One of the best things about this gelatinous beast we call new music is that despite how impenetrable it might seem to outsiders, it’s a community that draws in people from all walks of life. Duane Pitre might now devote his life to long tones and weird tunings, but in his younger days he was flipping ollies and kickbacks as a professional skateboarder for Alien Workshop. While the skateboarding scene isn’t usually fertile ground for young composers, it’s no stranger to music in general—Pitre, like most of his peers, played in a band in those early days, first on bass before moving to guitar. But even then, his interests were drawing him towards a different realm. “My friend would look at me while were playing and say, ‘Come on, let’s move to the next song,’” Pitre explains, “but I would want to stay in that pocket of just creating this atmosphere, these sound collages. That was important early on—I didn’t even realize what I was doing. I look back on it now and think, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ Way further back than I even realized I was starting the path that led me to here.”
His musical future was pretty much set once he heard his first music in just intonation, a tuning scheme based on the naturally occurring harmonic series. Pitre, who by then was creating ambient guitar textures using delay and reverb pedals, recalls thinking, “What effects are they using? What is this? What are these sounds? Because—it’s not right.”
But it was right for him. Pitre dove headfirst into the study of these weird sounds, an autodidactic feat that required some pretty intense fixating. “I get focused on something, and then it’s pretty much my life, for better or worse,” he explains. Origin, Pitre’s 40-minute long-tone work released earlier this month on Root Strata, represents his furthest explorations into those tuning schemes. Scored for a septet of microtonally tuned bowed guitars, Origin traverses several different realms and moods during the course of its five movements, based partially on the Hindustani idea of different music for different times of day.
Not all of Pitre’s works involve just intervals, however: his work ED09, released on Quiet Design Records, plays instead with the imperfection of intonation within a standard equal temperament framework. But regardless of the conceptual factors that go into the pitch selection, Pitre writes music that just sounds good. The tuning schemes he uses are not the ends themselves; rather, they serve to further open up the acoustic worlds that can be elicited from the instruments, creating a rich, meditative space for listening.
Pitre took that philosophy to heart with his curation of a recent disc on Important Records, The Harmonic Series: A Compilation of Musical Works in Just Intonation. When picking the music, Pitre explains, “It had to be in just intonation and something I’m really excited about. Sometimes that’s a fault with that community—’it’s in just intonation, therefore it’s good.’ No. Not to be rude or anything, but it just doesn’t matter. It’s just a tuning system.” On the disc, Pitre includes the usual suspects for a new music JI-compilation—Pauline Oliveros, Charles Curtis, Michael Harrison, and himself—but also some really out of left field and interesting works by people like R Keenan Lawler, a composer and guitarist out of Kentucky. Rather than just presenting a theoretical dissection of the possibilities inherent in the system, the pieces included on The Harmonic Series demonstrate the range of expressive possibilities in differing range of styles.
What all this points to—the works for large ensembles, the bringing together of different composers in compilations—is one of the other best things about new music: community. Pitre, despite having no formal training in music, has built up a sizable group of people in this esoteric little world who are completely down with what he’s about. That enthusiasm is basically generated by the man himself. “I’m from New Orleans. We’re all pretty nice—not to toot your own horn about being ‘nice,’ but we are,” he laughs. “So it’s about approaching everyone with good intentions from the beginning, and hopefully with some musical ideas that they would dig.”