Saturday, 15 November 2014

“A cat playing the piano”? Not really, but closer than I would like, perhaps!

When I played Jennifer Bate’s renditions of Messiaen’s organ work on a car trip to my late father in Kew a decade ago, my mother and brother used to rudely say to me that Bate was not a human, but “a cat walking up and down the organ”! This really, really offended me, since I knew from merely looking at the text that Messiaen’s music was extremely complicated – even impossible to decode with the repeated chromatic notes – and it was clear to me a cat with a much smaller brain that a trained musician would never be able to replicate it!

Note how chromatic Messiaen’s compositions are from the score above of Petites Esquisses d‘Oiseaux, which is available from Naxos performed by Håkon Austbø.

The notion that Messiaen’s music was like a cat playing has recurred recently in my mother’s mind when I bough a second copy of my favorite classical composition, Catalog d‘Oiseaux – this time by the Norwegian Håkon Austbø whereas my previous copy was by Martin Zehn. Though she was less offended than when hearing the quieter and less accessible organ pieces – which do possess tremendous power – it seemed ruder and more offensive for having been so long with that ridiculous idea first came into my mother’s (and brother’s) head.

So tonight, I thought I might see if there actually was some sound from a cat playing the piano to see whether it was so unlike real Messiaen that my laughter in ridicule was justified. It was to my surprise that I actually found something reasonably close to a cat playing the piano on YouTube – although the idea of my mother and brother was that the cat would actually walk up and down the piano and recreate Messiaen perfectly!

This one clearly is not Messiaen – though there are a few tiny traces of the sound of Catalog d‘Oiseaux and other Messiaen pieces.

This cat clearly is not like Messiaen at all – it is the random noises one would expect from a cat playing the piano!

Although this is not even a proper acoustic piano but a synthesised piano, the sounds actually mesh a little when I listened to this and Håkon Austbø simultaneously (this on the computer and Austbø on a speaker).
This cat is closest to my relatives’ description, but furthest from real Messiaen!

So I can say that perhaps there is a tiny grain of truth that Messiaen’s music on piano or organ is like a cat – but not nearly enough to make me feel a mixture of severe offence and laughter! Probably more offence with my look at a cat actually walking up and down a piano!

I have told my mother – and did tell her a long time ago – that she should stop saying Messiaen’s keyboard music is like a cat playing, but she says and I admit I find too much laughter in it!

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