East of Intention: Cat, Camera, Music

Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, Sarah Schultz. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 220 pages. $16.
The cover of Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong

In “Chat écoutant la musique” (“Cat Listening to Music”), a two-minute, fifty-five-second video posted to YouTube on December 21, 2010, a black, white, and gray tabby sprawls across the keyboard of a Yamaha DX7. He sleeps and stirs, seeming to enjoy the pellucid, lapping notes and chords of a piece of piano music playing in the room. We watch the cat’s paws depress the keys soundlessly when he arches and stretches. We notice his ears perk and twitch. When the music briefly intensifies, he raises his head and glares fiercely into the middle distance; then, as the tune eases off the tension, he slackens and settles down again.

The camera pulls back into a wider view, and it becomes clear that the room is someone’s music studio, with a reel-to-reel recorder, mixer, and other equipment. We see two photos behind the Yahama, one of a lithe Asian profile (one YouTube commenter claims it is the writer Yukio Mishima, but when I enlarge the image it is too blurry to be sure, though it could be a book cover rather than a photo standing alone), the other of a cat, likely this cat, but head-on, alert, and erect. In some shots, we see sheet music next to the photographed cat’s face, as if it were reading the notation. When the camera cuts to an image of the stereo playing the music, the cat’s face is reflected in its plastic cover—either the cat in the picture or the cat in the room; again, it’s hard to decipher. Back in animate time, the cat rises, rotates, returns to dozing. Blackout. Credits.

Those credits, like the grain of the clip overall, are soft and filmic, not in the crisp digital relief of the standard YouTube video. For this is not exactly a YouTube video, except insofar as everything on YouTube (and so nearly everything ever) is a YouTube video, at least until it becomes a staticky void box containing a copyright infringement notice. It is “Chat écoutant la musique,” a portion of the ten-minute 1990 triptych Bestiaire by the renowned French filmmaker Chris Marker (1921–2012), along with the much less tranquil “An Owl Is an Owl Is an Owl” and “Zoo Piece,” which were also part of a larger installation Marker showed in the Centre Pompidou in the early 1990s. As a home movie of a pet going about its endearing daily ways—Guillaume-en-Egypte, Marker’s own cat, was a frequent cameo player in his filmic essays, his letters, and other places, a kind of alter ego for its reclusive maker—“Cat Listening to Music” seems native to YouTube, avant le YouTube.

However, it would not be remotely accurate to call it “the first cat video,” as one of the commenters on the post does. The feline became an object of filmic fixation nearly with its invention; witness Thomas Edison’s 1894 short “Boxing Cats.” Even earlier, if you count Eadweard Muybridge’s flipbook-style photographic animal locomotion studies in the 1880s, though his galloping horses tend to eclipse in glory his trotting and jumping cats. Cinematic cats are nowhere near as ubiquitous as movie dogs, which are much more amenable to instruction, able to clown or command pathos on cue. But film has remained a fairly cat-friendly precinct, particularly in its more eccentric redoubts. Cartoon stand-ins such as Tom, Sylvester, surrealist Felix, or the bawdy Fritz aside, cats take the lead in Disney-DayGlo fare such as That Darn Cat! or The Cat from Outer Space or the charmingly fantastical and technically mind-blowing feline-pov feature The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964). They are potent spiritual familiars in modernist and postmodernist experimental films, not only those of Marker but of Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren, Carolee Schneemann, Joyce Wieland, Donald Richie, and many others. In the aesthetic alleyways in between those poles, cats seem especially fond of going astray in early sixties Greenwich Village—whether slipping from Audrey Hepburn’s embrace in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or wriggling out of Oscar Isaac’s grasp only to return uncannily (but not at all uncattily) again and again in Inside Llewyn Davis.

These two are both movies of a certain anxious blankness that disclose their warmest sentiments through music: Do the eyes of Holly Golightly’s cat, that “poor slob without a name,” well up the way many viewers’ do when its similarly self-insufficient mistress serenades it as her “huckleberry friend” in Mancini and Mercer’s “Moon River”? Does Llewyn Davis’s ginger tomcat Ulysses (whom he inadvertently abducts from his uptown patrons the Gorfeins, or perhaps more existentially, Ulysses abducts him) feel his spine tingle or his hackles rise at Davis’s early sixties folk-revival stylings? Maybe its predatory instincts are triggered by his three renditions of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” in which he dreams of having “wings like Noah’s dove” and pledges that “sure as the birds flying high above / life ain’t worth living without the one you love.” Or perhaps the cat identifies with the many lives the song has lived. They doubtless begin long before the day in 1904 that songcatcher John Lomax heard it from an African American woman named Dink scrubbing clothes at a migrant camp on the banks of Texas’s Brazos River, on through Libby Holman’s 1942 Decca torch-blues recording with Josh White, the early sixties versions by Dave Van Ronk (the Coen brothers’ main model for the Llewyn Davis character) and Bob Dylan (the usurper doing his territorial pissing on Van Ronk’s folkie throne), and folk-rock martyr Jeff Buckley’s eleven-minute live excursion in 1993. Of course, you can hear most of these versions on YouTube.

The transmigratory soul of the cat may be a dusty legend, but it sets the catnip fiend up as an apt mascot for the many-sided cycle of musical reincarnation that is the “folk process.” Likewise, behind the scenes of Inside Llewyn Davis itself, Ulysses is not one orange tabby but many, each specializing by temperament in one of the behaviors required for different scenes: being held without protest, running across window ledges and down fire escapes, loitering around indifferently. Beings of mythic multiplicity, but creatures of singular willfulness—no wonder cats’ respectable record at the movie house pales before their domination of that individualistic yet sequentially near-infinite twenty-first-century folkloric cultural commons, YouTube.

While Marker’s “Cat Listening to Music” is far from being the first cat video, it may claim a special place as a predecessor of a prominent subset of the form: YouTube videos of musical cats, whether as performers or music appreciators. With his perch atop the DX7, Guillaume-en-Egypte strikes a 2015 observer as a more transcendent godparent of “Keyboard Cat,” the famous YouTube clip starring a cat named Fatso whose paws are manipulated by owner Charlie Schmidt to play a jaunty tune on an electronic organ, originally posted in June 2007. It went viral a couple of years later as “Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat,” a rickrollesque meme, a punchline to any given internet “fail” that signaled its object being given the equivalent of the vaudeville “hook,” or the orchestra “playing off” a dull speaker at the Academy Awards. As of this writing, the original Fatso video has more than thirty-nine million YouTube hits and countless parodies and variations.

Yet even that genealogy is deceptive, as is so often true in the recursive cultural geometry of YouTube: Schmidt’s video actually predates Marker’s film, having been made in 1984 as part of Schmidt’s own art practice. It simply went all but unseen until its YouTube heyday, by which time Fatso himself was twenty years dead. And save for their juxtaposition of cat and keyboard, Schmidt’s and Marker’s works seem like complete opposites—Schmidt’s a gonzo act of blatant comical manipulation; Marker’s a serene laissez-faire study in cinéma vérité. What intrigues me, though, is how valid that distinction really is. That’s the issue that feels as if it has broader consequences for the manifold encounters between human, cat, image, movement, music, world.

As you watch “Cat Listening to Music,” even on a first viewing, you begin to wonder about the correspondence between what you see and what you hear. Verisimilitude is established by repeated shots of the dynamic monitor on the CD player lighting up in synch with the volume of the music, but is there any guarantee that the flickers of Guillaume’s ears and paws, his rousing and relaxing, actually match the music we hear in the same way? The cat may not be listening to the music at all. It could be dubbed in later, edited together. Certainly it does not matter that the cat is lying on a keyboard, which is not activated and not generating any of the sounds in the film.

The musical piece in question, Impresiones intimas: no. 5, Pájaro triste (“Intimate Impressions: no. 5, Sad Bird”), by the French Catalan Federico Mompou (1893–1987), is itself so elusive that no matter when or how Guillaume fidgets or flinches, it can be perceived as choreography. Mompou’s works have been called “silent music” or, by writer-pianist Stephen Hough, a “music of evaporation.” It is music with such a light relationship to intentionality, such a disinterest in direction, that only its harmonic coherence convinces us that it was composed at all rather than played at random, as if by a cat walking across a keyboard. (Mompou’s scores were published without key or time signatures or bar lines.) It shares its sparseness with the works of Erik Satie, but with less austerity, more fluffy reverie; it is music that seems to aspire to slip from its maker’s control gently and fuzzily, not as declaratively as the aleatory or ambient works of John Cage or the environmentally attuned music of Pauline Oliveros or R. Murray Schafer. Pardon the conceit, but you might say that it is a more domesticated arm of that approach, its musical freedom the limited kind available to a pet rather than a beast in the wild.

Marker is reported to have said of recording Guillaume-en-Egypte for “Cat Listening to Music” that “He was fond of Ravel (any cat is) but he had a special crush on Mompou. That day (a beautiful sunny day, I remember) I placed Volume I of the complete Mompou by Mompou on the CD player to please him . . .” It is up to the audience to accept Marker’s account verbatim, or to suspect him of projecting or altogether fibbing. Is he, like Schmidt, using his cat as an instrument for his art, or naively fantasizing what’s passing through the cat’s alien mind and senses, or discovering some genuine moment of cross-species accord, even transcendence? “We do not have cats, cats have us,” he once said. “Cats are our Gods, the most expansive and approachable of Gods, it goes without saying.” It is a pretty thought, if rather a lax one for the rigorous intellectual who made La Jetée and Sans Soleil, as if he’d been caught in a moment of idle cat fancy, the mood of a person procrastinating by surfing kitten videos online. Yet Guillaume and other cats pop up throughout his work, not only as “personal mascot,” writes Nora M. Alter, but also as political totems for the elements of reality that are objectified rather than honored in their fullness. His 1977 essay-film about the fail- ures of European and Latin American socialist movements in the six- ties and seventies has the Lewis Carroll–esque title in English A Grin Without a Cat, signifying, as David Sterritt writes, the promise and propaganda of revolution without the better world that is supposed to be attached. If “Cat Listening to Music” makes us doubt whether its idyll is one that happened exactly as its title says, perhaps it is designed to foster such radical doubt. The photo of the cat, the cat’s reflection in the CD player, the cat in the film frame—all three doppelgangers shimmering like Mompou’s music for a whisper in time, three-plus minutes before their own triple Cheshire-ian vanishing act . . . or shuffled into the virtual endless diversity of a YouTube playlist.

The lineage of feline music, whether in music history or contemporary upload, similarly circles around impulses of mockery and manipulation (whether cruel or affectionate) versus the cat as autonomous spirit or agent. The nefarious apex of the former tendency is the (one hopes) apocryphal story of the Katzenklavier, the “cat piano” or “cat organ,” described and/or pictured in seventeenth-century works such as Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis and Gaspar Schott’s Magia Naturalis. A device to entertain a royal court, the Katzenklavier reputedly involved a passel of cats and kittens confined to small boxes in order of the pitch of their voices, such that their tails were pulled or stabbed by nails when a keyboard was struck, producing (writes Kircher) “a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could not help but laugh at such music?” My optimism that the cat piano never existed is based not in faith in humanity’s kindness to animals, but in the improbability of being able to tune the instrument with the remotest accuracy.

In its grisly biomechanics, the Katzenklavier’s nearest contemporary equivalent might be the “half cat, half machine” that Dutch artist Bart Jansen constructed out of the corpse of his pet cat Orville after it was struck and killed by a car—the radio-controlled flying drone “Orvillecopter” he showed at an Amsterdam art festival in 2012. It can be witnessed |https://|in action| on YouTube, (un)naturally, scored to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

More benignly, living cats have been turned into musical devices online through the application of electronic tone-controlling sensors, or more crudely, as in 2011’s “Cat Slap Joy Division,” only amplifying pick-ups. In the 2014 “Cat Band” meme on Instagram, cats were held and “strummed” or otherwise used by their owners as air guitars and other mimed instruments to backing tracks. British sound sculptor Henry Dagg created the most direct yet humane descendant to the Katzenklavier by assembling a “keyboard” made up of squeaky-toy stuffed animals, on which he can perform songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with some precision. Dagg’s invention drew media attention in 2010 after he played it at a garden party to the great amusement of Charles, Prince of Wales. Apparently Buckingham Palace’s devoted conservationist wasn’t aware of the bloodier tales of aristocratic pleasures past.

But the most characteristic route to the cat organ on YouTube is through editing software—taking samples of live cats’ actual meows (often, one suspects, tonally modified as well) and stringing them into melodies. They remind me of Rossini and Ravel’s “cat duets,” in which two vocalists belt out tunes in meows, a game small children and advertising jingle writers have never been able to resist either. The most famous family of “singing” cats in this form is the five-cat Musashi group out of Japan, which had a YouTube hit with its chorale on “Jingle Bells” in 2007.

As Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports in his 2012 Wired magazine feature, “In Search of the Living, Purring, Singing Heart of the Online Cat-Industrial Complex,” the Musashis were subsequently signed by a pro- motional company to do mobile-phone content and tv theme songs. They were paid in fish, but their owners ate it.

Even setting concerns over catsploitation aside, these creations are briefly diverting but, like the many, many edited-together videos of cats “dancing” to music, they suffer from a lack of spontaneity and an overlay of anthropomorphization. Cats are used to make the kind of music humans know and like. The YouTube cat videos I appreciate most feature cats seemingly acting out of their own cat nature, either out of the blue or in reaction to a given situation—like the presence of a box or another animal or perhaps a metronome. What kind of “music,” then, do cats make of their own accord?

There’s a musical tradition related to that question as well, and it is known as “Kitten on the Keys.” Written by novelty pianist Zez Confrey in 1921, the tail of the ragtime era, the song emulated the multioctave movements of a cat’s paws across a piano and became a massive hit. Of course, its simulation remained well within the period’s tolerance for discord and made sure to include repeated melodic hooks. But in the YouTube age—coming after all the fury and noise of twentieth-century music—our ears are more accommodating, and one of the biggest feline stars is Nora the Piano Cat. Nora, the pet of a New Jersey piano teacher, took enthusiastically to plunking random notes on the keyboard alongside her owner. Nora’s YouTube videos have racked up more than six million hits and inspired the Lithuanian conductor and composer Mindaugas Piečaitis to write his CATcerto, an orchestral piece setting Nora’s improvisations and featuring her on video as a “soloist”—that performance has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube. Going to further extremes and making an even more coy joke about modernism, high and low culture, animal magnetism, and human systematization, the New York video artist Cory Arcangel collected “every video of a cat playing piano I could find on YouTube”—some 170—and edited them into an impressive facsimile of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1909 op. 11 Drei Klavierstücke (“Three Piano Pieces”), often considered the first case of outright atonality in Western music history.

In some ways Piečaitis’s composition annoys me as a recuperation of Nora’s chaotic, instinctive fumblings back into a human academic container, of an opaque soundscape to an intelligible one—something her piano-teacher owner also does in several of her videos by attempting to “duet” with her, now expanded to a more oppressively professional and epic scale. Yet it also strikes me that it could be read from the opposite end: as divulging the inside joke of human music, that all the pretensions and theory of Western musical history is but an elaborate version of walking on the keys, of enjoying sound for the sake of sound, in which meaning is neither inherent nor mandatory. Perhaps it all is whimsical play with no other kind of necessity.

Arcangel’s Meow-enberg videos seem to heighten that thought to the nth degree, abandoning even the supposed dignity of fun and “originality” in Piečaitis’s concerto, and instead requiring a titanic and absurd amount of labor only to produce a slightly shoddy version of a work that already existed. It partakes of course of the remix culture of YouTube, but even more so it recalled for me the visual and literary work that Sianne Ngai has labeled “the stuplime”—stupefying heaps of mundane material or circular or fragmentary language from which the rational mind flees in a reverse mechanism from the Kantian sublime, such as in the loop-de-looping sentences of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. These are cases of Chaplinesque or Pee-wee Herman–like slapstick, Beckettian collapse, which in their stubborn failure and persistence in apparent triviality resist grander designs and systems, almost a “work to rule” campaign against social reality. Keyboard Cat is trying to play them off, but they refuse to go, refuse to stop; they cannot stay, they do not budge.

The mass of cat videos on YouTube has that aggregate effect, but in a way, so can any given YouTube cat video that is not too gimmicky or over-calculated. Human perception seems programmed to test our theories of mind on everything we see, to determine whether we attribute deliberation and consciousness to it or chalk it up to blind nonagency. A child skips a stone across the water, but a hill does not roll a rock down in its slope. A dog seems to act with dogged intention even when its aims are idiotic, yet it is maddeningly difficult to demarcate when a cat is doing something consciously or instinctively accidentally. The gaze rebounds, in each second flipping the answer back and forth, as if we were staring at one of those diagrams that in one glance seems to be a rabbit and in the next a duck, alternating rapidly and deteriorating as the signal continues—mind, no mind, mind, no mind, duck, rabbit, duck, rabbit, duckrabbit, ducrabbit, durabbit, drabbit, drrbit, drrbbt, drrbbt, drrbbt. It’s a tickle in the brain that breaks down into nonsense, and so we laugh, and our theories of mind buckle for a moment. This is the Zen of the cat video, and indeed the Zen of cats. As Lewis-Kraus’s Wired article reports, studies have shown that we’re not imagining it—cats do indeed pay more attention to people the less we want them to, and vice versa, as if they were not so much independent as somehow bent on correcting an error in our ways.

And perhaps music itself is as abstract, separated, and autonomous a force from humanity as the domestic cat—dependent on us for its existence and yet indifferent to us at the same time. Perhaps not even dependent on us for existence, except by circular reasoning that defines music as human-made. (Which could be rebutted with a new Zen koan: “Animals cannot make music. Humans are animals. Therefore humans cannot make music.”) So how can we pretend to track these entities’ interactions? Certainly peering into the window of Marker’s “Cat Listening to Music,” much less the more straightforward and funnier “Cat Watching Slayer” (April 19, 2011; 1.34 million views to date), I am left wondering, in the words of a 2013 Smithsonian news headline, “Why Do We Care Whether Animals Appreciate Our Art?” They already have their anthills and mating dances and nests.

According to the most recent science, it’s sounding like Marker and all those on the internet who imagine their cats are particularly fond of Ravel or Mozart or Johnny Cash are likely to be deluding themselves. A February 2015 paper in the journal Applied Animal Behavior concludes that “Cats prefer species-appropriate music,” sounds that suggest animal calls, suckling, or purring, often at higher octaves than those to humans’ tastes. Close observation suggested they were indifferent or averse to most man-made music by comparison.

And frankly I share their inclinations, at least when I am disposed to think about cats. The Montreal-based artist Sherwin Sullivan Tjia released an iTunes album in 2009 titled The E-Z Purr by “The Virtual Cat,” which looped together twenty-nine tracks of cat purrs of three or four minutes in length, and it is one of the more soothing evening listens in my collection, an easy slide into a sublime stupor. Of course there are multiple YouTube purring videos available as well. It’s the very nonperformativity of these clips that reassures me. I think back to the popularity in the sixties and seventies of recordings of whale song—it’s often forgotten that those tracks would be played on FM radio and that the 1979 National Geographic edition of Songs of the Humpback Whale holds the record for the largest single pressing of any album in history, with ten million copies. Along with the first views of Earth from space and other phenomena of that moment, it was key to the first nurturing of ecological consciousness, to the cause of marine conservation, and to a nascent awareness of unexplored complexities in animal intelligence, perhaps even culture. These are questions we still haven’t answered today, even as the situation of the global environment has become more fraught and perilous. It concerns me that so much of the rich storehouse of YouTube animal videos assures us of the convenience and compatibility of animal life with contemporary human habits, rather than the depths of its strangeness, alike to us perhaps only in its basic needs, no matter how intimately and domestically we live together. A cat is not our instrument nor our audience. I have heard the cats singing each to each, and I know they do not sing to me, at least without some serious interference.

In A Grin Without a Cat, Chris Marker succinctly remarked, “A cat is never on the side of power.” The ever-cycling attractions of YouTube can make it hard to remember where that power plugs in, to trace it to its source—call it Google, or call it the hand up Keyboard Cat’s shirt, the courtier at the seat of the Katzenklavier. But sure as the birds flying high above, life ain’t worth living without the ones you love. Try singing the old songs again, out of Egypt, east of intention. Sing it different—you don’t have to spell it out in the key of C. The cats won’t care. They never do.

"East of Intention: Cat, Camera, Music" is reprinted by permission from Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Carl Wilson.