Diane Pitre - Feel Free [Important Records - 2012]Such are the clumsy assumptions that genre-led considerations can impose, minimal composition is not necessarily the first 'style' that comes to mind when you hear that an ex-pro skater and rock guitarist has gone solo. But this is path Duane Pitre has been following since he left the San Diego-based, post-hardcore band Camera Obscura in the early noughties. In this way, many first encounters with his solo work may well confound expectations.
My recent first taste of Pitre's work was 'Feel Free', the critically acclaimed album recorded in New York in 2011 and released by Important the following year. This aptly titled album is very much a single piece, lasting almost 40 minutes, whose five 'sections' reveal the unique results of his compositional approach. Armed with his guitar, Pitre loads his computer with smooth, glassy harmonics that are then played back through an automated system designed to produce "potentially infinite variations of self-generating rhythm and melody". Live interactions with these unpredictable but systematic patterns are then encouraged from a small selection of players. Jim Altieri on violin, Shannon Fields on dulcimer, the contrabass of James Ilgenfritz, cello from Jessie Marino and Jesse Sparhawk on harp are all invited to "feel free" to play along (or not) with Pitre's 'improvising' computer (an oxymoron if ever there was).
The results are simply charming and, initially at least, as unpredictable as Pitre's system: it opens gracefully as single chimes unevenly extend in a reverently clean air. Plucked tones gingerly compliment the harmonics, together producing a hesitant pattering like the gentlest of rain, while longer, bowed notes start to paint an impressionistic natural landscape. As the rest of the ensemble begin to contribute in individual ways, the lack of regular patterns begins to suggest a sophisticated series of complicated wind chimes capable of producing several timbres, but all still at the mercy of the elements. It is perhaps this organic aspect, combined with the choice of acoustic instruments, that gives off an Eastern, meditative vibe.
But just as the computer's output is designed to be constantly varied, so are the hand-made results of the players. By the time we're halfway through 'Feel Free' the swelling instruments are more evocative of turbulent waters as they surge and break before somehow seamlessly settling down once more to form the rich drone of the fifth section describing a more steady, but no less powerful sea.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about 'Feel Free' is the way it achieves this wholly natural suggestion of the elements despite the central role played by a computer. Without foreknowledge of Pitre's methodology one could easily assume 'Feel Free' was determined wholly by human hands. It's unevenness, coupled with the refreshing air of solely acoustic improvisations, makes for an elusive, yet highly enjoyable experience that feels fresh upon each subsequent listen.Russell Cuzner