Category: Stories

Quiet Spheres

Quiet Spheres, an artwork by Guy Livingston, which is currently orbiting the earth

My artwork consists of two parts: a musical instrument which remains on earth, and five spheres which travel into space. The electronic musical instrument vibrates below the reach of human hearing. But as soon as the miniature spheres are placed on the surface, the sound becomes audible, and you can hear the music.

The five spheres are made of five different materials (steel, silver, pearl, howlite, lodolite). Each sphere has its own mass, color, reflectivity, and texture. Each also has its own sound when placed on the instrument. While in their transparent space gallery, they will move around in microgravity, rotating around each other, bumping into each other and into the sides of the cube. Each one influences the others, in an ever-changing artwork, a slow dance. And they make tiny sounds, which only they can hear.

The five spheres are voyaging on the International Space Station, and will stay there for the duration of the mission. Meanwhile, back on earth, I have also built a musical instrument, which ‘activates’ the spheres. Imagine a flat board with five speakers embedded in it. Each speaker is vibrating on a low frequency, too low for human ears to hear. But as soon as one of the tiny spheres is placed on its speaker, the sound is suddenly audible.

The musical instrument is called the “QSI” (for Quiet Spheres Instrument). While the spheres are traveling on the ISS, the QSI will be silent, even though it continues to vibrate at low frequency. But when the spheres are re-placed on the instrument, its vibrations will be suddenly audible. The spheres will bounce up and down on the speakers, creating a buzzing sound, and also a visual demonstration of their activity.

materials used in Quiet Spheres

The QSI project deliberately illustrates several concepts – one is my admiration for the random, never-repeated motion of the bouncing spheres; and the other is my interest in silence. Why would silence be important to our understanding of our relationship to outer space? The moon, after all, is essentially silent. But the sun is not, nor is the earth. The International Space Station itself is quite noisy. Yet space itself is silent, and I like to imagine that the QSI provides an illustration of that – when we remove the spheres from the instrument, it is like removing the atoms from a bell jar – we create a vacuum – whether scientific or artistic.

This artwork is inspired by vibrations, cycles, and the attraction and repulsion of bodies in space. The spheres themselves have a mysterious quality – they contain the possibility of making music, but only do so when placed on the instrument. The instrument plays its own eternal music. Indeed the spheres will become voyagers, not telling their story until they return to earth. Their constant bumping during the trip will ensure that they have slightly changed. Their sound will be different when they return to us.

Bombshell

the story of the invention – a collaborative effort between actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil

Much to my astonishment, I have become briefly (and marginally) famous for my role (miniscule) in a film about Hollywood beauty Hedy Lamarr. Not only was she the sexiest woman on screen in the 1940s and 50s, but she also was an inventor, and worked with my favorite composer, George Antheil, on a patent for a “secret communications device”. Although nothing came of their brilliant invention, it turned out to be a stunning preview of frequency hopping, a technique which is used in wifi and cell phones, and makes our current world possible. The film about Hedy, called “Bombshell” is now available on Netflix – enjoy it, and look out for my cameo, talking about…torpedoes!

The latest development in this story is that choreographer Meryl Tankard has crafted a marvelous and high-energy dance for the Zurich Ballet (premiere January 20, 2024 at the Zurich Opera). Here are some rehearsal photos:

The (in)famous Newsletters

Yes, it’s true: Guy has become famous or infamous for his tongue-in-cheek retro newsletters, inspired by vintage advertisements, cereal boxes, and collector’s items:

radio flyer, 2018, for “American Highways” competition
breakfast cereal newsletter, 2013
newsletter with tabasco sauce and chips, 2012
February 2014: radio and piano news

Henry Cowell, inventor, bad boy, and genius

Henry Cowell on the roof of Carnegie Hall, performing “Advertisement”

Radio Show produced by Guy Livingston:

In Search of Henry Cowell for Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Into the Music)
two episodes about this maverick American composer and inventor who, despite many personal challenges (including 4 years in San Quentin prison) managed to create a fascinating and powerful body of work, ranging from magisterial American symphonies to quirky avant-garde piano works.

Henry Cowell (on the right) teaching Indian (Madras) drumming technique
Edgar Varèse and Henry Cowell on Henry’s back porch in upstate New York

That darned cat

Ketzel the Cat

now she’s back in the news: Read the marvelous Children’s Book!

Ketzel on the keys (artist’s impression)

“A kitten’s stroll down a keyboard leads to a celebrated one-minute composition in this charming portrait of a remarkable true friendship.”

Moshe Cotel was a composer who lived in a noisy building on a noisy street in a noisy city. But Moshe didn’t mind. Everything he heard was music to his ears. One day, while out for a walk, he heard a small, sad sound that he’d never heard before. It was a tiny kitten! “Come on, little Ketzel,” Moshe said, “I will take you home and we will make beautiful music together.” And they did–in a most surprising way. Inspired by a true story, Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates craft an engaging tale of a creative man and the beloved cat who brings unexpected sweet notes his way.

Review by Booklist Review Starred Review
Composer Moshe Cotel lives in a noisy building in the middle of a noisy street in the middle of a noisy city, but everything is music to his ears. One day, he hears a new noise: a frightened kitten mewling. He names her Ketzel Yiddish for cat and takes her home, where she spends happy hours listening to Moshe playing piano. An announcement of the Paris New Music Review’s contest arrives in the mail, calling for compositions of 60 seconds or less. Moshe finds this impossible until Ketzel creeps across the piano keys and plays a lovely tune with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And it’s only 21 seconds long! Piece for Piano: Four Paws, by Ketzel Cotel, wins special mention in the contest. When Moshe and Ketzel appear for its debut, no one believes she wrote it, but Four Paws becomes famous, even earning her $19.72 in royalties. Based on a true incident, this delightfully told story is unlikely and adorable in equal parts. Bates’ watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations feature an unanthropomorphic kitty whose inquisitive and quizzical nature will be familiar to all cat owners. The author’s note offers all the answers readers will want. An absolute charmer!
Cooper, Ilene
Copyright 2015 Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.

Morris (‘Moshe’) Kotel, composer and cat lover

Review by School Library Journal
Musicians and cat lovers alike will enjoy this charming picture book based on a true story. Moshe Cotel, a young composer, lives alone in a busy, noisy city, but “Everything he heard was music to his ears.” One day he discovers Ketzel, a tiny, black-and-white kitten, on the street. He holds her tenderly to his chest and declares, “I will take you home, and we will make beautiful music together,” prophetic words, to say the least. When Moshe receives a letter from the Paris New Music Review about a contest to write a composition of 60 seconds or less, try as he might, he is at a loss. Then, Ketzel creeps across the keyboard, inadvertently accomplishing what the composer could not. “Moshe grabbed a pencil and jotted down exactly what he’d heard.. `Your composition has a clear beginning, middle, and end, is full of heart, and takes exactly 21 seconds to play. Ketzel, you’re a genius!'” The feline’s “Piece for Piano: Four Paws” wins an honorable mention, and its furry composer actually attends a performance. The watercolor, gouache, and pencil illustrations depict a busy city, a sympathetic bearded musician, and a simply adorable protagonist. VERDICT: A delightful read.
–Barbara Auerbach, New York City Public Schools © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC.

Publisher’s Weekly Review
Here’s a lovely tale of cross-species affection and creativity, based on a true story (recounted in an afterword). While seeking inspiration in the busy streets of New York City, a composer and pianist named Moshe Cotel finds and adopts a stray kitten, bestowing it with the Yiddish name Ketzel (for “kitten”). Ketzel proves more than a companion: when Moshe needs an entry for a music competition restricted to pieces no longer than one minute, the kitten steps in and composes a piece by walking across the keys (Moshe dubs it “Piece for Piano: Four Paws” and gives her full credit). Newman’s great affection for her subject is evident, yet she never crosses into cutesiness or sentimentality; her reportorial tone is a perfect match for her down-to-earth, generous hero. Bates, working in hues of parchment and gold, produces some wonderfully warm vignettes, pushing the graceful realism of her watercolor, gouache, and pencil drawings just enough to add a glint of magic to a story that’s already one of a kind.
Ages 5-8.
© Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

AUTHOR
Lesléa Newman is the author of more than sixty books for readers of all ages, including The Best Cat in the World, illustrated by Ronald Himler, and Hachiko Waits, illustrated by Machiyo Kodaira, and October Mourning, a Stonewall Honor Book. She lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

ILLUSTRATOR
Amy June Bates has illustrated more than forty books for children, including Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan and The Dog Who Belonged to No One by Amy Hest. Her work has been honored by the Society of Illustrators. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The New York Times Original Article (1997)

November 10, 1997, Monday Late Edition – Final

Chronicle
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.

Take me out to the ballgame

performing the baseball piece at Lincoln Center (that was a while ago!)

The Baseball Story

“It’s a piece about risk,” said Livingston. “You can’t drop the ball.”
Sports Illustrated


This is the first line of Annie Gosfield’s composition for Guy Livingston, premiered at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center in 1997. The score calls for 2 baseballs, and was written as part of a program conceived by Livingston called “Ten Thoughts on the Five Boroughs.” This brilliant composition exists in two versions: the original which lasts about 5 minutes, and includes a baseball mitt to perform the final pounding clusters; and a short, high-octane 1-minute version which was recorded by Livingston as part of his “Don’t Panic” program, premiered in Amsterdam.

The article from Sports Illustrated