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Three humans and two fish make music, release CD

Stu Janis, Beth Hatch and Diane Rains, from left, are the human members of Neptune's Keep. Rains' goldfish, Rhiannon and Brigid, accompany the band. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Diane Rains' goldfish Rhiannon and Brigid play the Piscicain. The name is a combination of the words Pisces (the astrological sign with a fish for a symbol) and musician. Swimming in front of a target activates a motion-sensing camera, which sends a message to the computer to generate a musical tone. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

One of the more unique concerts in The Phipps Center for the Arts’ 30-year history will be performed Sunday afternoon, Aug. 25, in the Black Box Theater.

Neptune’s Keep, a band comprised of three humans and two musical goldfish, will give a program of sea chanteys, ballads and original songs about the water -- accompanied by a dance troupe of seahorses.

The 2 p.m. concert is a release party for the band’s first CD, which will be available for sale.

“It’s certainly unusual,” says Diane Rains, the leader of Neptune’s Keep and a town of Hudson resident. “We’re the only ones in the world doing this crazy thing, but we can’t seem to help ourselves.”

Rains’ discovery of the musical ability of goldfish first gained attention two years ago when Ripley’s Believe It or Not reported on her teaching a goldfish to play hand bells, chimes and a glockenspiel.

Media outlets around the world picked up the story. Rains was interviewed by BBC Radio and interviewed by newspapers from Britain to China.

Rains used famed-psychologist B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning to train her first musical goldfish, Jor Jor, to pull strings that rang the bells and played the other instruments. Jor Jor’s reward for making the music was fish food.

Since then, Rains has devised a computerized musical instrument that goldfish can play by swimming in front of targets on the side of their tank.

She calls it a Piscicain. The name is a combination of the words Pisces (the astrological sign with a fish for a symbol) and musician.

Swimming in front of a target activates a motion-sensing camera, which sends a message to the computer to generate a musical tone.

“It’s a really liberating instrument for them,” Rains says of her current goldfish, Rhiannon and Brigid. “…The really cool thing about this computerized instrument -- in addition to being so easy to play -- is that you can do the sound in any instrument voice.”

Rains says the goldfish have their preferences. They respond enthusiastically to some sounds such as acoustic guitar or harp but shun others, particularly bagpipes.

The Piscician also has given the goldfish more control over their music-making. They can move quickly to play notes faster, or slow down to produce legato tones. They have the ability to play chords by aligning themselves over two or three targets.

“They have kind of figured out for themselves how to get these nuances,” Rains says. “It’s like watching a musical genius kind of evolve in front of my eyes without my really interfering at all. I find it very exciting.”

Rhiannon and Brigid won’t be on stage for Sunday’s concert. They will appear by audio and video recordings.

The human members of Neptune’s Keep have recorded the songs and played them for the goldfish, who then created their musical accompaniments for the pieces.

Rains, her husband Stu Janis and their friend Beth Hatch will perform live on Sunday, accompanied by the recorded music of the goldfish.

“So the goldfish do make specific accompaniments for specific pieces, it’s just that they don’t perform it live,” says Rains.

She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Ohio State University in wildlife management, with an emphasis on animal behavior. As a youth, she played the piano and at one time considered a career in classical music performance.

For the past 25 years, Rains and Janis have toured the U.S. presenting Punch and Judy puppet shows.

Janis works as a statistician for 3M Co. and is a musician in his spare time in addition to serving as front man for Rains’ puppet shows.

Hatch is a singer-songwriter and animal trainer.

Rains knows the idea of goldfish producing music will sound fantastical to many people.

“Some people are going to be skeptics because they just don’t want to think that something as minor as a goldfish can possibly have the intelligence or the ability to make music,” she says.

She says people think of music as a higher-brain function, but in reality, music is mostly processed in primitive brain areas.

Also, goldfish have been found to have the most acute hearing of any of the fish species that have been studied, she says.

The goldfish’s large swim bladder acts like a giant second eardrum, Rains says, and it also has an exterior organ that senses vibration in the water.

“So I think they absorb music in a way that we can’t really imagine,” she says. Goldfish hear and feel the sound all across their bodies.

Much more about Rains’ work with goldfish can be found on her website,

Tickets for Sunday’s concert are $15 for adults and $10 for students and youth. They can be purchased at the door or through The Phipps’ website,

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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