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Nature's effects are often contemplated on a macro level: tsunamis submerging islands and totalling nuclear plants, wildfires scorching acres of Idaho forest. Comparatively speaking, the compositions of Duane Pitre are resolutely micro: moss gathering on rocks, the insidious creep of erosion, the Magicicada cicada genus generally. One wanders into these compositional hinterlands nonplussed and emerges fundamentally massaged. Consider the undulating, shiatsu dissonances of 2010's Origin; the Magic-Eye storm surging of Organized Pitches Occurring in Time, his 2007 collaboration with the Pilotram Ensemble; or the near-imperceptible horizon shifts of 2013's Pitreleh, his collaboration with synthesizer men of mystery Eleh; or any of a growing pile released on imprints including Important, NNA Tapes, and Root Strata.
"I just try to do what stimulates me at that point in time, something that I'm stoked on creating and hearing," Pitre explains. "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 the early stages." The tools of the New Orleans native's trade include laptops, ukeleles, string section fare, saxophones, "probability-based content distribution systems," or "some other instrument in the lute family I might come across."
But the bowed guitar—a collusion of the rock and conservatory spheres—lies at the groaning heart of Pitre's sound. His indoctrination began in 2000 at the behest of a coworker named Josh Quan, at the tail end of Pitre's stint with San Diego's now-defunct Camera Obscura.
"[Quan had] already been in this world of music, long before me. He said, 'You should start playing guitar with a bow, like John Cale.' I was like, 'Who?' 'From the Velvet Underground.' 'Oh yeah, OK,'" Pitre remembers, chuckling. "I went to a local violin store owned by an older married couple, and the dude was into some odd music in the '70s. 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.'"
The sound he ekes out with it is both slurred and sloping; on 2013 solo effort Bridges it registered as a tectonic, inebriated droning, a slow, sure, stirring smear of autumnal colors; 2012's Feel Free massed swipes, streaks, and skid marks into a warped, plucked-note sinew stew, at once virtuoso, dreamlike, and glancingly shrill. It's an effect that's taken him around the world—in October and November, he'll embark on an extensive European tour—and has fueled team-ups with everyone from Chicago tonal tweaker Greg Davis to the String Orchestra of Brooklyn.
After a half-decade of residency in New York City, Pitre relocated to New Orleans in 2009. Feel Free and Bridges, recorded there, represent a very intentional separation from much of his earlier, more drone-centric work.
"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," he explains. "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, and 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."
Pitre is exploring a "prepared guitar" bowed guitar approach, where the two high strings are removed and the modified ax is played "like a cello." This avenue has already yielded an as-yet-unreleased collaborative recording with experimental guitarist Cory Allen. And his latest endeavor is leading him to a place few underground musicians dare to tread: the classroom.
His wife is employed at Tulane University and does freelance writing for children's books, and in May, Pitre left his day job behind to pursue composition and performance. Beginning this month, he becomes an instructor at Lusher Elementary School, a charter school that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He's leading an after-school program "for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders—experimental guitar with an emphasis on bowing," he says.
Fittingly for a longtime proponent of just intonation and an avowed Mitch Hedberg fan, Pitre is also teaching a class called "The Sound Explorers' Club." He describes this as "an out-there adventure, with participation. We'll be listening to stuff like Stockhausen and Indonesian gamelan music; it'll be music appreciation, yet on the outer fringes. All the students will be provided with handheld field recorders, and we'll create sound collages and such; we'll also make homemade microtonal instruments." The man who's redefining the modern guitar may be minting the musical misfits of the day after tomorrow.
Duane Pitre performs with Eleh as Pitreleh at ISSUE Project Room on September 21.