Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Thomas Patteson and I (Deirdre Loughridge) curate the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments. In this essay for the ever-fascinating Public Domain Review, we explore the peculiar lives of imaginary musical instruments – and with them the workings of speculative technology and unknown history of the imagination.

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Robert Fludd’s Temple of Music. One of the great seventeenth-century occultist’s contributions to the domain of speculative technology. From his Utriusque cosmi (1617) – Source.

And as the instruments of the hand either give motion or guide it, so the instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions.

-Francis Bacon

Numerous museums are dedicated to musical instruments. In Berlin and Brussels, Paris and Phoenix, one can wander rooms lined with musical artifacts from many times and places. Strolling through these rooms, one might admire the exquisite craftsmanship of a Stradivarius violin or the opulent artistry of a French harpsichord. One might linger over forgotten curiosities like the tromba marina, or abortive experiments like Adolphe Sax’s seven-bell horn. One’s path might follow changes in the instrumentarium from Renaissance woods and metals to modern plastics and electronics, and the experience might lead one to wonder at the diversity of species born from the physics of vibrating strings, air columns and resonating bodies.

Missing from such collections, however, is the peculiar class of what we like to call “fictophones”: imaginary musical instruments. Though these instruments, due to some measure of impracticality and impossibility, did not take sounding form, they were nonetheless put forth in the various means available to conjure objects in our minds: in writings, drawings, sometimes even in detailed schematics. One might suppose that imaginary musical instruments, deprived of physical reality, have no place in the cultural histories and heritages that a museum of musical instruments aims to illuminate and preserve. Yet in their own strange ways, imaginary musical instruments exist. What’s more, they have not merely shadowed or paralleled musical life; they have formed a vital part of it, participating in ways that show the fragility of the distinction between imaginary and real. No less than instruments you hold in your hand, imaginary instruments act as interfaces between mind and world, limning the edges of what we may think and do.

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 Fantastic rendering of a hydraulic organ in Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis(1650). Kircher would also write about the “cat piano”, see below – Source.

Take, for starters, Francis Bacon’s “sound-houses.” Bacon described these spaces for manipulating sound in his New Atlantis (1626), a utopian work in which a European traveller, lost at sea, happens upon a society living on the mythical island of Bensalem. The “sound-houses” represent the acoustic branch of Bensalem’s state-sponsored research program, which seeks both to produce knowledge of how nature works, and to translate that knowledge into real-world applications for human benefit. In the following passage, the director of Bensalem’s scientific endeavors explains to his foreign guest:

We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

Bacon’s sound-houses are hypothetical, an exercise in imagining what could be. Many readers today find them prophetic, and it is tempting to read the line about “divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown” as if its author had a foreknowledge of synthesizers and tape. But to read the sound-houses in this way displaces them from their own time, and the experiments with pipes, bells and string instruments from which Bacon extrapolated. By reducing their role to one of prediction, furthermore, it sets the imaginary at a powerless remove from the real. Rather than prophetic, Bacon’s sound-houses are emblematic of the power of imaginary instruments to act upon the world – of the magnet-like force they exert, attracting (or repelling) certain modes of thought and action.

One of the first to explore the musical possibilities of electronic instruments, Daphne Oram, was familiar with Bacon’s New Atlantis. In 1958, she posted the passage about sound-houses on the door of the Radiophonic Workshop, the newly founded department within the BBC dedicated to electronic music, which she helped establish. At this early moment in electronic music, it was far from clear what techniques and sounds would prove valuable, what aspects of past musical practice would translate. Oram’s invocation of Bacon’s sound-houses suggests that such moments create openings for the imaginary to flood in – not just from the creative minds of individuals, but from a collective storehouse of fantasies. Imaginary instruments help ideas circulate together with the desire for (or fear of) their realization. As Bacon himself observed, “instruments of the mind supply either suggestions for the understanding or cautions.”

Bacon’s sound-houses illustrate one era’s technological imaginary becoming a later one’s reality – the course of things we’d likely expect. But the process can run the other way around as well. The tubo cochleato, for example, was described by Athanasius Kircher in his treatise on acoustics, Phonurgia nova (1673), as a device for amplifying the voice. Kircher’s student Filippo Bonanni also discussed the device in his book, Gabinetto armonico pieno d’istromenti sonori indicati e spiegati (Musical cabinet full of sounding instruments, shown and explained; 1722), where it appears among musical instruments both of common European use and from other parts of the world. As Bonanni explained, the tubo cochleato would amplify the voice much more than a straight tube; the evidence came from nature, from the fact that the ears of hares and other timid animals were formed in the spiral shape. But since it was extremely difficult for man to make a spiral so perfect as nature, it was near impossible to construct the tubo cochleato, and no one in Bonanni’s day used the device.

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Image from Filippo Bonanni’s Gabinetto armonico (1723) – Source.

In fact, the tubo cochleato was purely speculative. But only in light of later theories of sound propagation would the design appear fundamentally flawed, the concept out of line with basic physics in addition to human craftsmanship. For Kircher and Bonanni, the instrument was real. Kircher’s reality, indeed, included many things we would consider fantastic (dragons, for instance, as John Glassie has discussed). As a measure of the gap between our reality and Kircher’s, the tubo cochleato (like the dragon) attests to the power of research and experiment to debunk the fabulous. At the same time – perhaps more disconcertingly – Bonnani’s book reveals the power of images and texts to define the real through a blend of speculative and empirical elements.

Similarly hovering between the speculative and empirical is the curious device known as the cat piano. The earliest known image of a set of cats arrayed as sound-producing elements to be activated by the fingers dates to the late sixteenth century, that is, over a hundred years before the invention of the piano, at a time when it would more properly be called a cat harpsichord or clavichord. The image comes from an emblem book, Johann Theodor de Bry’s Emblemata saecularia mira et iucunda uarietate saeculi huius mores ita exprimentia ut sodalitatum symbolis… (1596), and shows a motley ensemble of animals and confused musicians. A subtitle to the scene, “there is no music sweeter to Midas’s ears”, alludes to the Phrygian King whose punishment for preferring Pan’s pipe to Apollo’s lyre was to have his ears turned into those of a donkey.

First known image of the cat piano from Johann Theodor de Bry's Emblemata (1596) - Source: courtesy of Robert J. Richards.
First known image of the cat piano from Johann Theodor de Bry’s Emblemata (1596) – Source: courtesy of Robert J. Richards.

From a comical image of cacophony, the cat piano underwent a series of unexpected functional transformations. By the 1650s it was a legendary music therapy: supposedly, an Italian prince was cured of his melancholy by the device when he found its meowing cats, triggered by driving spikes through their tails, irresistibly funny. The early-nineteenth-century medical theorist Johann Christian Reil offered a different account of the cat piano’s therapeutic powers. In his treatise on psychological cures for the mentally disturbed, Rhapsodieen über die Anwendung der psychischen Curmethode auf Geisteszerrüttungen (1803), he presented the cat piano as a hypothetical fix for dreamers unable to focus attention on the external world. As he vividly explained, the cats would

be arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument – when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expressions on their faces and the play of these animals – must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.

In yet another thought-experiment with the instrument, the eighteenth-century Parisian Louis-Bertrand Castel invoked it to prove his contention that what mattered in music was the combination of sounds, not sounds in their own right. The fact that one could make music from the individually ugly plaints of pained cats proved that “sounds on their own possess no beauty, and that all the beauties of music come not from sound, but from the melodic sequence and the harmonic combination of these sounds, multiplied and varied in proportion.”

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The cat piano, or “Katzenklavier”, as depicted in Gaspar Schott’s Magia universalis naturae et artis – Source.
Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, Vol. 11 (1883) - Source.
Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, Vol. 11 (1883) – Source.

The absurdity of a cat piano has no doubt contributed to its appeal across the centuries. But the license granted in the space of the imaginary points to illicit aspects of the real. The cat piano unearths an uncomfortable connection between music and abuse, between the artistic control of sound and the heartless treatment of sounding bodies. Both artistic control and heartless treatment are abetted by the keyboard interface, which gives players access to numerous pitches but only at a remove from their sources. That keyboards facilitate cruelty is a notion hardly evident in the history of realized instruments (a rare hint is found on an eighteenth-century spinet inscribed, “intactum sileo percute dulce cano”: “untouched, I am silent; strike me, I sing sweetly”). But it is front and center in the history of imaginary instruments. Jules Verne demonstrated the connection by substituting humans for cats: in his short story “M. Ré-dièze et Mlle Mi-bémol” (“Mister Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat”; 1893) a musician outfits an organ with a special register of children’s voices. From the perspective of the child assigned to the pitch D-sharp (or re sharp, in solfége), we learn the appalling truth:

then an air-current inflates my chest, a current skillfully controlled, which carries the Ray sharp out of my lips. I want to be silent, but I cannot. I am nothing but an instrument in the organist’s hands. His touch upon the keyboard is like a valve opening in my heart.

The keyboard finds yet more sadistic form as a species of organ in the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Called the “Torturetron,” the instrument sends spikes into people’s sides so as to add their moans to the tones of its more conventional ranks of pipes.

 “Pas un son ne s’échappe…”, an illustration by Georges Roux from the first edition of Jules Verne's Hier et demain (1910) - Source.
“Pas un son ne s’échappe…”, an illustration by Georges Roux from the first edition of Jules Verne’s Hier et demain (1910) – Source.

Verne’s organ and the Torturetron exemplify the capacity of imaginary instruments to serve as “cautions” – cautions we would do well to heed in this age when so much of what we do takes place through keyboards and other interfaces that remove us from the carrying-out of our commands. The note of warning is one imaginary instruments have sounded with growing regularity since the nineteenth century, as the wonders of new technologies have stoked fears about their consequences for humanity. Amidst the rise of industrial machinery, for example, the French caricaturist J.J. Grandville envisioned a fantastic “steam concert” of intelligent, steam-powered instruments. The program, described in his book Un autre monde (1844), features such pieces as L’Explosion, mélodie pour 200 trombones (The Explosion: a melody for 200 trombones) and La Locomotive, symphonie à basse pression, de la orce de trois cents chevaux (The Locomotive: a low pressure symphony with 200 horsepower) and Le Moi et le Non-Moi, symphonie philosophique en ut (The Self and the Non-Self: Philosophical Symphony in C). At once fascinating and disturbing, Grandville’s anthropomorphic instruments express a fundamental ambivalence about the development of increasingly powerful and autonomous technologies.

Illustration from J. J. Grandville's Un autre monde (1844) - Source.
Illustration from J. J. Grandville’s Un autre monde (1844) – Source.

“Ask any good Frenchman … what he understands by progress,” Charles Baudelaire observed in 1855, “he will tell you that it is steam, electricity, and gas lighting.” Today, one might say that what we understand by progress is digital networks, mind-machine interfaces, and biotechnologies. These have been prime stimuli to twentieth- and twenty-first-century inventors of imaginary instruments such as Pat Cadigan, who detailed brain-sockets for music video production in the cyberpunk novel Synners (1991), and Richard Powers, whose Orfeo (2014) envisioned music encoded in DNA.

Grandville, Cadigan, and Powers illustrate not only a cautionary strand in imaginary instrument design, but also a distinct temporal orientation: each places his or her inventions in the not-too-distant future. In the history of imaginary musical instruments, the emergence of a futuristic orientation can be dated quite precisely. The turning point occurs with Louis Sébastien Mercier’s novel L’An 2440 (The year 2440), published in 1771. The utopian premise of the novel is reminiscent of Bacon’s New Atlantis: here too, an outsider encounters a society where experimental research is undertaken for the benefit of mankind; in the field of acoustics, a device made of springs is capable of imitating all manner of sounds, and is used to dissuade the King from going to war by letting him hear the horrors and grief it would cause. But where Bacon’s sound-houses were found in a contemporaneous foreign land, Mercier’s springs exist in their author’s home city seven hundred years in the future (Paris in 2440). The novel, generally considered the first significant example of fiction set in the future, promptly inspired other futurological visions, such as the fantastic image of a twenty-fifth-century postal balloon shown below, which would deliver mail via the air and have a pipe organ built into its bow.


Print by Balthasar Anton Dunker, probably dating to 1784, depicting the twenty-fifth-century postal balloon – Source.

The imagination is often figured as a site of infinite possibility, free to create without regard to material limitations. But touring the museum of imaginary musical instruments suggests that there are in fact certain grooves that form over time to channel the course of fantasy. Futuristic imaginary instruments flow along one such groove. The future orientation of the imagination directs its energies to the technologies synonymous with “progress” in the present – an effect that starts to show its peculiar limitations when one looks back at projections like the hot air balloon of 2440. This particular channel for technological fantasy was not always so deep. Before the eighteenth century, imaginary instruments typically appeared either in a contemporaneous foreign land (like Bacon’s sound-houses) or in the past, as devices that existed but had been lost (like the Tubo cochleato). The museum of imaginary musical instruments thus illuminates not only the intersection of reality and fantasy, but also the unknown history of the imagination. It reveals numerous paths of inventive thought not taken – paths covered up by years of “progress,” but which, when cleared off, might yet lead us back to something new.


Streaming Swift, Lending Liszt: 250 Years of Music Subscription Access & Ownership

As we approach the launch of Apple Music, debates over music streaming services are flaring up once again. Like Spotify, Rdio, Tidal and others, Apple Music promises access to a vast music library, and aims to turn that access into something people will pay for on an ongoing basis. Astute observers have noted that Apple Music’s business model differs little from Spotify’s: both lure users with free access (for a limited time in the case of Apple, ad-supported in the case of Spotify), and expect increasingly substantial numbers to convert to paying subscribers at $9.99/month. The same concerns swirl around these music-streaming services. Will access replace ownership? How will musicians be compensated? How will listeners find music they like in such vast catalogs? How will they relate to music when access is so effortless? In Taylor Swift’s famous words, “everything new, like Spotify, all feels…like a grand experiment.”

This grand experiment has been running for quite some time. Before digital file formats, before even sound recording, music was bought and sold in the form of sheet music. And once music was bought and sold in the form of sheet music, it wasn’t long before consumers were also offered the opportunity to subscribe – for a monthly or yearly fee – to music libraries where they could access vastly more music than they could ever afford to own. The logistics of these music libraries differed, of course, from those of today’s digital music services. Small numbers of printed copies, which people had to carry from the library to home and back again, meant there were limits on how many pieces of music one could borrow at a time, and for how long. But the promise of on-demand access to a vast library (for an ongoing fee) was largely the same. And so too were the economic and cultural concerns surrounding such access, as subscription services raised questions about the viability of the music business, and about the ways in which people enjoy music.

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Advertising music subscription services in 1895 and 2015

The first known musical lending library opened 250 years ago in Paris. A Belgian painter named Antoine de Peters spearheaded the venture, calling it the Office of Music Subscription (Bureau d’abonnement musical) and modeling it on literary lending libraries. “Since music has become an almost general amusement,” read Peters’ July, 1765 newspaper advertisement, “nothing is more useful than a shop that has assembled all kinds of music from ancient to modern. Such is on offer at the business we are announcing today that will be opened the 22nd of this month…The subscription will be 24 livres per year, in exchange for which sum the subscriber can take whatever piece of music that they would like.” The library would have a large selection of instrumental and vocal music, with new pieces being added daily. Subscribers would receive a catalog updated every six months with the latest holdings, and could borrow the music of their choice for up to eight days at a time, checking out a new score each time they returned the previous one in good condition. Peters assured that “this establishment, which is run by people of taste, will contribute to the progress of art and will give the subscriber the pleasure of a varied repertoire.”

He was promptly sued. Peters’ library included several pieces he had purchased from the publishing firm of Louis Balthazard de La Chevardière, and La Chevardière saw a threat to his business. “If the rental of music was preserved,” La Chevardière argued, “one would not sell any more music, and authors would increasingly neither compose nor engrave their music, in the belief that they would lose their expenses, since they could not sell.” La Chevardière recruited a number of musicians and publishers to join him in petitioning the court to confiscate the prints Peters was lending to subscribers in violation of their rights, and further to close his lending business altogether. Peters argued that his lending business in fact “facilitated the knowledge and purchase of music,” and was “necessary…for the multiplication of sales, the reputation of musicians, and the reward of their talents.” To prove the strength of his convictions, Peters proposed to – and did – engrave music at his own expense, both to lend through his subscription service and to sell. Peters was ultimately allowed to continue his subscription business. He also – thanks to his entry into printing – adjusted his business model. In 1767, he advertised two subscription options: the borrowing option at 24 livres/year, and a new ownership option, which for 60 livres/year got one two dozen works of new music to keep.

By 1800, there were music subscription options in major cities across Europe. When Johann Karl Friedrich Rellstab opened a music lending business in Berlin in 1783, at the price point of 5 thaler per year, both the concerns of music publishers and the benefits for music consumers were familiar matters. “As far as the renting of music is concerned,” remarked an author in the Magazin der Musik, “I admit that I not only believe that it furthers musical enjoyment, but also that it would not hurt music publishers if they were to make less difficulty [for lenders] than is their wont. True, some borrowers rent in order to have parts of scores copied for themselves. It would be foolish to try to prevent such practices.” Like Peters, Rellstab also published and sold music.

Throughout the nineteenth century, music-lending continued to go together with music-publishing: the proprietors of rental libraries were often publishers who paid composers for individual works upfront, based on the number of copies they expected to sell. Publisher-seller-lenders also continued to tweak their business models. In 1825, the Parisian music publisher Maurice Schlesinger advertised what he described as “a different kind of rental library in which, in exchange for committing themselves to purchasing 40 francs worth of music per year, people can take out music, try it as long as they like, and return it in exchange for something else if they do not want to keep it.” In 1840, he tried yet another model, this one a two-tiered system reminiscent of Peters’. For 30 francs/year one got a basic borrowers’ subscription. For 50 francs/year, one could keep up to 75 francs-worth of the music one borrowed. Schlesinger exited the music business shortly thereafter, however, his financial situation shaky in part because musicians felt he treated them unfairly (Franz Liszt called him a “stupid scoundrel”). Meanwhile, music publisher-seller-lender Alexandre Grus found subscription services to be his main area of growth, claiming in 1845 that his shop in Paris had “enjoyed a large expansion by its sales in France and abroad, but especially by its music lending service, one of the most complete in this field.”

one of several reading rooms dedicated to subscription services at Fortin Music Lending Library in Paris,  pictured in catalog, 1933

one of several reading rooms dedicated to subscription services at G. Fortin’s music shop in Paris (pictured in catalog, 1933)

Yet even as subscription services became an established part of the musical landscape, they continued to generate controversy – not only for their impact on music sales but also, increasingly, for their impact on people’s relationship to music. A critic writing for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1833 lamented that, “the love of musical art has increased considerably all over…and yet music sales are no greater.” He attributed a “decrease in the sale of musical works” to “the increased lending libraries that have penetrated even in smaller cities. With few copies a lot of people are entertained.” He related the rise of lending libraries in turn to “the type of prevailing enjoyment. One enjoys superficially, one always wants something new. If one has at all heard a work a couple times, so it’s enough: there are waiting ten new ones that also want to be tasted.” Hazell Cills found precisely such consumption habits among those she interviewed for an article on the shift from music ownership to streaming services. “In a few months,” an Rdio subscriber observed, “I’ll forget I even listened to it. I’m always looking for new music, period.”

In the nineteenth century, critics used culinary metaphors to contrast – in clearly value-laden terms – the modes of consumption associated with music ownership vs. access. In 1887, the German piano teacher Aloys Hennes complained that “music lending libraries could very well be called ‘music snacking libraries.’” For Hennes, ownership was a prerequisite for deep musical engagement: “whoever is forced to purchase his notes as property, will firstly give far more thought to what is appropriate for him, and secondly, will thoroughly work through them before he proceeds to a new purchase of notes. Unfortunately, however, ‘music snacking’ has… for some, more charm than the inner penetration and mental grasp of a composition.” One hears echoes of Hennes in Questlove’s musings on streaming services: “it’s harder and harder to truly fall in love with a song or album. What was your cost of entry? How hard did you have to work?”

But lending libraries also served those dedicated to deep musical engagement. Eduard Hanslick – a Viennese music critic, aesthetician and historian best remembered today for declaring the content of music to be “tonally moving forms” – turned to lending libraries for sustenance rather than snacks: “I was indefatigable to get to know new music…As a subscriber to this loan service I renewed almost daily my musical nourishment and had to take a lot of kidding that I was never seen on the street without the music bag under my arm.” Hanslick commended the J. Hoffmann library to which he subscribed not only for its quantity of music but more importantly for the quality of its printed catalogues. Without such tools to inform listeners about what was in the collection, a music library did not truly offer access – and as holdings ballooned (C. A. Klemm music library in Leipzig went from 8,000 titles in 1821 to 57,000 titles in 1891), managing the information side for subscribers posed a mounting challenge.

The number of musical lending libraries peaked between 1850 and 1880. By 1925 they had largely disappeared, finally going extinct around 1950. Recorded music would seem an obvious killer of demand for sheet music, but the decline of music lending libraries in fact precedes the rise of recordings, and researchers have identified changes in print itself as a more significant factor. In the late nineteenth century, the cost of music printing declined while disposable incomes rose, fueling a shift to music ownership. The concomitant explosion of new music titles further hurt lending libraries, which found it increasingly difficult to keep their stock and catalogs up to date.

The idea of the music lending library vanished so completely that today, subscription services are framed as a new experiment rather than as a continuation or revival of a traditional part of the music business. We stand to gain from awareness of the 250-year history of music subscription services, not inner peace with the model now being so monolithically pushed, but rather a healthier skepticism toward claims that any model represents “the” answer for the music industry. From their introduction in the eighteenth century, music subscription services worked both together and at cross purposes with music ownership. They were one piece of a diverse marketplace in which consumers enjoyed music, and musicians and middlemen made (and lost) money. And just as we’re reinventing this particular piece of the music business for our digital age, so have we been reinventing others. Crowdfunding, for instance. But that’s another story.


A Manifesto for Music Technologists

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“What is music technology for?” I spent a day at Microsoft Research New England discussing this question with twenty other people. The goal: to produce a manifesto – a rallying point for those interested in the transformative potentials of music technology, and in driving those potentials in positive directions. The resulting “Manifesto for Music Technologists” is now live at http://www.musictechifesto.org/  It is a document not just for people who make technologies, but for people who engage with music technology in all manner of ways – as users, critics, theorists, historians, social scientists… Indeed, it is one of the precepts of the manifesto that “meaningful innovation happens when fields intersect.” So we are all implicated when we say:

Music technologies make worlds. Let us make better worlds.

We invite you to sign on to manifesto, to help build a broad, engaged community of music technologists – and with it, better worlds.

Further reading: Nancy Baym, “A Manifesto for Music Technologists”; Jonathan Sterne, “What is Music Technology For?”


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