This latest cassette/digital release from composer/Just Intonation enthusiast Duane Pitre has its origins in a piece written for the brass ensemble Zinc & Copper a few years back (“Pons”), as he stumbled upon an intriguing process while “experimenting with microtonal electronics.” While those experiments did not ultimately make it into the final piece, they later surfaced as one element within 2021’s Omniscient Voices. That was just a fraction of the material recorded using that process, however, as Pitre had repeated it several dozen times and found himself with a considerable backlog of compelling material that was not an ideal fit for Omniscient Voices. Naturally, that led to the release of Varolii Patterns, which collects six of those process experiments that Pitre deemed strong enough to stand on their own both individually and as an album-length statement. The result is a unique and hypnotic suite of Just Intonation synth pieces that make magic from shifting patterns that “slip in and out of rhythmic focus.”
As every artist knows, finding fresh ways to escape familiar patterns is a constant struggle and there have been countless ingenious strategies devised to subvert creative stagnation since John Cage famously blew everyone’s minds in the 1950s by embracing the I Ching as his guiding force. I have no idea what Pitre’s own process entailed beyond using an eight-voice synth tuned to Just Intonation, but the end product certainly feels more like a living organic entity than a series of compositions. Naturally, the tuning alone ensures that Varolii Patterns is brimming with unfamiliar and otherworldly harmonies, but the rhythm of the shifting patterns is unusual and unfamiliar as well, approximating the shifting, erratic rhythm of ocean waves rather than the rigid time signature of composed music. To my ears, the haunting “Varolii Pattern 10-1” is the most mesmerizing of the album’s variations on a theme, as a steady pulse smears into an undulating and hallucinatory haze of strange dissonances and oscillations. Moreover, it rarely sounds like Pitre is ever doing something as mundane as simply playing notes and chords–it instead feels like an interwoven tapestry of moaning, whimpering, dissolving, and smearing sounds resembling the ambient sounds of an extradimensional aviary where the normal physics of sound no longer apply.
While I would stop short of calling anything on this album remotely conventional, some of the other pieces do feel a bit less alien. For example, it is possible to imagine the ghost of Pitre’s originally planned brass composition in “Varolii Pattern 11-1,” but it also feels like it may have been composed for a tuba ensemble submerged in something nightmarishly gelatinous. The following “Varolii Pattern 12-1” is the closest thing to familiar terrain, as it feels a lot like warm, gently pulsing ambient drift (albeit ambient drift with unusual harmonies). Elsewhere, “Varolii Pattern 8-11” fitfully locks into a heaving, throbbing groove of sorts that sounds like a techno remix of Phillip Glass that has been stretched, slowed, and smeared into unrecognizability. That is certainly a neat trick, but the closing two pieces are even stronger. In “Varolii Pattern 10-2,” an erratically repeating brass-like pulse creates alien harmonies and changing rhythmic patterns as it interacts with the organically shifting swells of the undercurrent. “Varolii Pattern 4-2,” on the other hand, sounds like a cross between a curdled trumpet solo trapped in a loop and a pitch-shifted chorus of phantasmagoric whales, but that mindfuckery somehow remains semi-firmly grounded in sustained drones. Every single one of these pieces is fascinating if one listens close enough though, albeit with the caveat that Pitre’s harmonies may be a hard sell for more dissonance-averse ears. Aside from that, the sole caveat is the overall similarity of the pieces, but I find Varolii Patterns more akin to witnessing a magician improbably pull off six very cool tricks in a row despite some challenging self-imposed constraints. While I suppose this is intended as a minor release in the grand scheme of Pitre’s oeuvre, it is at least the second of his releases to feel like some sort of revelatory bombshell to me (Feel Free being the other that springs to mind). I now need to revisit Omniscient Voices immediately, as I have the sneaking suspicion that I may have slept on yet another audacious harmonic achievement.