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Musical Cats

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Cats and music go together like Romeo and Juliet, rest and relaxation, or green eggs and ham. No one really knows why, but there they are.

1. Nora, the Piano-playing Cat

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Nora was adopted by a piano teacher with twin pianos in her home. As the students played, Nora figured out how to make the piano work on her own. Her first video on YouTube catapulted her into stardom. More videos followed, and then a DVD. Nora's talent inspired Lithuanian composer Mindaugas Piečaitis to write a number featuring the cat as soloist. The CATcerto, as it is called, premiered in in Klaipėda, Lithuania on June 5th, 2009, performed by the in Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra with Nora appearing via videotape.You can see the performance here.

2. Katzenklavier

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The idea of making music with cats goes back to the Middle Ages at least. A Katzenklavier is a cat piano. Not a piano for cats to play, but a piano full of cats! Cats were to be arranged in order of the tone of their natural voice. Their tails would be secured, and when their particular note was called for, a spike would strike a cat's tail, causing it to cry out. This odd instrument was designed by Athanasius Kircher around 1650. The idea is also attributed to German doctor Johann Christian Reil for the purpose of focusing his psychiatric patients attention. As fascinating as the katzenklavier is, the instrument was a concept only, and never put into use.

3. Drei Klavierstücke

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Cory Arcangel's latest project is a bit hard to understand, so I won't even try to explain it myself.

Recently I took a few months of my free time and decided to recreate Arnold Schoenberg's 1909 op. 11 Drei Klavierstücke (aka Three Piano Pieces) by editing together videos of cats playing pianos downloaded from Youtube. Schoenberg's Op11 is often considered the first piece of "atonal" music, or music to completely break from traditional western harmony which means it's not written in a "key".

He has three videos of Schoenberg's music as performed by cats at his website.

4. Animated Cats

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As funny as cats are, is it any wonder so many are conscripted to perform in music videos? Some of the more famous animated musical cats are the Kitty Cat Dance by Steve Ibsen,  the Record Store Cats, and Ninja and Viking Kittens from Joel Veitch. All are recommended for overall silliness.

5. Keyboard Cat

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Performer Charlie Schmidt made a funny video with his cat Fatso in 1984. It appeared that Fatso was playing the piano, but in actuality the very patient cat was acting as a puppet. The result was Cool Cat. The clip was uploaded to YouTube over twenty years later. In February of 2009, Brad O'Farrell used the Cool Cat video to "play someone off", but that video is now gone. He started a sensation, as everyone loved what is now called the "keyboard cat'. The fetching feline was tagged onto all sorts of videos, leading to the formation of at least two websites where such videos are displayed and a generator to help you make your own keyboard cat videos.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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