How a professional skateboarder became an apostle of ancient tuning

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When he retired for the first time, Duane Pitre was 23 years old.

It was the winter of 1997 when money started to flow into professional skateboarding. Pitre was on the cusp of becoming one of the sport’s lucrative stars as he moved from counterculture to business empire. He was an early member of Alien Workshop, the new equipment company that helped shape the aesthetics of skating.

The founders of the company fell in love with Pitre’s flexible form and easy charisma. He effortlessly executed the tricks of street skating, an emerging urban approach, full of slips on ramps and grinds on picnic tables. He starred in seminal skate videos. Signs were printed with his name.

As the profits rose, however, Pitre bought a cheap bass guitar, realized his true love was making music, and said goodbye to skating.

“I was getting paid to do this thing I didn’t want to do,” Pitre, now 47, said recently during a call from his home outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. life. That was not what it was about; it was all about self-expression.

Pitre ended up playing in heavy rock bands, gravitating towards the foreign side of the genre until he moved into experimental music two decades ago. Over the past twelve years, he has established himself as an apostle of right intonation, an ancient tuning system linked to Indian and Chinese traditions but often overlooked by Western composers. Proud self-taught, Pitre has evolved among long-lasting electronic drones, mercurial acoustic improvisations and scintillating string meditations, all using just intonation.

Released this fall, his pensive new album, “Omniscient Voices,” puts the piano into conversation with computer and electronic programs on five tracks that suggest damaged photos of exquisite horizons. Pitre used the same traits that made him a phenomenon of street skating – ageless rebellion, uncompromising focus, unwavering restlessness – to inspire young musicians also exploring right intonation.

“Duane is like a shepherd to my generation,” organist and songwriter Kali Malone, 27, said in an interview. She has already spent a formative spring playing with composer Caterina Barbieri on “Feel Free”, Pitre’s 2012 album. (Malone’s own pieces in fair intonation introduced another group of artists into the system.)

“Simple intonation is not a genre,” said Malone, “but a tool that you can use to create many types of music. “

It’s no surprise that music is Pitre’s fate. His parents reveled in the rock clubs of New Orleans; they named him after Duane Allman and indoctrinated him in The Beatles and Black Sabbath. Pitre bought new wave singles for his little plastic record player.

His father believed preteen Duane had a long – perhaps professional – future in football. But the opening skate scene in “Back to the Future” got him so excited that he cut grass all summer long to buy his first cheap board. And just as Marty McFly was chased by a bunch of bullies in that 1985 film, Pitre and his friends were often lashed out with homophobic slurs while skating around New Orleans, long before skating was ubiquitous.

“We were outcasts – bad kids,” Pitre said. But once he “found a way to escape to the streets,” he added, “I was hooked. I never played any other sport.

At 15, Pitre obtained his first sponsorship. Two years later, Alien Workshop released their first official painting, paying them two dollars for each piece sold, enough to allow them to buy a Super Nintendo. When he was 20, he moved to San Diego to live in a skateboarder house that looked like a fraternity.

Its residents have produced cult videos and photo ops that have become the gospel of the hot air balloon skateboarding community. But Chris Carter, one of the founders of Alien Workshop, remembers how Pitre started skipping sets to play bass or study his obsessions with indie rock, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr.

“I thought he would have been one of those legends who skate at a high level for 20 years,” Carter said in an interview. “He could have made a lot of money. But he was very honest that he didn’t want to be paid for something he didn’t want to do.

After Carter offered six months of retirement pay, Pitre hit the road with a series of groups. He bought a guitar pedal that allowed him to layer loops in drones. He moved to New York, which served as a de facto conservatory. A new friend was shocked, for example, to find that despite his aspirations to create experimental music, he didn’t know who Meredith Monk was.

“All of these ideas and concepts – that’s what college should be,” Pitre said.

In 2004, a friend Pitre had met while skating in San Diego invited him to the East Village Radio studio, where a mellow section of La Monte Young’s famous “The Well-Tuned Piano” was playing. Pitre was stunned: he used circuitry to modify his sound, while Young only used tuning. The DJ only knew the name of the style: just the intonation.

“It sounded like confusion, in the best sense of the word,” Pitre said. “I started asking people what the right intonation was, and they said it was nature’s tuning system. I didn’t want the New Age explanation. i wanted it Science. “

He immersed himself in the matter, as he had done with skating two decades earlier. He visited the sound and light environment of Young’s Dream House. He pored over rudimentary websites, read scholarly essays, and ordered a spiral-bound exercise book called “The Just Intonation Primer.” He attacked his mathematical models like a student struggling with calculus and internalized the axioms of right intonation.

In its simplest terms, correct intonation means that the ratios between notes are whole numbers, rather than the irrational ratios that divide the octave within the familiar framework of equal temperament. For Pitre, the resulting sound – which sounded exotic and disobedient, like the surreal rendering of the world – was the toss. His esoteric status also appealed to him, because after skating he decided not to tie his creativity to trading. The right intonation would never sell.

In the midst of this self-education, Pitre discovered that simple intonation samplers bothered him because they were more concerned with mechanics than music. Before releasing his debut album in the system, he hosted the 2009 compilation “The Harmonic Series” as a rebuttal. His eight tracks showcased the different ways in which artists like deep listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros or resonator guitarist R. Keenan Lawler could use the right intonation.

“I was trying to say two things,” recalls Pitre, a married father of two who still speaks with the childish nonchalance (and sports long hair) of his teenage skating years. “Here is this music that I think is great. And I was talking to a version of myself that was two years younger than me, saying, “You can do it yourself. “

This philosophy has guided Pitre’s diverse production. While the mix of harp, dulcimer, strings and electronics on “Feel Free” suggested a Renaissance recital at a technological peak, “Bayou Electric” added a southern touch to the intonation just through harmonies of tidal guitar and recordings from Four Mile Bayou in Louisiana, where Grandmother Pitre was raised. “Omniscient Voices” has the meditative warmth of “Ambient 2: The Plates of Mirror” by Brian Eno and Harold Budd or the softer studies of Philip Glass – perhaps if they were heard on distorted vinyl.

Likewise, the second part of “The Harmonic Series” by Pitre, released in July, begins with Malone’s hovering organ and ends with Barbieri’s disorienting electronics. They both play with time and texture, as if to tickle the mind through the ear. The six tracks – and just the intonation in general – “let us repeat the sound,” said Tashi Wada, a compilation contributor who admired Pitre as a skater before hearing his music.

The experience of young musicians using intonation in innovative ways, Pitre said, compels him to continue exploring – in ways that skating never could.

“In high school, I hated having to write your work because I would find my own way to solve problems. Just the intonation involved the same part of my brain, ”he said. “It’s almost universally accepted that 12-tone temperament is the only way to match, but that’s wrong. It seemed important for people to know.


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