To paraphrase John Cage, the artist is free to have nothing to say and to say it.
—Cue press material
Andrew Pekler’s Cue is a rather fascinating, attention-worthy piece of work for an unusual reason. In the span of 11 tracks, the Berlin-based artist/composer of electronic music crafts an album more notable for its form and function than for any statement of fashion or politic. The very idea that Pekler’s record is free of statement is, in fact, its statement. And, according to promotional materials accompanying the album, that’s exactly the way Pekler wanted it.
A highly informational brief used to place the album in context references library music albums, often utilized by producers of film and television in the selection of songs to add life and color to their movies, shows, and commercials. According to these writings, “consumers of library music were assumed to have little interest in the identities of the individuals who actually wrote and played the music” and “it appears that the functional aspects of the product were of foremost importance”. The press material goes on to describe library albums’ use of generic track names and added to those names “descriptions, durations and suggestions for…usage”.
While not designed expressly for use by entertainment execs, Pekler’s project directly recalls such predecessors. Each track is given in-depth description on the album jacket, and the record feels like a sum of individual parts rather than a seamless expression. The accompanying writing is quick to point out that Cue “is not an attempt to re-create, re-imagine, or re-contextualize library music of past eras”, but is instead a chance for Pekler to work within the “same constraints” that have guided those who have traditionally produced it.
The role Pekler casts for himself as the unseen artisan both works for and against him here. On one hand, the lack of detail given about emotional and/or thematic inspiration allows Pekler to create a sense of mystery and subtle drama that infuses the material on Cue; listeners are more readily encouraged to use Pekler’s music as soundtrack to their individualized mental pictures, much as directors and producers might use library music as the soundtrack to their moving pictures.
Additionally, Pekler is able to base his work on repetition and minimalism, often giving tracks an initial simplicity which allows them to grow and expand without a dramatic shift in attitude or tone. When Cue is at its best, Pekler is able to weave together similar musical threads that, in tandem, are more dynamic than when experienced alone. Arguably the album’s best track, “Dim Star” (explained as “slow, ominous piano motif drifting into swirling atmosphere”), is the result of combining an understated, pulsing bass line with insistent, moody piano figures and allowing that combination to gradually work together to establish momentum and groove. Other outstanding tracks include “Rockslide” (Pekler labels this track as “nostalgic mid-tempo pathos for widescreen drama”), which fades in with white noise and gains color from the shifting of pitch and rhythmic throb, and “Dust Mite” (described as “towards the incomprehensible, microscopic danger, harmonic feedback”), which feels fresh, experimental, and a throwback all at the same time.
While the emphasis of form and element is interesting conceptually and sets Pekler’s work apart as distinctive, it can also cause parts of the album to come across as mechanical. The trick to producing an outstanding record in this genre is to balance the manifestation of electronic sound with enough lifeblood, enough human sentiment, to keep the music from sounding overly utilitarian. No matter his intent or purpose, oftentimes Pekler simply falls short in this regard. Opening track “On” is harsh in timbre and at six and a half minutes probably pushes the listener a couple of minutes too long; closer “Floating Tone”, whose descriptor reads “slow-building one note theme for end credits, frozen fuzz guitar + warm accompaniment”, is also a tough listen. Other tracks like “Pensive Boogie” and “Steady State” imbue just barely enough feeling and variation to keep them from seeming overly mechanized.
An understanding of Pekler’s purposes will aid some listeners but may cause others to feel disoriented in experiencing the thematic disconnect which exists between tracks. Cue is not for the casual electronica fan or the listener who approaches the project with a sense of informality. However, for someone willing to work for their reward, Cue is an experience somewhat akin to observing an award-winning science experiment: It gives the opportunity to see hypothesis filtered through variables and controls and carried to a logical end.