Several times over the past few hundred years, the idea of what’s been called a Katzenklavier, or cat organ, has been proposed. This – and I hasten to say, it’s a bizarre fictional concept that nobody has built – is a musical instrument where the sound is created by cats being squeezed and miaowing the notes.
The mythical Katzenklavier has German and French origins, but this new and rather lovable Scottish electronic instrument oddly reminds me of it – except that this one is real, cruelty-free and lately can be bought in some Apple stores. The Skoog is a strange-looking device that is rather like a large, squidgy fondant fancy. Far from being an edible treat, however, it’s an almost infinitely adaptable controller for computer-based music-creating software. Originally developed for disabled children, it’s now taking off among all kinds of musicians, especially the more avant-garde ones.
Instead of working on the principle that you press a button and a particular note or sound comes out, the Skoog is sensitive all over, transmitting every touch, tilt, press, twist, roll or wobble to an array of analogue sensors inside it that digitise your moves. This doesn’t mean it’s completely random or unpredictable; you can configure it to react in any way you choose, and can create both individual notes and chords. And the Skoog’s software – or a suite on your computer such as Apple’s GarageBand – will then turn your composition into the notes of any one of dozens of instruments, so there’s no distinctive Skoog sound (unlike with the last new British instrument I covered on Technopolis TV, the Eigenharp). It’s quite suitable for playing existing music compositions, but is particularly well adapted to creating new ones.
How easy is it to use? As simple or as complicated as you like. The musically able can delve deeply into the Skoog’s many capabilities, then combine them with the vast range of features in GarageBand-type apps to impressive effect. But the musical Neanderthal, like me, can also have great fun and feel some sense of achievement. Moments after starting, I was able to make some Japanese-sounding tunes by selecting acoustic guitar and just, well, messing around. Switching to congas, I was soon playing Hava Nagila. Who even knew that could be done? That said, you need to be of quite an experimental bent to get the most out of the Skoog. Some musical knowledge, if not ability, also helps.