Hearing New Music with a Cat's Ears

Hearing New Music with a Cat’s Ears

Does a Brian Ferneyhough string quartet sound all that different from a Brahms string quartet when processed through a set of feline ears?

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Remember Nora? She’s the piano-playing cat who made the rounds of the internet a couple of years ago. (In case you’ve forgotten about her unique abilities, here’s a reminder.)

I remembered Nora this past week because my cat has been sick (hopefully she’s on the mend), and I’ve tried to be appropriately considerate in what music I’ve subjected her to at home, so as not to make her feel any worse than she already does. As you might imagine, music is pretty ubiquitous in my household and a significant bit of it is stuff that folks run screaming out of concerts over. So my cat is certainly used to everything from screechy free jazz to loud angry post-punk to relentless early minimalism and uncompromisingly gnarly high modernism. None of which is probably great for someone who is sick, even a cat.

Sweetie Oteri at the Piano
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

But how does a cat perceive music? Does a Brian Ferneyhough string quartet sound all that different from a Brahms string quartet when processed through a set of feline ears? Certainly high volumes are grating whatever their source, but if the volume of record with a skronking saxophone or electric guitar solo gets turned down, is it still irritating? Can cats distinguish timbre?

I still remember my visits to a Greenwich Village record shop many years ago where I always had to navigate my searches around a large golden-colored cat who had a habit of sprawling out over several of the bins, completely passed out and seemingly oblivious to the very loud heavy metal music that was usually blasting from the speakers.

But I wasn’t going to take any chances. So over the past week, I ultimately opted for listening to lots of early 20th century chamber music by French and English composers—people like Gabriel Fauré and York Bowen—and my cat seemed to enjoy it, although what got her attention most, or so it seemed, was a disc of symphonies by British composer Edmund Rubbra which lured her out from under the couch and close to me where she remained listening, purring and seemingly enraptured, until the disc was over. But this morning I put on a disc of the wonderfully wacky electro-acoustic music of Utah-based composer Steven Ricks—I had no choice since I was talking to him today (stay tuned). I considered headphones, but ultimately decided against it since she was a lot more energetic than she’d been in days and I figured that at some point I’d need to re-introduce all the new music. Not only was my cat seemingly engrossed in it, but after it was over she began eating voluntarily for the first time in days. Might I have inadvertently stumbled upon yet another benefit of exposure to contemporary music?

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