Duane Pitre Extras: He Would Like to Borrow Your Mitch Hedberg Bootlegs
In August, we conducted two interviews with New Orleans-based experimental composer Duane Pitre. These conversations yielded way, way more than could plausibly fit into the print story. Below is the full text, with Pitre holding forth on his creative process, the thinking behind new album Bridges, the elementary school courses he'll teach this fall, and his love affair with the bowed guitar.
Duane Pitre performs with Eleh as Pitreleh at ISSUE Project Room on September 21.
What was the first instrument you learned to play to a proficiency that you were proud of?
The bowed electric guitar. I started in 2000, it was at the recommendation of a friend of mine who was a huge record collector. I worked with him at this bakery. I played in the San Diego band The Camera Obscura, and I'd been wanting to do ambient drone-y noisy stuff. I'd been using record players and weird audio mixers to do odd stuff between the songs during my old band's live sets, Records that had locked grooves, I'd make these collages and what not.
This guy's name was Josh Quan. He'd already been in this world of music, long before me. He said "you should start playing guitar with a bow, like John Cale." I went to a local violin store owned by a older married couple, and the dude was into some odd music in the 70's. He knew what I was after and sold me a cheap bow. I started playing with the bow and I loved it immediately. I was using looping pedals; they were new at that time. I got the bow, and I was like "this is a whole world." I started playing out solo with the bow and a couple years later I did some work in a band with it...more of a "rock" setting.
It's been 13 years. We recently went to Austin, and met up with my friend Cory Allen. We decided to go into the studio and work together, create a collage record using traditional instruments, record a bunch of live duos on different instruments (with me mainly on bowed guitar) and as those as source material to construct a record. I took two high strings off of my guitar and played it like a cello - i loved that approach. I'm approaching the bowed guitar in a new way and it feels totally fresh to me; I'm really excited about it.
How did you become involved in composition, and what is your compositional process?
Well, as far as composing for ensembles, which I consider the beginning of said involvement, it was my move to NYC in 2004 that enabled me to study and discover what I needed to know to write such music. Before the move, I'd had the desire to do so, but I wasn't exposed to the key elements and inspirations that brought me down this path. One of these factors was the immersion of avant-garde culture in NYC, which in part led me to these autodidactic music studies.
My compositional process changes from piece to piece. It's not something I actively think of when starting a work (though they usually "start on their own" so to speak...and it's up to me to realize when they are). These days my process often involves a computer and utilizes probability-based, content distribution systems (with them sometimes applying to humans). Other times a new work might derive from guitar or some other instrument in the lute family I might come across.
One common theme in my process is lots of notes, hand-written on little bits of paper (I think this keeps me connected to the tangible world, which I'm interested in staying in touch with).
After completing Bridges, I bundled up all of the notes I made while composing and recording it (and there were a lot) and saved them. I'd like to create something out of them one day, as a reminder of the long and involved process that was the making of that record.
Organized Pitches Occurring In Time had very technical, very "directional" track names, "Feel Free" was split up or divided into sections, and there was a sort of thematic titling that happened on Origin. How important or instructive is the process of naming songs or movements to you?
Organized Pitches Occurring in Time was a direct result of my initial studies of particular music theories and minimalist composers such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. I look at this time as my "freshman year" in the autodidactic music school that I created in my life at that time. As is often the case with freshman students in actual music schools, the music theory and composers I was learning about heavily influenced me. I'd yet to explore my own, unique ideas. The composition titles on Organized Pitches Occurring in Time reflects this.
Origin was similar to Bridges, in that the titles follow a loose narrative and were inspired in part by stories, cultures, concepts, and traditions of old...ancient if you will.
I enjoy naming a new work, it can further the personal connection I have with it. It can also be a window for the listeners, to look deeper into the work.
One thing I've noticed about your recordings over time is how you've moved away from straight drone to more varied and complex compositions. Has that been a conscious choice, or something that just happened?
Both, I believe. In large, I just try to do what stimulates me at that point in time, something that I'm stoked on creating and hearing. A lot of my work comes out of experimentation, at least the initial seed does, and it's often difficult to dictate which direction the music will head in during these early stages. It is during this stage of my experimental creative process that essentially dictates the path that the music will take. But of course not all of this music gets "sent into the wild" (aka released or performed), I'm very particular about what music of mine actually gets out there, to public ears.
I believe the shift in my work you're referring to is largely tied to something that happened after my move from NYC to New Orleans (where I'm originally from) in late 2009. The move was partially a result of wanting change in my life, my surroundings and such. I also wanted some change in my musical output, I wanted to create works that I'd not heard before, or at least in the specific way I wanted to shape them. I wanted to explore new approaches to making music. I had the desire to start pulling ideas from my entire musical experience, as opposed to isolating my creative catalysts to more recent tastes. I started getting inspired by aspects of my past bands, such as The Camera Obscura (of San Diego, not Glasgow). I also started allowing for a broader range of musical tastes and influences, ones that laid outside of my studies of minimalism, from Led Zeppelin to chamber music, to creep into my work.
Once I made this decision and allowed such mental change, which was around the time I began to compose Feel Free, my work took a turn away from being strictly "drone music," as some might say, and I feel it was at this point that I began developing my own "sound" and/or "style."
Have you found that the nature of your composition is affected by your immediate surroundings?
Absolutely. I'm greatly affected by my surroundings and it certainly manifests itself in my work.
I don't believe I would have written Feel Free if I'd stayed in NYC. And like I've just mentioned, that piece was a (positive) turning point for me. The live oak trees of New Orleans, these great majestic behemoths, some that are within blocks of my house, had a big influence on my probability- and rule-based pieces that I've worked on since moving to New Orleans.
Origin almost felt like a noise album; was that your intent? Are you a noise fan?
Interesting that you say that, as I've never thought of it that way, but I totally see where you're coming from. That said, no, it wasn't my intent whatsoever when composing Origin and/or recording the album. All of the guitar were played "clean" (no distortion, overdrive, or other abrasive treatments) through tube amps. The guitars are exclusively bowed. Any dissonance ("noise") in the piece comes from the microtonal intervallic choices I made when creating the composition's tuning, which is in Just Intonation. So I suppose it is "noise via math."
I like certain noise musics, sure. Harsh noise isn't really my thing, though I have and can enjoy it at times in the live setting. I think I prefer acoustic noise music; it's so much deeper for me. And it seems that "noise music" encompasses so much more than when I first learned about it, and plenty of it surely isn't noisy or harsh in my opinion. So in that sense, I guess there is lots of it that I dig - if, in fact, we're fully opening the umbrella.
In a live situation, are you recreating existing recordings, improvising, or pursuing some combination of the two? Going in, do you have a pretty good sense of what direction you're headed in?
It all depends on whether it's an ensemble or solo performance. If it's the former, then the instrumentation of the ensemble is chosen for the particular piece that we'll perform. The majority of my work includes some level of rule-based improvisation, with some pieces having stricter rules than others. So each live performance of these pieces is different, from performance-toperformance, and also from the recorded version. People will be able to hear this with Feel Free, as a live recording of this piece, from a performance in June 2012 at London's Café OTO, will be released on LP in October on Important Records. So you'll be able to hear the differences from this recording compared to the studio recording. They're quite different in their pace and urgency - and in other aspects, too.
When playing solo, it all depends. For all the solo shows/tours I'm doing in the second half of 2013, I've developed a solo set that is largely made of new material that I've composed for analog and digital synths (all re-tuned in Just Intonation), along with some electro-acoustic and acoustic textures that are interspersed throughout the set. There are some themes and elements from Bridges that are used in this solo performance, but it's not meant to recreate the album in any way, as the album consists of two ensemble pieces.
More than your other albums, Bridges puts me in mind of solo guitarist "primitive" work - even with the strings involved there. What was your goal or motivation with this record?
Well, I was trying to channel an ethos of the human experience from as far back as, I'd say, 1,000 years ago. The titles of the compositions on Bridges are a reflection of this...from a time when alchemy was a relevant and important part of human existence, and how this "science magic" was married with spirituality and religion. I'm drawn to this time period in a big way, have been for many years now. I find it interesting how it became that science and religion are very much separated now and how religion totally turned on magic, just decided one day it was totally evil and murdered so many people over this paranoia. It highlights how humans, throughout time, are constantly grasping at truth - searching. The making of Bridges was me searching.
When did you stop working a regular job?
I stopped working a 9-5 in May to do music stuff, touring. Plus I'm about to start teaching classes in an after-school music program at Lusher Elementary, which is NOLA's top charter school. They've placed a large emphasis on a comprehensive arts education. Post-Katrina, charter schools have really popped up, which is import because our schools here weren't great.