Andrew Pekler returns with a heady solo album full of beautiful electronic vistas and tropically-inspired ethnographic hallucinations. In searching for the blurry border between the familiar and the foreign, Tristes Tropiques is the direct descendant of the “coffee-coloured” Fourth World music of Jon Hassell. At times densely layered and others richly minimal, a classic headphone album best heard in close detail. Pekler is known for his conceptually rigorous solo material, with each album a coherent work largely distinct from previous styles. Tristes Tropiques channels the well-mined zone of exoticism as a source of imagination, but whether this ambiguous self-criticism succeeds will be up to each listener.
Opener “Feedback TT” is a three-minute montage of the elements which make up the duration of Tristes Tropiques, a kind of warm-up cum opening credits. “Mirror Structures” and “Humidity Index / Khao Sok (chopped and screwed)” drift through more sparse landscapes, pulling back from the potential overload of too much too fast. “Cool Symmetries / Ascending Vortices” becomes a bit more frenetic and bouncy, a repeating electronic riff pushing us deeper into the unknown. “Bororo” falls more or less in the center of the album and may be the most representative track, with a slow looping melody against a backdrop of indistinct field-recordings. The bass line of “A Savage Topography” could probably anchor a minimal techno track, though the tropical percussion is competing with a overgrowth of white static clouds and organ pumps. Is the penultimate track “Mirror Structures (Mirrored)” a reflection of the second? Perhaps the essential ambiguity of the albums concept also functions formally. Just alien enough, these resulating structures occupy a space between traditionalism and futurism, between tribal drum circle and late-night warehouse party.
But it is the 10-minute closer “Theme From Tristes Tropiques / Avian Modulations / Life In The Canopy” that is the sure highlight. The additional time is used to more gradually draw in the listener. A wonky bass line is in counterpoint to a looping melody, minimal metallic rhythms and modular synth melodies push and pull in a poly-rhythmic ritual. Feedback rises and falls until the synthetic organisms begin to recall the natural. It is in this central passage’s chirps and gurgles that we come closest to unadorned synth patching and straight-forward electronic tones, though even here the evocation of natural sounds is evident. As these sequences peel away, melodies slowing, a cool drone pulses while synthetic creatures call and respond in a bipolar mating ritual. Or perhaps Pekler’s music is meant to approach his own sonic touchstones as one might is they were the foreign and exotica exemplars of far-off imagined communities; aspects of Jan Jelinek‘s minimal techno, Giuseppe Ielasi‘s more modular synth-based compositions, Ahnnu‘s rhythmic sound collage, early Tim Hecker‘s stutteringly atmospheric transmissions, and Jon Hassell’s unusual melodic phrases at a bias of harmonic background textures.
Recent years have seen Pekler exploring the materiality of searching for, playing, and listening to records (Cover Versions, Senufo, 2012), manipulating samples in dialogic diversions (Holiday For Sampler with Giuseppe Ielasi, Planam, 2013), and meditating on technological interfaces, participatory works, and the limits of computerized capture of contingency (The Prepaid Piano & Replayed, Entr’acte/Senufo Editions, 2014). Superficially each recording takes its shape based on its particular raw material and tools, but despite the variety the artist’s fingerprints are left on everything he touches. Pekler’s work oscillates between the poles of the foreign and the familiar, a nostalgia for the unknown and unknowable. The productive erasures of Cover Versions seems to me to be the closest conceptually and formally, doing for exotica what that project did for library music.
Somewhere in our cultural imaginary, electronic music still occupies a place as Other—Other to classical music, Other to acoustic music, Other to the reliable phallocentric guitar-based music of suburban (mostly white) youth. Tristes Tropiques exploits the intersection of the electronic with the ‘exotic’, producing a fictional take drawing inspiration from and blurring the contours between Western electronic music and those recordings marketed variously as exotica, tropical, world, traditional, and ethonographic. These are genres which have not untroubled pasts but which, like Orientalism in literature and the fine arts, continue to enthrall with the force of their potential for stoking our imaginations. Pekler eschews any specific references in order to sidestep the problem of re-appropriating or fetishizing a particular culture. Does this allow the album to escape the traps of “World Music” and “Exotica” with its absent signifiers, or does this perspective already presuppose an insurmountable aporia? When searching for a marketing term for non-Western musics in the early 1980s, the record labels had considered “tropical” before adopting the more inclusive “World” music label. (See David Novak’s “The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media” for a recent take on the politics of World music.)
Is it possible to trade in the imagination of the unknown without respectfully dealing with the real legacies of racist (neo)colonial exploitation? Is this somehow less urgent in the age of instant gratification mp3 blogs and information overload? The title of the album is borrowed from one of French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss‘s most famous works, and seems a sure sign of Pekler’s own self-awareness of these difficulties, perhaps a willingness to confront them head on. His choice of title and visual imagery seem to confirm this. His live performances have been accompanied by bright colored and slow-moving close up shots of tropical vegetation. Devoid of people or artifacts the close-up shots become abstract visual analogues to an imaginary soundtrack. Yet even in the abstract, the recognizably tropic vegetation calls to mind the old stereotypes.
Tropical as a genre tag has had a resurgence in recent years, first in the myriad styles of global bass, and increasingly in mainstream pop music (Jack Ü, Drake, Alicia Keys, any number of ‘tropical house’ inspired beats). I think of Tim Hecker’s ironic titles from his 2001 solo debut, songs like “Music for Tundra,” “Arctic Lover’s Rock,” and “Boreal Kiss,” though the difference of of course not insignificant; where Hecker was poking fun at journalistic images of Canadian music being inspired by stereotypical geography, Pekler instead wraps himself in this imagery in defense of forms of music he sincerely loves. Echoing the cyclical structure and generic ambivalence of Lévi-Strauss‘s travelogue, Tristes Tropiques tries to have it both ways.
In the Mix
More clues can be gleaned from the titles of two recent mixes. In fact, the aesthetic may work better in the context of mixes, as a more literal collage allows not only for the space of hazy overlap but also for each element to respectfully retain their autonomy and individuality. Some tracks from Tristes Tropiques were previewed in the Fourth World Problems mix for Skyapnea (NTS) in January of 2015. With yet another self-aware wink, the title is of course a play on Jon Hassell’s “possible music” and the ironic hashtag. This mix paired actual ethnographic recordings with institutional electroacoustic and modern electronic music from Europe in a kind of flattening mixspace where they overlap conceptually and sonically. In an accompanying statement, Pekler referred to the future Tristes Tropiques tracks included within as “synthetic ‘environments'” which function as a kind of synthesis or bridge between the two poles he’s established. Or maybe they are not poles at all. Rather than European music and its Other, Pekler clears a space where they can coexist. One of the key insights of Lévi-Strauss‘s work is a rejection of hierarchies of value that prevent the perception of common ground, and something similar seems to be enacted in Pekler’s practice.
Coinciding with the release of Tristes Tropiques in November of 2016 was Pekler’s ‘(N)E(W)XOTICA’ Mix (Self-titled), operating in a similar vein. Pitchfork contributing editor Philip Sherburne selected Pekler’s mix among the top 11 mixes of November 2016. Sherburne’s comments suggest exactly the danger in re-appropriating “the exotic” as a category despite one’s sincere interest or subversive intent: “Andrew Pekler‘s recent album Tristes Tropiques … treats exotica like an intercepted radio broadcast from another galaxy. Rather than condescending to the Other, Pekler elevates it to near-transcendence.” Sherburne seems unaware that one caricature is no better than the other. Pekler elevates IT to near-transcendence, he writes, literally objectifying “the Other” (people) who are erased and replaced with imaginary space aliens from a place of transcendence. Even though I do not think this is at all Pekler’s intent, it should be clear by now that I am left feeling conflicted by the potential erasure and silencing of the act of abstraction. And this to me seems indicative of a much deeper tendency in Western art.
Abstraction and its Other
Pekler plays with this tension, self-aware of his concepts and the problematic history of exoticism. Representation of “the Other” in European media needn’t be derogatory to be problematic. “Nice” images can easily be just as pernicious, even more so. One might look to the obsession with “the Orient” which permeated much of European culture in the 19th century, or to the “negrophilia” of the French interwar period, to the 1950’s American hipster’s love of jazz or the Northern soul of UK mods. The idea of the “West” is an identity as such only in opposition an “Other.” This was manifested in both the most vile forms of racism and colonial denigration, and in the most fetishistic obsession and one-dimensional characterizations (“The Nobel Savage”). In the face of European decadence in the early 20th century many artists turned to ‘primitive’ art to revitalize European culture (for instance, Picasso’s interest in West African masks, or later Steve Reich’s trips to West Africa and Bali). In the post-war period this current morphed into an interest in Eastern religions, epitomized by the Beatles in India or John Cage‘s instrumentalization of the I Ching.
The accompanying interview with label-boss and occasional collaborator Jan Jelinek included in the liner notes of Tristes Tropiques addresses this area of in-distinction directly: “a tuned percussion recital from Malawi that immediately brings to mind Steve Reichian minimalism, or the Burundian female vocal duet that sounds uncannily like a cut-up tape experiment, etc.” Of course those tuned percussive instruments evoke minimalism because that was literally the point of inspiration, and the “Otherness” of those ethonographic recordings was just as much a reference point for the academic avant-garde and experimental traditions that produced early cut-up tape experiments.
Still, there is something interesting in the sonorous similarities between bleeping synth sequences and the difference and variation of pitched group percussion. William Bennett’s Cut Hands mines similar territory for inspiration, though his references are more specific and named, often with characteristic provocation and camp. But in both cases, very different aesthetically though they may be, the contrast between the lone man behind the electronic instruments and the group of performers/listeners is stark. In this case, the techno-fantasy seems to be the same old one; to alleviate our alienation through the fantasy of an “authentic” community, always out of our actual reach.
The Euro-American avant-garde can be characterized by its emphasis on abstraction and negation. Musicologist Lloyd Whitesell’s critique of the early tape work of Steve Reich is instructive in this regard. Whitesell defines the cultural avant-garde as consisting of artists working in self-conscious opposition to traditional (bourgeois) values and institutions, and takes this stance further to argue that since the emergence of this style of cultural production with Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, the cultural avant-garde has been marked by a rhetoric of negation. Whitesell traces this rhetoric of negation through music, poetry, literature, and the visual arts, showing how it results in a tendency of abstract formulations, a fascination with emptiness, and an unwillingness to relate the aesthetic to a historical or social context.
Silence and Silencing
These strategies can be productive and innovative, but there is also a way in which an emphasis on silence turns into a silencing. Must pursuing abstraction and negation produce an unwillingness to relate the aesthetic to a historical or social context? And is that not what happens when the colonial Other becomes abstracted into a transcendent, pseudo-universal Other? This procedure is certainly not unique to Euro-American artists. Though still under-acknowledged, the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh is credited with the earlier electronic composition, realized in 1944. Entitled “Wire Piece,” it consisted of a recording of a women’s ritual clandestinely recorded with a wire recorded and processed and edited by El-Dabh, emphasizing the resonant qualities of the women’s voices over the content. Here we have a male artist clandestinely sneaking into a ritual in which he does not belong, recording women singing without their consent, and then manipulating their voices until they become unintelligible.
Interest can easily turn into fetishization without appropriate respect. Denying “the Other” self-representation and a voice is to condemn them to remain defined only as Other. Pekler elides possible critiques of re-appropriation or fetishization through the lack of explicit references. Referred to as “the beloved fairytale kitsch of exotica”, his self-awareness of the fiction is at the heart of the album and this therefore simultaneously assumes the form of a self-critique. Tristes Tropiques, in this respect, is an exploration of Pekler’s own imagination, own relationship to “exotica,” his own fascination with “traditional” music of ethnographic recordings.
But like Lorenzo Senni’s recent revalorization of trance, how much does the artist’s intention matter if the critique is not legible? It is not rare to see ‘ethnic’ imagery re-purposed within the experimental music scene, often without comment. I’ll focus on one example close to Pekler: Senufo Editions, one of my favorite labels run by one of my most respected artists, named itself after an African secret society, and has deployed such imagery in its releases. (Ielasi’s 15tapes, Kassel Jaeger’s Fernweh) Ielasi and Senni’s concert at the Loft in Milan in June of 2010 was advertised with a scambaiter trophy image, a form of modern circulation of racist imagery purportedly justified by its targeting of Internet scammers in the developing world.
In this image, a scammer named Paul has in turn been tricked by a “scambaiter” into posing for this photo as a sign of trust. The “spammer” and “scammer” has become an object of near universal scorn and disdain such that literally anything done to them is meant to be justified, including radical dehumanization. “This visual staging of the savage African digitally extends previous visual cultures of the primitive, showing how durable these have proven, despite our current ‘post-racial’ moment,” writes Lisa Nakamura. To her, “scambaiter trophy images extend colonialism’s show-space, rendering it even more powerful and far reaching, and allowing it to migrate freely into multiple contexts.” The politics of images seems far removed from the audible, but sounds cannot be neutral either. We hear in sounds their histories, places, and peoples.
As I’ve said, I do not mean to suggest in anyway that Andrew Pekler’s Tristes Tropiques is akin to the circulation of such horrible images. The above will surely seem to some as an unnecessary diversion, in this case. Stick to the music, right? But the circulation of non-Western musical genres, even as abstract concepts, plays a similar role as the circulation of images in constructing our global imagination, and this imagination often has a way of getting in the way of reality. Why are the tropics sad, anyway? Just as Lévi-Strauss lamented the shrinking of the world, the dedicated record-digger in the post-global end of history may feel betrayed by the instant access and homogenizing tendency of a globalized world. The search for the exotic seems futile under such conditions, and thus the rush of discovery all the more heightened.
Perhaps there’s another way of understanding Pekler’s intervention here. The leveling of hierarchies doesn’t mean accepting everything as equal, but accepting a work on its own terms, and finding structural commonalities across very different aesthetics and historical conditions. In these overlapping structures we find shared knowledge, a shared comportment to the world that seem to transcend our individual circumstances. There is something admirable and sonically interesting in this zone of in-distinction, in the quest for the universal. As long as in the process we are not erasing the particularities of others. (Joseph Sannicandro)