Thursday, December 25, 2014

Cat plays jazz piano to Bach accompaniment

As a rescued cat, Nora the Piano Cat has already been hailed as an ambassador for that population, but she's also an ambassador for animal sentience in general. And she can jam to Bach just about as well as you or I can.

Cat plays jazz piano to Bach accompaniment

Nora the Piano Cat rests on the keyboard after playing a solo in 2007. (Photo: Vance Lehmkuhl / Staff)
Nora the Piano Cat rests on the keyboard after playing a solo in 2007. (Photo: Vance Lehmkuhl / Staff)

If you've been on the Internet for more than a couple months, you probably know about Nora the Piano Cat. She's a YouTube (iconic enough that her image was once used in a Daily Show montage of YouTube memes), and what makes her fascinating is that she actually, intentionally plays the piano. And that she's, well, not bad.

On Nora's YouTube Channel (managed by her caretakers Betsy Alexander and Burnell Yow!) you can see numerous examples of her solo artistry. And she has become a collaborator after the fact, for instance when a Lithuanian composer Mindaugas Piecaitis wrote orchestra accompaniment to her playing to create the "Catcerto." But the newest short clip shows Nora consciously jamming along with a piano student playing the first prelude from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

While she may not choose individual notes with a sense of how they fit a given chord, it's clear that Nora understands the shape of the phrases involved and contributes an "obligato" line that fits as well as -- or better than -- anything you or I might offer (assuming we didn't already know the Bach by heart). And although I can't make the case that Nora understands Western harmony or the circle of fifths, she does refrain entirely from her previous habit of alternating between white and black keys -- she stays all on the white keys here, which increases her chances of hitting notes that will fit with this C-major prelude.

What's this got to do with veganism? Well, it's like this: Sticking to our cultural habit of eating animals and their secretions requires a mental fiction - that nonhuman animals' lives have no importance, because they're essentially objects or machines (a kind of transparent wishful thinking that Descartes helped set in stone). But that convenient fantasy is constantly being eroded by facts, as study after study finds animals demonstrating mental achievements that had been deemed impossible for them. Recognizing themselves in mirrors, showing a sense of compassion and/or justice, thinking about the future, thinking about the act of thinking -- all of these have now been proven to happen in multiple kinds of animals.

And although no one, to my knowledge, made a declaration that "cats cannot improvise jazz-piano riffs to a Bach accompinament," the fact that Nora does, of her own accord, undercuts not just human intellectual "uniqueness" but our claim to a special aesthetic sense. And it makes it just that much harder to keep the blinders in place while we participate in grievous wrongs to animals.

As a rescued cat, Nora has already been hailed as an ambassador for that population, but she's also an ambassador for animal sentience in general. One of the cliches of human exceptionalism, after all, is to point out that animals "don't write symphonies."

Hey, give Nora another six months at the keyboard and I wouldn't put it past her.

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