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.
What sort of work did you do in NYC?
I worked as a production designer at a boutique web design firm. I’ve done coding and design my own websites over the years – which taps the same side of my brain as making music on computers.
What’s it like touring alone?
My solo tour ended on August 10. There’s two sides to it. It was very fulfilling because I did everything – I booked the tour, I drove all of the 3,300 miles by myself, loaded my gear, set up my projectors and tarp screens, sold the merch. The only thing I didn’t do is create the visuals the are projected during my set.
I played in art-minded hardcore bands in San Diego growing up, which is where I learned about D.I.Y. – screen-printing our own album covers and such. I think this musical upbringing, coupled with my skateboarding past (Skateboarding wasn’t a team sport, it was all on you) has ingrained a certain work ethic in me; this punk approach. The other side is that it was exhausting as shit [to tour solo]! having to do all the driving, waking up early, after you went to bed late (not by choice), to get on the road. In Europe at least you’re on trains and there’s more support from promoters and such. I can’t say I’d do it again, all solo, but I’m glad I did it.
You mentioned that there was a lot of work that you’d created that you didn’t deem fit for public consumption. Tell me about some of this work that hasn’t been released. is there a lot of it? Do you find this sort of experience useful or instructive in any sense?
I wouldn’t say there is a lot, but a lot starts with experiments, and I shut plenty of things down when they’re not working to my liking. A lot of this stuff stays in the initial idea stage and doesn’t go further. I don’t create loads of (finished) music and sort through it for the best bits – It’s not a LaMonte Young thing.
Tell me about the classes you’ll be teaching this fall.
I’m teaching third, fourth, and fifth graders experimental guitar, with an emphasis on bowing. They have music there every morning – Dr. John played once, which is rad. The classes will be avant garde/ experimental minded…though on an 8-10 year old level, of course.
The after-school arts program starts the day after labor day. I’ve never taught kids before. I don’t know that a pre-planned lesson plan will work for this, have to feel it out as I go along. My dad recommended that I not plan before my first classes and learn how to work with kids first – which makes sense to me. What I’m doing musically right now will service my classes, and vice versa.
I’m doing a class also called the “The Sound Explorers Club” – 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 hand-held field recorders and we’ll create sound collages and such. We’ll also make homemade microtonal instruments and what not.
What are a few new songs or albums that have impacted you, of late? What do you listen to when you want to relax? Have you had a chance to hear and absorb the new My Bloody Valentine album yet?
I’ve not had much time to listen to music lately. As silly as it sounds, I’ve been too busy booking multiple tours, working on the music I’m perform at these shows, doing artwork for releases, building a new website, readying new releases and doing the work that surrounds them, and so on. I usually work in silence when doing such things; better concentration…and I just plainly enjoy quiet. Surely I’ll listen to rock music in the car, but I generally only listen to old rock music – so nothing new there, really.
But I had a realization the other day, a little experience if you will, that I feel applies here in some way, and I’d like to share it. I just got back from a two-week U.S. solo in which I drove myself from city to city, alone. Before I left, I loaded up my phone with a selection of music, which I saw as being diverse…I liked the idea of such a mixture on the road. Each day the ‘shuffle’ feature seemed to favor a group of artists, with each day being relatively different then the day prior. That said, a few of the same artists would pop up, every day, no matter what.
These artists as I recall were Crowbar (New Orleans bred, sludge metal band), The Smiths, Terry Riley, Led Zeppelin, Eno, and Mitch Hedberg. See, it’s that last one that’s the important one in this story. Essentially, I had all of this relatively serious music popping up, which kept me cruisin’ down the highway…focused, often thinking deeply.
Then Mitch pops up, and totally slices through it all, and makes me crack up all by myself. It’s like how many people handle life, always taking it so seriously, and I do so myself at times…with my work I’m so ultra focused and sometimes it drives me bonkers. So many of us are so very focused on our work or whatever path we’re following that we forget how ridiculous life really is sometimes, and I mean that in a good way.
I love to laugh, and when Mitch would enter my car on that trip, he would remind me to have a good laugh…therapy for the long drives. He’d also remind me that a broken escalator is actually just temporarily stairs, which is a metaphor for life.
Duane Pitre performs with Eleh as Pitreleh at ISSUE Project Room on September 21.