Ketzel the Cat
The New York Times Original Article (1997)
November 10, 1997, Monday Late Edition - Final
By JAMES BARRON
She is not in Mr. Rorem's league, but, Ketzel, a 3-year-old cat, is a prize-winning composer.
Ketzel belongs to MORRIS MOSHE COTEL, the chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory. He entered something the six-toed cat dashed off on the piano in the Paris New Music Review One Minute Competition, which is open to pieces of no more than 60 seconds. Not even Chopin's ''Minute Waltz'' would qualify -- Arthur Rubinstein needed 1:48 to zip through it, said Guy Livingstone, one of the judges.
As for Ketzel, the judges gave her a special mention.
''We got stranger stuff, believe it or not,'' Mr. Livingstone said.
Ketzel's prize-winning piece began when she pounced on Mr. Cotel's piano while he was playing a prelude and fugue from ''The Well-Tempered Clavier'' by Bach. She landed in the treble and appeared to be stalking an invisible mouse in the bass. ''I stopped playing and grabbed a pencil and manuscript paper,'' Mr. Cotel said. ''Writing quickly, I was able to capture the descending pattern of her paws on the keys. I put it in a pile of manuscripts and forgot about it.''
Until he saw a mention of the competition. ''We gave the piece serious consideration because it was quite well written,'' Mr. Livingstone said. ''It reminded us of Anton Webern. If Webern had had a cat, this is what Webern's cat would have written.''
The New York Times Obituary (2011)
Noted Composer, Who Leapt Into Atonality, Meows Her Last
By JAMES BARRON
Ketzel, who won a prize for piano composition in 1997 and went on to be featured in a book, “The World of Women in Classical Music,” died Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 19 and lived on the Upper West Side.
Ketzel was a black-and-white cat.
That would explain why, like many other musicians — Midori, Liberace, Mantovani and Madonna, for example — Ketzel went by only one name, except when the occasional royalty check came in. The first, for $19.72, was for a performance in Rotterdam. The check was made out to “Ketzel Cotel.”
“We thought, how are we going to cash this?” recalled her owner, Aliya Cheskis-Cotel. “Luckily, at the bank, they knew my husband and knew our credit was good, and they allowed us to cash it. We told Ketzel we could buy a lot of yummy cat food for $19.72.”
Ms. Cheskis-Cotel’s husband, who died in 2008, was Morris Moshe Cotel, who retired as chairman of the composition department at the Peabody Conservatory in 2000 and became a rabbi. “He said she was his best student and her fame surpassed his,” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said.
Ketzel (“cat” in Yiddish) was a one-hit wonder among composers — she never wrote another piece. And her career was launched only because she launched herself onto the keyboard of Professor Cotel’s Baldwin grand one morning in 1996.
He was playing a prelude and fugue from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach, as he did every morning — he worked his way through a different prelude and fugue each day, as a kind of warmup exercise.
On the morning in question, Ketzel leapt onto the piano, landing in the treble. She worked her way down to the bass. Professor Cotel was startled, but grabbed a pencil and started transcribing. He was impressed by the “structural elegance” of what he heard, Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said. “He said, ‘This piece has a beginning, a middle and an end. How can this be? It’s written by a cat.’”
It was a model of brevity, shorter than Leroy Anderson’s “Waltzing Cat” or Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys.” But Professor Cotel set it aside — until he received an announcement seeking entries for the Paris New Music Review’s One-Minute Competition, open to pieces no more than 60 seconds long. “He said, ‘I don’t have anything that’s less than 60 seconds and my students don’t,’” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel recalled, ” ‘but I’ll send in the piece by the cat.’”
Professor Cotel explained the composer’s identity in the entry, but the judges were not told that; they were shown only the music. They awarded “Piece for Piano, Four Paws” a special mention.
“We gave the piece serious consideration because it was quite well written,” Guy Livingston, co-founder and editor of the review, said in 1997. “It reminded us of Anton Webern. If Webern had a cat, this is what Webern’s cat would have written.”
That led to an exchange of letters between Professor Cotel and the Webern biographer Allen Forte. Along the way, Professor Cotel said he realized that Ketzel’s “exquisite atonal miniature” used only 10 pitches of the chromatic scale. “The two missing pitches are G natural and B-flat” — the opening notes of Domenico Scarlatti’s famous Fugue in G minor, known as the “Cat’s Fugue.”
Ketzel’s piece had its concert premiere at Peabody in 1998 and was later performed in Europe and heard on public radio. And once it was performed at the Museum of the City of New York, with the composer in attendance.
“I said, ‘I’m bringing Ketzel to the performance,’ ” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel recalled. “They said, ‘No, you’re not.’ ”
But she did.
Ketzel’s composition was the next-to-last piece on a two-hour program. Ketzel sat quietly in her carrier in a back row as the big moment approached.
“Finally, when it was time for her piece to be performed,” Ms. Cheskis-Cotel said, “the pianist announced, ‘The next piece, believe it or not, was written by Ketzel the Cat.’ From the back of the hall, Ketzel went, ‘Yeeeowww.’ The people were on the floor, but of course she knew her name.”
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 26, 2011
An article last Tuesday about the death of Ketzel, the cat who wrote a piano composition, misspelled the surname of a founder of the Paris New Music Review and misstated his role in its One Minute Competition, which gave Ketzel’s piece a special mention. It was Guy Livingston, not Livingstone, who co-founded and edited the review. But while he oversaw the contest, he was not one of the judges. The errors also appeared on Nov. 10, 1997, in a brief article about Ketzel.
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