The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 20, 1998

Jan. 20, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 18


Piano Cat

Paws and effect: A fleet-footed feline has her award-
winning work debuted at Peabody

Aaron Levin
Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

"Chance," said Louis Pasteur, "favors only the prepared mind."

Composer Morris Moshe Cotel was prepared when his cat, Ketzel, became more than a listener as Cotel played the clavier in his New York City apartment.

"Ketzel only comes in when I'm playing Bach," says Cotel, chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. "She put one paw down and very slowly walked down the keyboard, as if she were stalking an invisible mouse."

Though her compawsition brought her recognition from the Paris New Music Review, Ketzel the cat seems to be taking her acclaim in stride, says Morris Moshe Cotel, who committed Ketzel's music to paper. The composer will stay at home when her iece premieres Wednesday night.

Instead of shooing the wandering cat away, Cotel grabbed a pad and just took dictation as Ketzel meandered daintily down the keys. Writing as fast as he could, Cotel copied the impromptu notes struck by each footfall before Ketzel leaped away to pursue other interests.

In all, she improvised 11 bars of music, about 20 seconds' worth.

Cotel remembered Ketzel's composition three months later when he saw a notice of a competition for musical pieces lasting 60 seconds or less. "So I just typed it out and mailed it in," recalls Cotel. "I didn't rework it at all."

Still later, returning from a trip out of town, Cotel found a large white envelope waiting in a stack of mail. Inside was a certificate of special mention from the Paris New Music Review, organizers of the competition. Suddenly, Ketzel was internationally acclaimed, perhaps the most promising feline composer since Felix (The Cat) Mendelssohn.

Now Cotel wonders whether he should expand Ketzel's abbreviated work into a more elaborate piece--perhaps a cat-tata or, given Ketzel's preference for Bach, a magnificat.

Ketzel improvised 11 bars of music, which is about 20 seconds' worth. The competition in which it was entered called for pieces under 60 seconds.

On Wednesday, Jan. 21, "Piece for Piano, Four Paws" will have its world premiere onstage in Friedberg Concert Hall at Peabody, performed by Shruti Kumar. The same program will also feature other works by Cotel and fellow faculty members Robert Sirota and Chen Yi. The Paris New Music Review has arranged for the European premiere of Ketzel's compawsition in Amsterdam and for other performances in The Hague, Paris, Edinburgh and Capetown.

"In 1975, I took second prize in the Schoenburg competition in Amsterdam," said Cotel. "Who could have told me that my cat would have a premiere in the same town 25 years later?"

The 10-year-old Kumar, a student at Peabody Prep, takes the world premiere in stride. "I've been playing piano since I was 5," she said, "and I'm very open to new music."

So is Ketzel, apparently. One competition judge likened Ketzel's work to that of early-20th-century composer Anton Webern (characterized by "brevity and tonal dissonance"). Or, at least, to that of Webern's cat.

Kumar doesn't have a cat at home to comment while she practices--"my mother is really allergic," she says--but Cotel has given her some advice on playing the work.

"He told me I have to dramatize the piece, not just play it," she said. "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.

"It's a great piece," says Kumar. "I feel honored to play the world premiere, and I just want to do my best."

Kumar likes to compose, too. "When I was young, I tried to compose like Mozart, but the sounds had a more eastern, minor feeling," perhaps because her parents are from India. "Now, I just sit down at the piano and scatter my fingers across the keyboard and find really pretty sounds."

Cotel sees a broader meaning in Ketzel's first composition. A student of Jewish theology as well as a composer, Cotel reaches 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," he said. "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."

Peabody Piano Music

What: Piano music by Peabody Conservatory composition faculty Robert Sirota, Chen Yi and Morris Moshe Cotel, with the world premiere of "Piece for Piano, Four Paws" by Ketzel, Cotel's cat. Music to be performed by Amy Yeh, Morris Cotel, Shruti Kumar, Heidi Williams, Kevin Winkler, Matthew William Bengston and Michael Andrew Hammer.

When: Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m.

Where: Miriam Friedberg Concert Hall, 1 E. Mt. Vernon Place

Admission: Free

For more on Peabody performances, call the box office at 410-659-8124 or visit the school's website at