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Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Designed to Treat Mental Illness

in History, Psychology, Random | March 23rd, 2017

What do you imagine when you hear the phrase “cat piano”? Some kind of whimsical furry beast with black and white keys for teeth, maybe? A relative of My Neighbor Totoro’s cat bus? Or maybe you picture a piano that contains several caged cats who shriek along an entire scale when keys are pressed that slam sharpened nails into their tails. If this is your answer, you might find people slowly backing away from you at times, or gently suggesting you get some psychiatric help.

But then, imagine that such a perverse oddity was in use by psychiatrists, like the 18th-century German physician Johann Christian Reil, who—reports David McNamee at The Guardian—“wrote that the device was intended to shake mental patients who had lost the ability to focus out of a ‘fixed state’ and into ‘conscious awareness.’”

So long, meds. See you, meditation and mandala coloring books…. I joke, but apparently Dr. Reil was in earnest when he wrote in an 1803 manual for the treatment of mental illness that patients could “be placed so that they are sitting in direct view of the cat’s expressions when the psychiatrist plays a fugue.”

A bafflingly cruel and nonsensical experiment, and we might rejoice to know it probably never took place. But the bizarre idea of the cat piano, or Katzenklavier, did not spring from the weird delusions of one sadistic psychiatrist. It was supposedly invented by German polymath and Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), who has been called “the last Renaissance man” and who made pioneering discoveries in the fields of microbiology, geology, and comparative religion. He was a serious scholar and a man of science. Maybe the Katzenklavier was intended as a sick joke that others took seriously—and for a very long time at that. The illustration of a Katzenklavier above dates from 1667, the one below from 1883.

Kircher’s biographer John Glassie admits that, for all his undoubted brilliance, several of his “actual ideas today seem wildly off-base; if not simply bizarre” as well as “inadvertently amusing, right, wrong, half-right, half-baked, ridiculous….” You get the idea. He was an eccentric, not a psychopath. McNamee points to other, likely apocryphal, stories in which cats were supposedly used as instruments. Perhaps, cruel as it seems to us, the cat piano seemed no crueller in previous centuries than the way we taunt our cats today to make them perform for animated GIFs.

But to the cats these distinctions are meaningless. From their point of view, there is no other way to describe the Katzenklavier than as a sinister, terrifying torture device, and those who might use it as monstrous villains. Personally I’d like to give cats the last word on the subject of the Katzenklavier—or at least a few fictional animated, walking, talking, singing cats. Watch the short animation at the top, in which Nick Cave reads a poem by Eddie White about talented cat singers who mysteriously go missing, scooped up by a human for a “harpsichord of harm, the cruelest instrument to spawn from man’s gray cerebral soup.” The story has all the dread and intrigue of Edgar Allan Poe’s best work, and it is in such a milieu of gothic horror that the Katzenklavier belongs.

The Cat Piano narrated by Nick Cave will be added to our list of Free Animations, a subset of our meta collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Watch Janis Joplin’s Breakthrough Performance at the Monterey Pop Festival: “One of the Great Concert Performances of all Time” (1967)

in Music | March 23rd, 2017

“No one to that point had seen a White girl sing the blues like she sang it. And she was a tough Texas girl, she lived really tough, she drank tough, she did drugs, too many and too tough. But as a vocalist, her performance at Monterey was also one of the great concert performances of all time.”

That’s famed music and film producer Lou Adler talking in 2007 about Janis Joplin and her performance 40 years before at the Monterey International Pop Festival. After those three days of music (June 16-June 18, 1967) in the Summer of Love, many of the acts catapulted to fame.

The Who exploded stateside, The Jimi Hendrix Experience essentially launched their career from that stage, Ravi Shankar got introduced to Americans, and Otis Redding played to a mostly white audience for the first time. Laura Nyro and Canned Heat became famous overnight.

And then there was Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by a 24 year-old Janis Joplin. Their first album wasn’t due until August, and most of the crowd had not heard of this blues band when they took the stage on Saturday afternoon, June 17. Five songs later, and finishing with “Ball and Chain,” the crowd had gone wild. They knew they had seen something special.

But D.A. Pennebaker, the documentarian behind Dylan’s Don’t Look Back and Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” concert films, had not filmed the set. In an unprecedented move, Joplin and band were invited back to recreate the set the following evening–the only band to do two sets at the festival–and that is the footage seen above. Joplin’s performance is just as good, maybe even better, though the Sunday performance does not feature James Gurley’s extended guitar solo. That version can be found here.

Not only did Monterey Pop launched several careers, it legitimized the idea that rock music was mature and important enough to have its own festival, just like the worlds of jazz and folk. For organizers Adler, along with John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, Alan Pariser, and Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, it was a huge success. Two years later a little gathering called Woodstock went even further. And the rest as they say is…whoever’s headlining Coachella this year.

If you enjoy this footage, you will want to pick up a copy of the film, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, from the Criterion Collection.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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Hitler Was ‘Blitzed’ On Cocaine & Opiates During World War II: Hear a Wide-Ranging Interview with Best-Selling Author Norman Ohler

in History | March 23rd, 2017

Historians have written an extraordinary amount about Hitler, the Third Reich, and World War II–so much, that it’s hard to imagine anyone could find something novel to say about this dark period of history. But German journalist Norman Ohler has done just that. In his new book, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, Ohler looks at how Hitler became increasingly dependent on a mixture of cocaine and opiates during the wartime years, all of which could have influenced his decision making. Meanwhile, despite Nazi propaganda against “degenerate” culture, German troops consumed large quantities of crystal meth during major military operations. Some 35 million meth tablets were ingested during the 1940 invasion of France alone.

Ohler gathered much of his evidence while reviewing the papers of Hitler’s private physician, Dr. Theodor Morell. And while some scholars have criticized Ohler’s account, Ian Kershaw, arguably the world’s leading authority on Hitler and Nazi Germany, has called Blitzed “a serious piece of scholarship” and “very well researched.”

Below you can hear Ohler talk about Nazi drug use in a 35-minute interview with Terry Gross.

If you want to download Blitzed as a free audiobook, you could always get it through’s 30-day free trial. Find more details on that here. also offers a similar deal.

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Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will Wasn’t a Cinematic Masterpiece; It Was a Staggeringly Effective Piece of Propaganda

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How Orson Welles’ F for Fake Teaches Us How to Make the Perfect Video Essay

in Film | March 23rd, 2017

If you don’t understand what makes Citizen Kane so important, just watch a few movies made before it. In his first outing as a filmmaker, Orson Welles, whether by ignorance or other virtues, pioneered so many aesthetic and narrative techniques that we can now hardly imagine how the medium ever did without. If you don’t understand what makes Welles’ last picture, the quasi-documentary on fact and falsehood F for Fake so important, just compare it to all the video essays proliferating on the internet today.

If Citizen Kane was just slightly ahead of its time in 1940, F for Fake, which came out in 1973, now looks more than three decades ahead of the curve. Nobody knows that better than Tony Zhou, creator of the popular cinema-focused video essay series Every Frame a Painting.

“I’ve stolen more ideas from this film than from any other,” he admits at the beginning of his tribute to F for Fake. “Everything I know about editing” — and he knows a lot — “I’ve learned from this film.”

The first lesson it teaches has to do with how to structure, or rather, how not to structure: instead of making cuts that feel like a repetitive series of “and then”s, make cuts that, in the words of South Park co-creator Trey Parker, stands for “either the word therefore or but.” In other words, whether making a video essay, a feature film, or anything in between, build the structure not out of simple, unordered list-like sequences, but out of causes, effects, and contradictions.  Throughout F for Fake, “Orson Welles does the exact same thing, except he doesn’t connect scenes; he connects thoughts. Even though this movie is an essay, each moment has the connective logic of a South Park episode.”

This leads into the second lesson: “Have more than one story moving in parallel,” so that whenever one “reaches peak interest,” you can oscillate to the other. (No less an editing master than Alfred Hitchcock also subscribed to this principle, describing it with the phrase “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”) Welles’ bravura performance, however, rotates between no fewer than six stories: of art forger Elmyr de Hory, of “hoax-biographer” Clifford Irving, of Irving’s subject Howard Hughes, of Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar, of Welles himself (and his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast), and even of the making of F for Fake itself.

Technical points aside, Zhou draws from all this a perspective on his work: “It’s not about what you get. It’s about how you cut it, and what comes out the other end. Remember, video essays aren’t essays, they’re films, so you want to structure and pace them like a filmmaker would.” And in this final major work that he himself describes as a “film about trickery and fraud,” Welles presents that and everything else he’d learned about filmmaking over the past forty years doing it. Even if some say we live a “post-fact” era — a term that would have endlessly amused Welles, or at least the “charlatan” version of himself he plays in F for Fake — the laws of cinema retain their truth.

Related Content:

F for Fake: Orson Welles’ Short Film & Trailer That Was Never Released in America

Orson Welles Explains Why Ignorance Was His Major “Gift” to Citizen Kane

Every Frame a Painting Explains the Filmmaking Techniques of Martin Scorsese, Jackie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

The Alchemy of Film Editing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Hannah and Her Sisters, The Empire Strikes Back & Other Films

Alfred Hitchcock’s 7-Minute Master Class on Film Editing

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Introduction to Philosophy: A Free Online Course

in Online Courses, Philosophy | March 23rd, 2017

From John Sanders, Professor of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, comes Introduction to Philosophy. In 10 lectures, Sanders’ course covers the following ground:

Philosophy is about the rigorous discussion of big questions, and sometimes small precise questions, that do not have obvious answers. This class is an introduction to philosophical thinking where we learn how to think and talk critically about some of these challenging questions. Such as: Is there a single truth or is truth relative to different people and perspectives? Do we have free will and, if so, how? Do we ever really know anything? What gives life meaning? Is morality objective or subjective, discovered or created? We’ll use historical and contemporary sources to clarify questions like these, to understand the stakes, to discuss possible responses, and to arrive at a more coherent, more philosophically informed, set of answers.

Thinkers covered include Aristotle, Plato, and Descartes, among others. And along the way, the course introduces you to empiricism, rationalism, ontological and teleological arguments–essentially the nitty gritty of philosophy.

You can stream all the lectures above, or find them all on this YouTube playlist.

Sanders has also made other courses available on YouTube, including Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Professional Ethics, and Symbolic Logic.

They’ve all been added to our list of Free Philosophy Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1200 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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