Justified & Ancient: Duane Pitre Explores Alternative Tuning In The Harmonic Series II

With works by Kali Malone, Caterina Barbieri, Tashi Wada, and others, American musician Duane Pitre assembles a thrilling compendium of works employing the scintillating sound of Just Intonation

Photo by Todd Taylor

In a 1959 educational recording titled the Theory and Practice of Just Intonation musicologist J. Murray Barbour wrote, “The ideal ‘Just Intonation’ may be fully attainable in some musical fourth dimension. The practical Western musician need but recognise it for what it is, and keep it firmly in its place: In the studies of archeo-and ethno-musicology, and in the textbook on musical acoustics.”

Just Intonation is the ancient tuning system where all intervals are whole number ratios, and once equal temperament, where each octave is broken down into twelve equal semitones, was established about 500 years ago, Just Intonation and other microtonal systems were largely jettisoned. We’ve become so accustomed to equal temperament, originally embraced as a standard to accompany instruments like the piano that can’t easily adapt to alternative tunings, that most people find other systems discordant if not totally alien. But for some listeners, music in Just Intonation proves riveting.

When former skateboarder-turned musician Duane Pitre was playing in rock bands he loved when the music hovered. As he told New Music Box in 2010, “I would want to stay in that pocket of just creating this atmosphere, these sound collages. That was important early on – I didn’t even realise what I was doing. I look back on it now and think, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ Way further back than I even realised I was starting the path that led me to here.” That interest eventually pushed him to Just Intonation, a concern he subsequently devoted his energies towards, both as a musician and an advocate.

In 2009 he assembled The Harmonic Series: A Compilation of Musical Works in Just Intonation (Important), blending work by veteran JI experimenters like Pauline Oliveros, Charles Curtis, and Michael Harrison with a younger cohort of folks finding new resonances in JI, such as Greg Davis, R. Keenan Lawler, Theresa Wong, and himself. Now Pitre has carried on with his work, compiling The Harmonic Series Vol. 2, a kind of victory lap rejection of Barbour’s dismissal of JI as anything other than a historical relic. I write these words in Berlin, where a sizeable component of the city’s cosmopolitan experimental music community is immersed in JI and microtonality, triumphantly escaping the textbook.

Of course, there have been composers since the twentieth century that went against the grain of equal temperament, including Harry Partch – who famously built his own elaborate instruments in order to play music using his own forty-three-tone octave – Ben Johnston, La Monte Young, and James Tenney. Those composers certainly planted the seeds for the expanding interest, which now straddles the worlds of academic and experimental music. I’ve often described my own incomprehension around the mathematics that govern JI, but that hasn’t stopped me deriving an almost ecstatic joy from hearing it in practice. Sound seems to take on a new life, surrounding me like a living organism and transforming music into a psychedelic, communal experience where the listener, sound, space, and musician(s) become truly linked.

In her poetic, insightful liner notes to composer Catherine Lamb’s 2019 album Atmospheres Transparent/Opaque flutist and frequent collaborator Rebecca Lane writes: “When my sound is combined with others (resonating with others), I listen or feel for combination tones, ear tones, beatings, shared partials. Being bound only by the length of my breath, not by metrical time, I have the freedom to observe sound as a phenomenon shared with others within a structured form. I surf unisons that appear like thick lines, I visualise vibrating patterns of complex ratios, I hear my sound transforming others and their sound transforming my own. I observe my own listening state, which, in its purest mode, is light and detached and open.”

The six pieces in Pitre’s new collection – each spread across one side of three vinyl records – document some of the current vanguard in JI experimentation, encircling a variety of mindsets. Lamb’s piece ‘Intersum’, for example, is performed with the secondary rainbow synthesizer – an instrument she built with Bryan Eubanks which filters in ambient sound through microphones places outside the performance space – exploring a harmonic series based on 10 hz, following the movement in the bass. She used this framework to write a recent string quartet, but here the sounds are delicate and diffuse, inextricably melded with the environmental sounds of chirping birds, squealing car tires, and passing elevated trains, so as we descend harmonically the quality of the external noise also shifts, transforming the piece into a serene meditation that erases the line between what Lamb is doing and what’s filtering in from outside.

Marc Sabat, Lamb’s close collaborator in the recently formed Harmonic Space Orchestra – the magnificent Berlin ensemble devoted to microtonal systems that presented a stellar festival in October of 2020, ostensibly paying homage to Tenney through his own work and that of his growing legion of disciples – performs the eight violin parts on Tashi Wada’s grinding ‘Midheaven (Alignment Mix)’, an eight-voice canon clearly informed by Tenney’s string writing. The composition reveals a dense matrix of overlapping long tones and terse descending glissando, with one version played backwards into a mid-point collision of sound that heralds a gorgeous release. Wadi’s writing brings out a thrilling variety of acoustic effects, turning the violin into a lacerating chorus of bagpipes or a squadron of plunging prop planes, while producing a heady, enveloping crush of insanely resonant, densely marbled sound.

Apart from calling it “a chamber piece for ‘unknown instrumentation,’” the album credits don’t contain any specifics about Pitre’s piece ‘Three for Rhodes’ even if the title suggests the iconic electric piano – but its starburst sounds are surely synthetic. The drift of ever-changing chords, which alternately suggest lapping water, shifting breezes, and leaves fluttering to earth, is magical, creating a sonic universe that’s immersive, contemplative, and soothing without any trace of new age blandness. Pitre eschews static drones, instead unfurling a constantly changing constellation of seductively rounded tones and chords, all of which emerge, flower, and dissolve without any sharp edges. Byron Westbrook’s ‘Memory Phasings’ uses a mixture of analogue and digital synthesizers to assemble a constantly shape-shifting journey of pulsations, drones, and squiggles. Rhythms build up steam and disperse in aqueous clouds, only to carve out new openings and associated patterns. There are churning, violin-like phrases that cycle through subtly beguiling mutations, caressed, smothered, and countered by organ-like swells that change character with every bar.

The set opens with Kali Malone’s meditative ‘Pipe Inversions’, a delicate series of glistening harmonics that change complexion with every note she produces on a small pipe organ. But what elevates the molasses-slow work into something truly special is the presence of bass clarinetist Isak Hedtjärn, who intermittently blows a single long tone throughout the piece, accentuating and magnifying the glorious harmonies by the simplest means. The performance feels a bit like a study, albeit one where every minor wrinkle alters our perception – this one really feels like it could go on for hours without exhausting its grandeur or purpose.

The new collection closes with ‘Firmamento’, a synthesizer piece by the Berlin-based Italian composer Caterina Barbieri that feels a little flat in contrast to what precedes it, but in the end it’s the variety of approaches and the richness of the overall palette that makes this compilation valuable, asserting that not only has JI undergone a dramatic resurgence over the last decade or so, but that’s it been applied to so many disparate practices. A JI piece can be just as exciting or dull as anything else in the world, but Pitre has sharp ears and a broad sensibility and he’s the sort of advocate any musical practice would appreciate.

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