The labyrinth scored for 11 different cats
by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
This one, it has to be said, is a bit different, and sounds like it ought to be from one of David Tibet's more Louis Wain-haunted hallucinations. A re-release from 1977, it is the work of a conceptual artist and sound sculptor, and it is exactly what it says on the tin: a piece of music constructed out of sounds generated by 11 cats, in this case, their purring, recorded close up and amplified. Once recorded, virtually nothing seems to have been done to them, except seguing the 11 purrs together, one after another, for some 45 minutes or so. It sounds like it ought to be some kind of novelty record - 1977 was, after all, only a few years after the Barkley and Houndsditch Choral Society had scored a minor hit painstakingly constructed out of dog barks selected for their pitch. One might expect something of that ilk here, or at least some intervention with regard to the speed or through multi-tracking, but no: just purrs.
Not that I'm complaining. I am a big fan of purring, and these are recorded in extremely high-definition close-up detail, bringing out all the tonal subtleties and differences between the animals. It is all rather hypnotic and restful, and immensely good for chilling out to. It also seems to be having a very benign effect on my own cat tribe, who are lounging around looking mildly tripped out by the sounds. When I paused it to go downstairs for a minute, I got a sharp look from the senior cat, who is spacing out nicely on the chair opposite; she's dozing now. The variety of purrs here is astonishing. No two are alike: each has its own tones, rhythm and harmonics, and they range from a monotone drone to a motorik pulse that would fit well on a Neu! Album. Lovely stuff.
Well, so far, so cat, but this is not what this is meant to be about... The title refers to the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral with which Fox (a one time Joseph Beuys collaborator) had a long-term obsession, and the cat purrs are supposed to represent the steps of worshippers walking the labyrinth. Each cat represents one of its 11 circuits. If I hadn't been told, I would not have guessed: cat purrs seem as far from medieval penitential labyrinths as it is possible to get, and nothing about the recording suggests a link. In some ways, it's a pity he recorded the thing. It would have been better as one of those Fluxus pieces that are simply an idea for an artwork typed out: "The Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth – interpreted through the purr of cats" in Courier on an off-white card in a little frame. It would then leave you to imagine it, rich with possibilities. Making it real seems futile and clunking, not to say a little pretentious.
However, I am not going to worry too much about the art-fail that this embodies. It is an extremely pleasing and high-quality album of purring, and I have no doubt that next time I want something to doze off to on a transatlantic flight, this is going to be looped on the iPod.