Tuesday, 18 November 2014

“Like a cat” – not a new idea!

As I said in my previous post, for a long time, my mother and brother have loved to say that Messiaen’s keyboard music is the equivalent of “a cat walking up and down” the piano or organ.

Ever since I  have been told that – and it has occurred on and off as I listen to Messiaen for a decade – it has deeply offended me for the very simple reason that glancing the score of Messiaen’s keyboard music shows that something with a brain as small as a domestic cat would have no hope of playing it with genuine accuracy. It is true that cats trying to play the piano may give noise faintly similar to real Messiaen, but there is no way even a trained cat could reproduce Messiaen as Zehn, Loriod or Austbø do.

What I have found today, surprisingly, is that my mother’s and brother’s notion that Messiaen’s keyboard music is the equivalent of a cat playing is not new at all. Rather, as ‘Music’s restless avant garde: Still a “wonderful adventure”’ says, the notion of music being “like a cat” playing the piano is:
“a favorite wisecrack from those who have not yet made the transition to new music (or found the piece that will open the door for them as ‘Washed by Fire’ did for me).”
Mostly, though, the “cat notion”, as Michael Johnson says, is applied to music much more radical than Messiaen, such as Helmut Lachenmann. However, there is one conspicuous case of choreographer Manard Stewart, who had exactly the same feelings on first hearing Messiaen that my mother and brother had – yet came to admire Messiaen after repeated listenings!

There is though another site on YouTube that also says Messiaen’s music – though only if poorly performed – can sound like a cat walking up and down the piano, and this may be someone with more experience listening to Messiaen than I have.

Both these facts surprise me – perhaps it reflects me not knowing as much as I think, as with the case of soccer fans who call gridiron and even (Australian) football “handegg”, which I noted a couple of years ago to be a very old pejorative.

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