PDT on Sep 18, 2011

Very special kitty and the people also around her, who honoured and nurtured her. 19 years = well loved cat.

2:08PM PDT on Jul 27, 2011

I am sorry for Ketzel's family- the world will forever appreciate your clever, creative kitty!

2:48PM PDT on Jul 26, 2011

Awwww, how cool!

5:43AM PDT on Jul 26, 2011

R.I.P. Ketzel, thanks for sharing this article :)

8:57AM PDT on Jul 23, 2011

What a talented Cat Ketzel was i'm sure he is composing with Beethoven and Bach up there right now, My Friends lost their Cat this week too Robbie he was 14years old, its so hard when a Pet passes, Your Thoughts are always with them!

11:08PM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

May Ketzel now be in cat Heaven! Thank you Ketzel.

12:36PM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

Thank you Diane R, exactly my thoughts!

10:05AM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

Sad news...RIP dear Ketzel.

5:06AM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

Thanks for the article.

12:29AM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

very sad to know that the such talented cat passed away

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