“The intention is to get the viewer drawn into a story that they ultimately have to piece together, to generate their own narratives.”
– Alexander Gorlizki
“There were many moods, some inexplicable: a dark-skinned, half-dressed woman wearing a skirt of leaves sitting under a tree in communion with some friendly snakes; an embracing couple sitting in a swing in a downpour; a man with a donkey’s head like Shakespeare’s Bottom listening attentively to someone sitting above him on a throne.”
– James Ivory
Upon encountering an Indian miniature for the first time, one’s curiosity is only ever matched by an appreciation for the image itself. Crafted with the aim of slotting into a larger catalogue of work, each Indian miniature painting offers a fragmented window into mythical, religious, and historical realms, while revealing past instances that discern how ancient art forms were re-imagined within emerging cultural contexts. The production of these miniatures induced a replication of sorts, an overlaying of accomplishment that examined pictorial themes with a fresh gaze to retain sense of meaning.
Andrew Pekler’s Cover Versions project explores similar avenues with sound and imagery, in a setting that goes way beyond the confines of any misappropriated Retromania. Here, the material’s source is removed from its intended environment, providing an overhauled frame for the resulting efforts that come in the form of beautifully compacted soundscapes. Pekler goes even further by selecting an assortment of images from exotica and library record covers and then manipulating their authorship in order to erase any symbolic affiliations with the past. Where reproduction and perceived enhancement were intertwined in Indian miniature painting, each track on Cover Versions undergoes alteration as though it were re-imagined time and time again through a concurrent lens. The Mughals epitomized the reinvention of historical artistic matter in the case of the former — the cutting of aged ideas and the editing of fabled incidents, binding them in an adapted setting for redistribution among an audience with different expectations and “enlightened” ideals. The principle is crass, but it continues to this day, and though there are uncountable parallels to be drawn from those Mughal miniatures and the album at hand, both result in works that are positively spellbinding.
Pekler exhibited his efforts over the course of 10 days at a staged record fair/exhibition/performance in Berlin, where every LP came with an altered cover that housed these intricate cover versions. Any accompanying artwork, then, now comes deprived of association, which is justified by the manner in which these pieces have been decontextualized. It is safe to surmise that only traces of original substance could be found here if one were to look hard enough, and even then, they would have been tinkered to the point of no return. The yarn they once spun is pulled through a modish gauze that melts any principle intent and molds it into something abstract and sublime. The key here is not so much in the name, but in the application of a common phrase to deploy a dual meaning: aurally, these versions are covers that assume the content of a prescribed track and remold it, the results of which are distributed on vinyl in 300 recycled album sleeves as a reasserted visual component.
Since original artist and album names have been replaced by colored lines and geometric shapes, there is an air of detachment as opposed to admiration. Like the reinterpretation of miniatures, there exists a desire to revisit these old configurations and recreate them for an intrepid palette, and that is achieved in the form of compact and segregated aural sequences, resplendent vignettes that play on the mood of the covers that once housed them. This is not a project that purposefully draws comparison between alternate art forms, but it does yield similar guiding principles, which are installed with outstanding execution and shape its very essence. Cover Versions invokes that same sense of curiosity and appreciation through its reworking of forgotten melodies before thrusting them into a newfangled context of otherwise unrelated substance.
Ideas of a similar vein were brought to the fore on 2011’s Sentimental Favourites, where Pekler morphed the contents of selected easy-listening records into a panoply of chipped ambiance. The album appeared to be an attack on the principles of the remix, as the source material was rendered unidentifiable. But at the same time, Pekler’s tracks did not pack as much punch as they do here. On that previous effort, it felt like he was still working in a space-dust frequency comparable to Ex Tempo Ra, a project that witnessed collaboration with Giuseppe Ielasi in crafting crackled ambient planes. But even that wasn’t Pekler’s first fling with subverted works; 2005’s Strings + Feedback saw him resurrecting distilled piano segments from Morton Feldman compositions in order to create non-classical depictions of indeterminate music. Where Cover Versions embodies technical enhancement is in the precise nature of arrangement — although these tracks persist in relying heavily on cheeky loops, crossover synth pieces, and pitch-shifted vocals, the results are simply unparalleled. One can stand back and feel the warm pulse of each clip as it radiates in the air for minutes after it finishes, a segment of acoustophilic splendor, refined and impressive, its very own cordial miniature.
As with Sentimental Favourites, the stock content comes from otherwise unknown easy listening and exotica records; music that goes down like brand name liquid honey. Exotica first arose as the jilted score to utopian revelry — melodic tranquility on the veranda, overlooking conquered settlements. It was the soundtrack to gratification in foreign lands, at least for some, and the revisiting of those sounds now plays into the discomfort of the zeitgeist. Attitudes have changed about the environments in which such styles were conceived, and Pekler has shifted that mindset entirely within the context of the electronic age, where the very notion of collectors’ items and Pitt Rivers trinkets is redefined and deciphered to bring about bold testimonial, exotica as exoticism, cover versions that reanimate the past and breathe fresh life into former aesthetic preferences. It’s virtual tourism that forgoes the deftness of subtly manipulated found sound.
But that is only part of the puzzle, a mere fragment of Pekler’s intricate design, for the consumer-friendly library music of work-for-hire composition is also tangled in his artful miniature soap operas. These are scores produced at little expense, bled of authorship by those who benefited from the anonymous play-safe sounds that emphasize such questionable production. They come modified here in distorted forms, as twisted keys on “Seascape / Ship” and a pulsating glitch on “Sunset / Sunrise” that literally causes a tingling sensation in the esophagus. The fact that these tunes were so easy to come by in second-hand stores is an indication of their generic value today outside the confides of specific recognition. Pekler has “covered” music formed within these bizarre fringes and manipulated it to create something utterly transfixing. Not only is he reworking the art forms of yesteryear for inquisitive audiences, but he is redefining the margins, crafting results in the guise of audio miniatures that tell anonymous tales of cultural shift channeled through long-forgotten voices that have never sounded so stirring.