On paper, the music of New Orleans composer and multi-instrumentalist Duane Pitre might seem esoteric.
There are unfamiliar instruments and obscure references, theoretical constructs and modified tunings. Indeed, without listening to Pitre's music, it seems cloistered behind the same veil of systems and schemes that often separates modern composition from modern consumers.
For proof, consider his last two albums, released by Important Records (itself an off-putting name for a label, at least until the playfulness it implies registers). Last year's Feel Free deviates from the typical relationship between composer and performer by instructing each member of the sextet to play with one another, against one another or simply ignore one another, if they so desire. Such musician-based decisions aren't novel, of course, a point epitomized by Terry Riley in 1964 with In C, where a large ensemble played a series of short phrases however or how often they chose. Pitre, though, added a twist with a non-human contribution to the band: a computer that randomly chose from and played a series of guitar harmonics. Even if the sextet played in perfect synchronicity and sonority, they'd still have another "member" to reconcile.
This year's Bridges, on the other hand, comes billed as an attempt "to bring together aspects of traditional Eastern music (such as compositional form and tuning) with Western musical traditions (such as in the church music of the Middle Ages and modern classical music)." It features cello and saxophone, undulating in long, arching tones that fold in and out of one another, but it keys on a mandolin and a cümbü, a banjo-shaped Turkish instrument with three times the strings. What's more, the instruments are tuned in Just Intonation, an ancient system whereby the frequencies of the notes can be represented by the ratio of relatively small numbers. Though uncommon in Western music, which uses equal temperament, Just Intonation might be familiar to you through the scales of Indian music.
Sound complicated? On paper maybe, but on Pitre's records, the tuning systems and the theories and the experiments play out as uniformly pleasing experiences. Bridges is a sweeping, dramatic LP, with cello lines that goad you into the action and tiny melodies that flit through space. The arrangements are mesmerizing but fluid, a dream state that delivers its subject somewhere. With its mix of skittering themes hammered onto dulcimer strings, fantastic glissandi poured from a harp, and sudden guitar chimes and pings provided by the computer, Feel Free feels almost like a variety show. You can only sit and wonder what will happen next. If Pitre's best records start from a place of isolated ideas, they arrive in one of ecstatic execution.
Pitre's compelling backstory helps explain the accessibility of his seemingly baffling music: In the early '90s, he was one of the most well-regarded skateboarders in the world; he became one of the first people to join The Alien Workshop, now a massive manufacturer and tastemaker within the skating world. (After the release of Feel Free, The Alien Workshop and Important Records even created a skate deck based on the album's artwork.)
But he started listening to more music, connecting with the guitar rock of Dinosaur Jr. when The Alien Workshop put it in one of his early skate videos. He eventually joined the surging post-hardcore group Camera Obscura (from San Diego, not Glasgow). After that band called it quits, Pitre moved to New York, enlisted in the city's experimental circles and taught himself about modern classical music and how it was made. In 2010, the same year that he released Origin, a wonderful album for guitars bowed like violins, he compiled an album and a set of essays called The Harmonic Series, a sort of beginner's guide for Just Intonation.
"My hope is that this compilation, both its sound and its text, will shed light on what is indeed another beautiful facet of the world of music," he wrote. His goal, then, has long been to illuminate and not to obscure. He is an outsider who became an insider without forgetting that most of us were beginners once, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Just illuminate."