Name: Duane Pitre
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, musician
Current release: In 2009, Duane Pitre compiled a compilation called The Harmonic Series (A Compilation Of Musical Works In Just Intonation). It featured eight pieces by composers like Ellen Fullman, Theresa Wong, Michael Harrison and Pitre himself, among others. For over a decade, that record would remain a reference point for artists wishing to compose in Just Intonation, if only for the fact that it was not a retrospective, but grounded in the present – proving that Just Intination was inspiring to a current generation of musicians. Now, Pitre has been asked to curate another compilation. The Harmonic Series II (available via Important Rec) comes as a 4LP set with each side of vinyl dedicated to one composition. True to the concept of the first installment, all of these pieces are current and exclusive and they feel as fresh as the first set of contributions from eleven years ago. Pitre also features with a beautiful contribution (the serenely pulsating “Three for Rhodes”), but it is his outstanding selection work that really takes the cake here: Composers for the second volume include Kali Malone, known for her sensuous, otherworldly organ pieces; Catherine Lamb, who has been a long-time mainstay of the Just Intonation scene; as well as Caterina Barbieri – a small, highly selective, occasionally surprising but all in all remarkably comprehensive cast. Even if it takes Pitre another decade to put Volume III together, these pieces are set to last.
If these thoughts by Duane Pitre piqued your interest, visit his website for a deeper look at his work. You can also check out interviews we conducted with some of the artists featured on his two Harmonic Series compilations:
[Read our Ellen Fullman interview]
[Read our Theresa Wong interview]
[Read our Michael Harrison interview]
[Read our Byron Westbrook interview]
If I understood correctly, La Monte Young's "Well Tempered Piano" was one of the pieces that first lured you into the world of alternative tuning systems. Has your appreciation of it changed since then?
I surely look at the piece differently now than I did when I first heard it in 2005. At the time I knew nothing about Just Intonation, and know I have a strong understanding of the tuning system. The Well Tempered Piano tuning is quite simple, but I don’t say this as a way to discount it, and in fact I find when making a tuning myself the simpler ones always win (with my ears as the judge). I have made many tunings that are 7-limit and omit the prime number of 3 (like WTP), and I will say that it is very hard to avoid them having a common sound with the Well-Tuned Piano tuning in some sense. This is because the tuning for that piece is in large the foundation of a tuning with those parameters. Therefore I view it as relatively simple, as compared to say, one of Harry Partch’s tunings.
Musically speaking, I guess the above applies to it as well. And that still is attractive to me. A couple of techniques that are applied to a long piece of music, but then again I suppose in a nutshell that’s what minimalism is.
In the context of experimental and avant-garde music, I think it is one of the most important pieces of music. And for experimental music that utilizes just intonation even more so.
La Monte Young had a deep interest – some have called it an obsession – with “tuning as a function of time, with the relationship between pitch and time.” Is that something you can relate to?
I suppose one can look at this many different ways. One would depend on the musical style. People often associate Just Intonation with experimental and avant-garde musics, but of course it can be used in many different musical contexts. Maybe LMY is looking at it in the context of his own music, and if you take a piece of his, like say Trio for Strings - Just Intonation Version (1984-2001-2005), removing the beating from these long-tone passages really does obliterate time.
I actually saw the premier of this Just Intonation version in 2005 at the Dream House in NYC. I promise you, it was hard to keep track of time (and hard not to melt in the heat of the room!)
Another way I could apply the “tuning as a function of time” would again involve the “roughness” of Equal Temperament, which manifests as a type of acoustic beating (as associated with something being out of tune, not the acoustic beating that is often used as a compositional tool when combining certain Just Intonation intervals such as 9/8 + 8/7, which are present in the guitar harmonics in my “Feel Free” composition).
But when you play long tones in ET this roughness could be one of the factors regarding what I’ve said above, as the “beats” from said roughness can create a pulse, even if on a subconscious level (but likely also a visceral one). And when we follow these beats, we are in a sense counting (albeit not in a “1, 2, 3, etc” fashion). So we are keeping track of time. When you remove the beats, time kind of flattens.
Many advocates of alternative tuning systems claim that the space of possibilities really opens up when you turn towards microtonal tunings. What was your own impression of the effect of the switch?
Well I always use the painter’s color palette analogy. For me it opened up access to more colors to use in my work. And these colors aligned in ways that were extremely pleasing to my ear. And that’s one of the things I love about JI, it can be very personal.
Many pieces using alternative tuning systems tend to be drone-oriented and modal. In some radical cases, the question arises: Are we listening to a tuning or a piece?
I suppose the reason that Just Intonation made sense for my music was that it is almost always modal. And if you look at the traditional musics of the world, often you’ll find they are modal and often tuned in Just Intonation (before that term even existed, of course). It just made sense … then and now.
I certainly find that a tuning is the catalyst for the music I write in it. That is kind of the point for my approach, it is the inspiration. It is a very natural process in which the tuning and my “musical ear” combine and the music produced from this union just sort of happens naturally.
What's your take on the idea that underneath subjective human preferences for certain systems, there is a higher order, a music of the spheres?
It is very alluring to me. I’m drawn to math and science, always have been. I like some order in my life, it helps the chaos in my brain. These disciplines were intertwined hundreds of years ago. It is probably no coincidence that I’m very interested in the Medieval Era. I suppose nature has always played such a strong role in creation, as it has inspired so much artistic works. I suppose now that technology might be more inspiring for some, but again this is science.
In my first year of studying JI, I’d sit for hours late at night by myself, drinking rye whiskey and get so excited when I’d see a calculation (or the like) “click” … snapping together like a puzzle.
Not sure how much excitement had to do with the whiskey, but the two seemed to go together.
None of my friends at the time were involved in Just Intonation, so it was a solo journey, and I’m quite fond of such lone adventures (I've enjoyed traveling by myself since I was a teenager).
Many advocates of alternative tuning systems enjoy switching between different systems. Why do you stick to Just Intonation? And, since you seems to still enjoy Equal Temperament, what are its benefits in creative terms?
I find that for me, it all depends on the musical context. I’ve had several attempts at fretting guitars in JI, buying them with a mixture of Just Intonation and ET fretting, and it just never clicks for me. My piece “Origin” is for an ensemble of Just Intonation electric guitars, but they are all bowed. In this context Just Intonation was 100% the way to go with that piece. But trying to play a more standard style and left-hand fretting in Just Intonation just hasn’t worked for me yet. And that’s OK, like I’ve mentioned, I love playing ET guitar. It’s probably because of my prior experience with ET guitar before learning about JI, and I was just used to a certain language on guitar and it didn’t transfer well to JI.
That said, I'm currently doing a Just Intonation fret job on a 7-string electric guitar. This time I won’t do segmented frets and have each one span the full width of the fretboard. We’ll see how it goes.
Feel Free at the time gathered a lot of attention in the media. I still think this is an absolutely stunning work. How do you look back on that piece yourself?
Thank you! I appreciate you saying so. I still love that piece/album. It all happened very naturally, and for me those are the pieces I enjoy most.
The beginnings of the piece were the direct result of experimentation and being resourceful. The experimenting was with Max/MSP and the resourcefulness was that I already had the guitar harmonics recorded, which I did before I put the guitars I used for “Origin” in storage. And I inserted these into the Max patch I was working on and immediately I knew I had something special.
The combination of “natural/experimentation/practicality” was appealing to me (still is). And “Feel Free” also represents a special time for me, it was shortly after leaving NYC and moving back to New Orleans. And I felt like I could really make “my own” music at that point.
Max has remained your main tool for composing. How do you use it?
For the most part, I’ve used it to create a constantly evolving set of “musical generators” that act as performers (in some sense of the term). This was mainly out of necessity, because I started using it a lot once I moved from NYC to New Orleans, and I didn’t have access to musicians willing to do this kind of work for small amounts of money, or none (most of the time) because I’ve not had much funding for my work. In fact I’ve funded all my main ventures from working a day job (I’m not even close to what one might call “independently wealthy”).
So this generation system is broken up into a network of different components, often being multiple instances of the same device, throughout Ableton Live. I use the latter because it has such a wonderful workflow and allows me to perform and record with it so easily. I don’t use any of Live’s sound generators, but It’s just a great framework for Max.
What did your first projects in Max look like? How has this evolved over time?
They looked terrible, of course! (laughs)
At first, I would find a patch online that seemed appealing, ripped them apart and tried to use parts of them to cobble together a patch that seemed useful for what I was trying to do. And then over time, once I learned how to start my own patches, things started to flow a bit better (as one would expect).
I work almost exclusively with the data side of Max (so the “Max” portion, and not much “MSP”). Of course besides some simple samplers and a synth for simple electronics.
There is likely a legion of 15-year-old kids who are far better at Max programming than I. But for me, I just use it to help me with very specific compositional problems. I’ve never tried to be a “Max programmer.”
I thought it interesting that you mentioned that you will sometimes not even use the timeline function in Max. How does that work and how does it change your entire approach to arranging your music?
For Max and Live, I rarely (if ever) use the timeline. Most simply put it is because most of my work doesn’t follow a set pulse. So I suppose I had to do this out of necessity. Sometimes that was a challenge (especially in Live). But it has been fun to find ways around it.
I seemingly enjoy making things hard on myself and using tools in the “wrong way.” (laughs)
In an early interview, you spoke about your wish for improvements in Max's "chance based systems". How have things developed since then?
I guess that was when I was newer to it? But I’ve come up with my own solutions, and the system I currently use has been in its current state for a couple of years. So I’ve come to a place where maybe it is in a finished state, the system I mentioned earlier. I’m quite happy with it and it makes sense to me (which is the benefit of finally being able to build it instead of borrowing it all and pieces it together).
Have there been evolutions in software outside of Max which you also find interesting?
Oh for sure. I think we’re at an incredible place for music technology, and it is very exciting to me. I love playing a guitar with my bare hands, but also love the boundless options that music technology provides to us at this point in time.
I think hardware-emulation plugins are exciting to me right now. They are finally at a place where they can sound so good. There is some neural network technology that is incredible right now. Like this new guitar modeling system that you can hook up to a tube amp or guitar pedal and it “learns” how it sounds and creates an emulation. It’s crazy. I am still found of the real thing, tube amps and hand-wired guitar pedals, but I still appreciate the technology.
But just DAWs and digital recording in general. It’s just so advanced and convenient now. I love it.
Some composers have mentioned that one of the reasons for turning towards microtonal tunings was that the possibilities within ET seemed exhausted. On the other hand, it would seem that cutting edge electronic artists are coming up with genuinely new stuff within the existing borders. Where do you see the biggest potential for exploration in music at the moment?
I do not in any sense take the stance that music needs to be created “this way” or “that way” for it to be interesting or correct. My goal for promoting Just Intonation is by no means to say ET is wrong. That’s just silly. Using that logic one would then have to say that all music using the Arabic 24 tone ET system is wrong. That’s just crazy talk.
And yes, there are plenty of electronic artists making music that are approaching pitch in no systematic way at all, and that is awesome. Music technology is certainly allowing the creation of deep exploration in the new music that is being created. This may be only one of the many musical avenues for the potential of future music, but it’s one that I find interesting and exciting.