One of the world’s premiere musical innovators on her instrument, Baltimore-based Susan Alcorn has taken the pedal steel guitar far beyond its traditional role in country and western swing music. Known among steel guitarists for her virtuosity and authenticity in a traditional context, Alcorn first paid her dues in Texas country & western bands. Soon she began to expand the vocabulary of her instrument through her study of modern classical music (Messiaen, Varèse, Penderecki), the deep listening of Pauline Oliveros, Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, free jazz, and world musics (Indian rags, South American songs, and gamelan orchestra). Her pieces reveal the complexity of her instrument and her musical experience while never straying from a very direct, intense, and personal musical expression. The UK Guardian describes her music as “beautiful, glassy and liquid, however far she strays from pulse and conventional harmony.” Her latest release Soledad is available from Relative Pitch Records.
This interview has been edited for length and concision.
Annie Corrigan: Many Newfoundland musicians talk about the place influencing their music — the varied music scene, the natural beauty, plenty of like-minded folks. Does your music give us a sense of what it’s like to live in Baltimore?
Susan Alcorn: I’ve lived in Baltimore for eleven years. The Wire notwithstanding, it can be a pretty good place to live and a great place to make music. I think that the music I make does in some ways relate to a sense of place, but only as in snippets, and the same goes for other senses. Sometimes when I’m writing or playing something, my mind flashes on a certain moment somewhere — curtains and laundry waving in a breeze in Taos, New Mexico; the color green when I play a certain dyad; or the Great Silence that often appears unannounced while I’m playing.
AC: Can you describe one of your first experiences of taking the pedal steel guitar on a test drive in the world of experimental music?
SA: The steel guitar often seems tied to the hip with country music, but that hasn’t always been so, and now it is becoming less so. The instruments’ roots go way back and include Hawaiian music as well as blues – something about the notes in between the notes. The pedal steel came into being when someone figured out a way, mechanically, to bend or change the pitch of certain strings while others stayed the same.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had an ear and an affection for different kinds of music; as a child I was fascinated by twentieth century classical music, I loved country blues and psychedelic music. I loved free jazz. And I think this, to an extent separated me from all of my friends who were growing up with bubblegum music (much of which, many years later I have a certain affection for). Perhaps it was that time I got hit on my head and things were never the same. I started playing country music because I liked it and it sounded so good with the steel guitar; though I rarely play country music these days, it is a music that I love and have a deep respect for.
So while I was playing country gigs all over Texas, I was also at home using the instrument to play and explore other styles of music. Eventually I started playing this music in public with other local musicians. But I think the most profound experience with the pedal steel guitar playing experimental or improvised music came in the late 1990s when I was invited to play at a series in Houston called “12 Minutes Max.” The rule was that you could play anything you wanted with whomever you wanted, but only for 12 minutes. I decided to do this solo and to not prepare anything — no songs, no melodies, no thoughts or ideas. When I sat down to play, there was nothing but the audience, the room, and me. I couldn’t hide behind songs, ideas, or other musicians; it was like being naked, and it was a liberating experience. After that, I think I began to trust my own intuition a little more.
AC: I found an article from the Guardian that calls your album “Concentration” one of the “101 strangest records on Spotify.” I call that an awesome compliment! While I love the word strange, what words would you use to describe the music you make?
SA: Oh yes, I saw that article. I think they included my album because of the song titles. It was a collection of live performances from the High Zero music festival in 2004. The producer asked me to send him titles for the music. I had just finished reading Terra Nova, a novel by Carlos Fuentes, so my mind was in a bit of a strange place.
The music I make — and I hesitate to take ownership of the music because it’s something bigger than someone who composes or plays an instrument; who can own the wind? — doesn’t really fit into any category. I borrow from a lot of music genres that affect me in some sort of visceral way and, I guess, infuse it with whatever it is that I bring to the table. I try to let the notes breathe, and I try to allow my instrument, a collection of wood and metal with a sentience of its own, to tell its story. I don’t have a word for it.
Susan Alcorn At Sound Symposium XIX*
- Concert — Friday, July 6 at 8:00pm (D. F. Cook Recital Hall, MUN School of Music)
- Workshop — Monday, July 9 at 4:00pm (Choral Room, MUN School of Music)
*Times and locations subject to change.