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How a Pro Skateboarder Became an Apostle of Ancient Tuning

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

It was the winter of 1997, when money was starting to pour into professional skateboarding. Pitre was poised to become one of the sport’s lucrative stars as it transitioned from counterculture to commercial empire. He was an early member of Alien Workshop, the upstart equipment company that helped shape skating’s aesthetic.

The company’s founders fell for Pitre’s lithe form and easy charisma. He effortlessly executed the tricks of street skating, a nascent urban approach, full of slides down handrails and grinds across picnic tables. He starred in seminal skate videos. Boards were printed with his name.

Just as profits were rising, however, Pitre bought a cheap bass, realized his true love was making music, and bid skating farewell.

“I was getting paid to do this thing I did not want to do,” Pitre, now 47, said recently on a call from his home outside of Ann Arbor, Mich. “There was no option for me to skateboard to just make my living. That’s not what it was about; it was about self-expression.”

Pitre ended up playing in heavy rock bands, gravitating toward the stranger side of the genre until he became ensconced in experimental music two decades ago. During the last dozen years, he has emerged as an apostle of just intonation, an ancient tuning system tied to Indian and Chinese traditions but often ignored by Western composers. A proud autodidact, Pitre has moved among long-form electronic drones, mercurial acoustic improvisations and glistening string meditations, all employing just intonation.

Released this fall, his pensive new album, “Omniscient Voices,” puts the piano in conversation with computer programs and electronics over five pieces that suggest damaged photos of exquisite horizons. Pitre has used the same traits that made him a street-skating phenom — ageless rebelliousness, intractable focus, unwavering restlessness — to inspire younger musicians also exploring just intonation.

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

“Just intonation isn’t a genre,” Malone said, “but a tool you can use to make many types of music.”

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

His father thought the preteen Duane had a long future — perhaps a professional one — in football. But the opening skate scene in “Back to the Future” excited him so much that he cut grass for a whole summer to buy his first cheap board. And just as Marty McFly was pursued by a band of bullies in that 1985 film, Pitre and his friends were often lambasted with homophobic slurs while skating around New Orleans, long before skating’s ubiquity.

“We were outcasts — bad kids,” Pitre said. But once he “found a way to run away in the streets,” he added, “I was hooked. I never played another sport.”

When he was 15, Pitre earned his first sponsorship. Two years later, Alien Workshop issued his first official board, paying him two dollars for every one sold — enough for him to buy a Super Nintendo. When he was 20, he moved to San Diego to live in a skater house that resembled a frat.

Its residents made cult-classic videos and did photo shoots that became the gospel of skateboarding’s ballooning community. But Chris Carter, a founder of Alien Workshop, recalls how Pitre began skipping shoots to play bass or study his indie rock obsessions, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr.

“I thought he would have been one of those legends that skates 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 about not wanting to get 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 bands. He bought a guitar pedal that allowed him to layer loops into drones. He moved to New York, which served as a de facto conservatory. A new friend was shocked, for example, that despite his aspirations to create experimental music, he didn’t know who Meredith Monk was.

“All these ideas and concepts — that is what college should be,” Pitre said.

In 2004, a friend Pitre had met through skating back in San Diego invited him to the studio of East Village Radio, where a mellow section of La Monte Young’s landmark “The Well-Tuned Piano” was playing. Pitre was dumbstruck: He had been using circuits to alter his sound, while Young used only tuning. The DJ knew only the name of the style: just intonation.

“It felt like confusion, in the best sense,” Pitre said. “I began asking people what just intonation was, and they said it was nature’s tuning system. I didn’t want the New Age explanation. I wanted the science.”

He immersed himself in the question, just as he had done with skating two decades earlier. He visited Young’s Dream House sound and light environment. He pored over rudimentary websites, read scholarly essays and ordered a spiral-bound workbook called “The Just Intonation Primer.” He tackled its mathematical models like a college student grappling with calculus and internalized just intonation’s axioms.

In its simplest terms, just intonation means that the ratios between notes are whole numbers, rather than the irrational ratios that divide the octave in the familiar framework of equal temperament. For Pitre, the resulting sound — which felt exotic and disobedient, like a surrealist’s rendering of the world — was the draw. Its esoteric status lured him, too, since after skating he had resolved not to tie his creativity to commerce. Just intonation would never sell.

Amid this self-education, Pitre found that just intonation samplers bored him because they were more concerned with mechanics than music. Before he released his first album in the system, he organized the 2009 compilation “The Harmonic Series” as a rebuttal. Its eight tracks showed the disparate ways that artists like the Deep Listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros or the resonator guitarist R. Keenan Lawler might wield just intonation.

“I was trying to say two things,” recalled Pitre, a married father of two who still speaks with the boyish nonchalance (and sports the long hair) of his skating adolescence. “Here’s this music I think is awesome. And I was speaking to a version of myself that was two years younger, saying, ‘You can do this yourself.’”

That ethos has guided Pitre’s diverse output. While the mix of harp, dulcimer, strings and electronics on “Feel Free” suggested a Renaissance recital at a tech summit, “Bayou Electric” added a Southern touch to just intonation through tidal guitar harmonies and recordings of Louisiana’s Four Mile Bayou, where Pitre’s grandmother was raised. “Omniscient Voices” has the meditative warmth of Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s “Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror” or Philip Glass’ softest études — perhaps if they were heard on warped vinyl.

Likewise, Pitre’s second installment of “The Harmonic Series,” 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 tickling the mind through the ear. The six pieces — and just intonation in general — “allow us to rehear sound,” said Tashi Wada, a compilation contributor who admired Pitre as a skater before hearing his music.

Experiencing younger musicians using just intonation in novel ways, Pitre said, compels him to keep exploring — in a way skating never could.

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

Circassia News

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