The Birth of Sampling

[Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin / The Cat Organ from Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre / 1877]

Sampling as a recombinant procedure has an uncertain origin. In the course of the twentieth century it has achieved a central, even dominant position both culturally and technologically; the sample is as necessary for digital technology as it is for celluloid motion pictures—making it an technique of contemporary mediated cultures. However, it is clearly on view in a much older, historical device called the “cat organ” (or katzenkavalier), a “musical instrument” described in Juan Christobal Calvettes’ 1552 book chronicling King Felipe II of Spain’s travels in Europe1. A consideration of this early example of semiotic reassembly offers insight into contemporary ethical questions that could be asked about the use of sampling in digital capitalism. The operation of the cat organ was summarized by French writer and critic Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his 1877 book Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre (Musiciana, descriptions of rare or bizarre inventions):

When the King of Spain, Felipe II was in Brussels in 1549 visiting his brother the Emperor Charles V, each saw the other rejoicing at the sight of a completely singular procession. At the head marched an enormous bull whose horns were burning, between which there was also a small devil. Behind the bull a young boy sewn into a bear skin ride on a horse whose ears and tail were cut off. Then came the archangel Saint Michael in bright clothing, and carrying a balance in his hand.

The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvette, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave… (chromatically, I think)

This abominable orchestra arranged itself inside a theater where monkeys, wolves, deer and other animals danced to the sounds of this infernal music.2

The details of the cat organ present it clearly as an instrument cat lovers might wish was a fictional horror, much like the “mouse organ” on Monty Python’s Flying Circus3. It produces katzenmusic by torturing live animals as a productive means, causing them to mew on demand: literally cat-calls that are not merely cat-calls, but something more—a form of music semiotically reassembled from the distinct voices controlled by the device. As Weckerlin’s description of the procession shows, the cat organ functions symbolically, based on the association of cats with devils and an immaterial, supernatural order where normally antithetical animals come together in a peacable kingdom4. This separation of source from meaning relfects the action of a semiotic process.

To Weckerlin, and contemporary audiences, the horror of this machine lies with the fact that individual animals are significant to the device only in so far as they stand-in for the specific pitch they produce; in effect, they are living samples of abstract musical tones, and it is this transfer that is significant to understanding the device’s relevance to contemporary technology: the cat organ finds its parallel in the software application AutoTune where any voice can be correctly tuned to be perfectly in pitch, transformation of ordinary voices into pure musicality. In arranging live cats so the timbre of their voices would at one and the same time transform them into the various pitches of a musical composition, the cat implicitly employs an understanding of physical reality analogous to contemporary digital sampling and fragmentation. It reflects a specifically digital conception of physicality: the operative procedure is semiotic, the results dependent upon the reorganization of a collection of data samples. The katzenkavalier is thus an early symptom of the digital both conceptually and in approach: sampling, via the fragmentation of physical reality into discrete packets (the individual cats), for semiotic reassembly and manipulation as a new product: (katzen)music.

[Jingle Cats / Meowy Christmas, cover art / 2008]

The cat organ reappears (quite literally) in the 1990s as a pair of Christmas albums by the group Jingle Cats. They were a popular sensation—their first album, Meowy Christmas, was completely sold out at Christmas in 1993, and followed in 1994 with Here Comes Santa Claws, both albums feature music “sung” by cats’ meowing on key. As the “Jingle Cats” website notes5, in a disturbing reflection of the original cat organ’s basis, the music was created using real cats. This was possible because of digital synthesizer technology that could sample actual cat’s mews and then adjust them to be on key, thus allowing the use of real cats in the performance: these albums repeat the semiotic procedure of the cat organ. Both are symptomatic of the ability of digital technology to fragment a continuous physical reality into discrete packets allowing the disassociation from their source, the disassembly into component elements, and their reassembly as only the relevant data. Thus, an autonomous protocol neutrality enables and proceeds without concern for the physicality of the material translated to digital form.

This neutral protocol so clearly on view in the cat organ is also a machinic one that incorporates the living into the non-living: cats encased in the instrument of their torture-performance is itself distinctly and specifically cybernetic. In this cybernetic dimension is a analogue to the digital transferal (and surrender) of human agency to the automated and digital computer where particular human concerns become data in the reconfiguration of social space to reflect the valorization process central to the financialization of digital capitalism.

Torture is at the foundation of this technical apparatus. The cat organ’s sampling process—where the animals as such become insignificant to its meaning and purpose, but essential to is form—is inherently contained within the foundational procedure of the digital, reflecting the same stripping of physicality from conscious awareness that is essentially the aura of the digital. That there is an ethical concern in relation to this historical infernal device’s use of sampling—the necessary foundation for the digital semiosis—implies a similar ethical dimension and critique may be relatable to the aura of the digital’s occlusion of physicality from consciousness. These ethical questions are emerging, however, not from the manipulation of sampled animal voices, but in the aftermath of the “Housing Bubble” of 2008 where the sampled and semiotically manipulated materials were at once both less tangible (securitized debt) and immanently visible (the human impacts). The dilemma posed by ethical questions about an instrumentality lies with that technologies’ fundamental ambiguity, an element that inheres to its aspirations towards the state of information: to pose an ethical problem for one also opens the other to the same questioning.


Calvete de Estrella, Juan Christobal. El Felicisimo Viaje del Muy Alto y Muy Poderoso Principe Don Felipe (Madrid: La Sociedad de Bibliofilos Espanoles, 1930), pp. 73-77.
Weckerlin, Jean-Baptiste. Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre (Paris: Garnier Freres, 1877) p. 349.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Arthur Ewing and His Musical Mice,” Season One, Episode Two.
(4) Bertlestein, Lance. “Journalism, Carnival, and Jubilate Agno” in ELH, vol. 59, no. 2 (Summer, 1992) p. 375.
(5)Jingle Cats website,, retrieved 12/01/2010.