Content Warning: this piece alludes to animal cruelty in a non-explicit fashion.
So you’ve heard of every instrument, but, torn from your history books is this pianola, this harpsichord of harm, the cruelest instrument to spawn from Man’s grey, cerebral soup: The Cat Piano.
The Cat Piano is not a piano played by cats.
There’s no reason to believe that anyone in history ever actually built a Cat Piano. This is probably the single most important thing to bring up when you’re discussing the ‘katzenklavier‘, ‘piano à chats‘, or simply the ‘cat organ‘: it’s exactly what you think it is, and it’s totally fake. Which is a relief for both cats and the people that love them. And for people who loved Cats. Like a ghoulish, historical version of the Jingle Cats, the Cat Piano exists only in our imaginations. It also exists in the writings of an 18th century eccentric German physician named Johann Christian Reil, who aimed to treat the 18th century equivalent of ADHD.
…with cat music. Meowy Christmas indeed. Buckle up, this one goes some places.
Dr. Reil believed that if he could get a patient to fixate on something bizarre or grotesque, he might be able to jar them out of their stupor . In effect, he wanted to use Horror – or, um, the Jingle Cats – to freak someone out so badly that they’d snap out of whatever ailed them. Whether this new trauma would have dropped his patients into some other, worse kind of stupor is hard to say, but I think we can all agree that it’s cool that he never got a chance to try it out. Outside of his wildly imaginative writing, that is.
He was also friends with Goethe (of Faust fame) and, despite the whole Cat Piano thing, also coined the term ‘Psychiatry’. You can’t make this stuff up.
The following is The Long Hallowe’en’s first ever Horror story just for cats. Unless you count Garfield the other night.
Had it ever been built (which it super wasn’t!), the Cat Piano would have consisted of a conventional piano with keys, strings and hammers, attached to a curious set of shoebox-shaped pens. Each wire of the piano would have connected to its own pen, and each pen housed a highly-trained cat with exactly one, big job. It was not a good job.
You know where this is going.
Every time the player struck a key, the corresponding cat would have had its tail either tugged or whacked, depending on how sadistic a version you’re reading. The cats would have been sorted by pitch and size creating, in theory, a shitty piano built for the literal devil. Or a 16th century, synthesizer-free Jingle Cats. And like the Jingle Cats, I can only imagine it would have sounded like absolute garbage when it was not played for the King of Spain in 1549.
Later, we have to imagine the hypothetical ‘piano’ player would also go to hell, or cat hell. Which might be worse.
For what it’s worth, even the French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin – whose homework from 1877 I’m copying here – thought thought this was some shit. He called it an “Abominable Orchestra” and was himself horrified by it. He noted that wolves, monkeys and deer were fans, and that they all danced around and enjoyed the show.
If that seems like a morbid, extremely-fake historical curiosity, that’s exactly what it is. More than a special Horror story for cats and the people who love them, though, the Cat Piano is a handy metaphor for animal confinement and exploitative imprisonment of all kinds. It’s the wild spirit forced into a cage and ritually harmed in the name of a product, whether that’s music for the King of Spain or tigers in a zoo. It functions as a metaphor for the soulless-ness of commercial Art and its draining relationship with Capitalism, too. The story of the Cat Piano tells us that if we have to lock something beautiful up and whack it on the tail to get the sound we want, that maybe it isn’t worth doing in the first place.
It’s a dark, dark joke – but like much pitch-black humour, it poses a valuable question: when is the creation of art worth destroying its subject? Our outrage at the concept of a Cat Piano suggests one answer.
Don’t worry, I’m not only here tonight to talk about hypothetical cats having a bad time.
In 2009, Australian studio The People’s Republic of Animation decided to tell the Cat Piano story in their own way: by turning it into a kind of Poe-style midnight poem starring anthropomorphic, artsy cats in trouble. Oh, and it’s an Art Nouveau-inflected film noir. The results speak for themselves. It’s eight minutes long and won a stack of awards, all of which it deserved:
Isn’t it neat? There were a couple of names in the credits that should have rung a bell.
If you recognize that growling voice, that’s because it’s literally Nick Cave, the reluctant Australian Godfather of Gothic Rock, singer of Murder Ballads and noted bat enthusiast. As an artist, poet and novelist, he’s known for his long, meandering tales of woe – a trend that has only intensified in recent years. While he rarely produces out-and-out Horror content, everything Nick Cave makes is weighed down by a deep, mournful gravity. He’s always been this way. Whether he’s trying to make Rock music or write comedic novels about failed rock stars, there’s no mistaking Nick Cave. It’s no surprise that he brings that same grim energy to Cat Piano, the man is inescapably haunted in a way that recalls Tom Waits.
Meanwhile, if the striking art style and colour palette seemed familiar (and they should!), that’s Australian artist Ari Gibson. He would later go on to found Team Cherry, which makes him one-third of the team that made 2017’s exquisite, gorgeous Hollow Knight. We owe the gloomy Bug Kingdom to Gibson: his love of deep shadows, blue tones and sudden, intense violence all show up in Cat Piano the same way they do in Dirtmouth and on the Greenpath. Cat Piano and Hollow Knight could honestly be sequel and prequel, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover they originated from the same place. Like Hollow Knight, there’s an inescapable sadness to his work on Cat Piano. Whether our heroes find a happy ending or not, those shadows never quite lift.
As for how the collaboration came about, legend has it that Cave had recently stopped off at home in Australia during a string of tour dates for his band and album Grinderman. Cave has a history as an actor, film composer and screenwriter, so when he was approached by the Republic of Animation team he must have seen something of his own work in this morose Film Noire about a detective cat and his glowing, missing beloved. It feels like something Cave would have written himself, right down to the horrible, terrifying finale. When I was checking to see if the Cat Piano was real I had to stop and see if Cave had written the poem too – but that honour goes to Republic of Animation writer Eddie White.
It’s still totally likely we’ll get an actual Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song about a katzenklavier someday, though. I know it.
As someone who arrived at Nick Cave as a teen, followed his work to Cat Piano and then stumbled into a deep obsession with Hollow Knight years later, knowing that there’s one degree of separation between the man that wrote Stagger Lee and the one that designed Zote is an absolute treat. The result is a coincidental, supergroup-level Australian collaboration for the ages.
This has been entry 19/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!