Awaiting The Resurrection Of The Pedal Steel Guitar: Susan Alcorn Interviewed

Spencer Grady talks to pioneering composer and free improviser Susan Alcorn about Muddy Waters, Messiaen and the art of “deep listening”. Photo by Andy Newcombe

Brush aside any preconceived notions that you may have about the pedal steel guitar and its familiar association as the sonic stalwart of syrupy country corn. Susan Alcorn’s music dispels all such accepted wisdoms. Despite starting out playing in traditional country swing bands in her home of Texas, Alcorn’s explorations of extended technique and her love of free jazz and minimalist composition have seen her transport the pedal steel to unexplored pastures of improvisational innovation, while retaining a devastatingly and genuinely affecting sparseness far removed from the placebo poignancy of Nashville’s crumbling edifice.

With releases on imprints such as Loveletter, Boxholder and Olde English Spelling Bee, Alcorn has exposed the pedal steel to diverse new audiences, while her work continues to attract favourable comparisons to the singular output of delta blues reductionist Loren Connors.

Although predominantly a solo performer, Alcorn has worked with other artists including Eugene Chadbourne, Jandek and Mike Cooper, as well as Pauline Oliveros whose “deep listening” philosophies profoundly impacted upon Alcorn in the early 90s as her music took on a more holistic approach.

With her latest album Touch This Moment out now on Uma Sounds, The Quietus was lucky enough to catch up with the delightful Ms Alcorn prior to her recent shows at London’s Vortex and Café Oto.

Could you give a little background about your childhood in terms of formative musical experiences?

Susan Alcorn: My family was very musical. My mother played piano and had sung in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under George Szell. My father mimed famous singers of his day at parties. They had a large record collection which they listened to quite a bit, so I was surrounded by Mussorgsky, Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, Al Hirt, Peggy Lee, Spike Lee, Acker Bilk and everything in between. As a small child I’d sit under the piano, letting the sounds wash over me while my mom was playing, and sometimes I’d reach over and push on one of the pedals; I guess that was my first musical instrument – the sustain pedal of a piano.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt a fascination and affinity for certain sounds, and certain music as a source of beauty that would reach me in some deep physical way. When no one was home, I used to go into the living room and dance along to an album I found at a local record store – Edgard Varèse’s symphony, Amèriques.

While all my friends liked the Beatles, I prefered the Dave Clark 5, and later when everyone I knew liked the Cream or Jimi Hendrix, I found myself listening to obscure psychedelic bands like Mad River or the Freak Scene, folk music, and blues – Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Willie McTell, Albert King, Lightning Hopkins, and Muddy Waters. Maybe instead of contrary, I was (and maybe still am) musically bipolar. I adored the pop music of the time – the British Invasion, the Supremes, Johnny Rivers, Petula Clark – but I also liked Varèse, Honegger, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and I’d read John Cage. By the time I got to high school, I was listening to a lot of blues, bluegrass, country, 20th century classical music, psychedelic music, and John Coltrane’s later recordings – a compilation record, His Greatest Years was my favorite album at the time. Another one that I played over and over again was a Bud Shank album called Koto & Flute.

What attracted you to the pedal steel?

SA: Well, I’d always had a fondness for the sound of fretless stringed instruments. There’s something about the slide and the tones between the notes that really appeals to me. I listened to a lot of country blues musicians and where I grew up, in central Florida, there were old men who would sit around the park playing lap steel and Hawaiian guitar. When I was older, in Chicago, I used to go to a small club called Alice’s Revisited to see Muddy Waters. That was quite an experience. He could put so much into one note with the slide on his guitar. A couple years later, I was in a club and saw someone in a country band playing the pedal steel guitar and was mesmerized. The steel bar seemed to gently float on top of the strings, and it had this sort of round metallic sound that I had never before heard live. So the next day I found a shop that sold these instruments, bought one, and began bugging anyone I could find who could teach me something.

Are the limitations of the instrument appealing to you?

SA: I suppose that, like all instruments, the physical limitations inform a sense of style, but for me they’ve been more of a frustration than anything else. I always keep thinking, "What if I had another pedal, another knee lever, another string? Then I could play this… or that." In fact, at night, I sometimes dream of things that aren’t immediately realizable – at least, for me. A pedal steel koto, a pedal steel gong, a steel guitar made out of brass, a pedal steel gamelan orchestra with each string being a different drum, things like that.

You initially began playing in traditional and country bands before venturing into improvisation and extended technique, what precipitated that move?

SA: To tell you the truth, I’ve always loved music that was left field and have always been fascinated by extended technique; this pre-dated my interest in the pedal steel guitar, and it never left me. But it’s a passion that’s had to share space with the traditional country style, especially when I played live in Texas. The musicians I fell in with were musically very conservative, everything had to be just so. There’s a lot of improvisation in country music, but it’s in small doses, and, like other tradition-bound forms of music, if you go too far out, you lose people, and soon find your way out of a job. I don’t think that this is necessarily bad – it’s like haiku; it has to be in a certain form, or it’s not haiku. The same goes with traditional forms of music. There’s a lot of self-discipline and respect for the roots that goes into developing and holding onto that shared language, and there’s beauty in it like there’s beauty in any language. However, not everyone fits into that mould which is good also – they help the music to branch out and grow. I guess I fit into the latter category; I couldn’t play things the same way every time. Towards the end, I’d be playing note for note what everyone else played, but there was something about my phrasing that the other musicians (and the audiences) noticed that had escaped me and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had to play "correctly" or find somewhere else to play. Though I loved, and still love, playing traditional country music, I had to find something else more in line with what I felt I personally had to express. This led me, on a bit of a winding road, to where I am now.

Do you still play in more mainstream setups and do any of your experimental techniques inform your playing in those groups?

SA: Sad to say, these days I play very little mainstream music, though I never considered what I do to be that far from a mainstream of some kind. For the last few years, I’ve played very little country music, which is what everyone expects to hear from a pedal steel. Until recently, I played in a trio that did Astor Piazzolla’s music, and his music is very amenable to extended technique. But, to freely improvise in tango, you have to be true to the music.

I’m a big fan of what Eugene Chadbourne did with his Shockabilly group. He found a nice bridge from traditional country to free improvisation.

What are the pros and cons of improvisation?

SA: To me, free improvisation is a liberating experience, and it can be an invigorating experience to listen to, if the musicians performing respect the music and the audiences they play for. To respect an audience is not selling out, it’s what, I think, all artists aim to do – to communicate a sense of beauty. For free improvisers the beauty is that of freedom. Freedom and honesty.

And do you believe, as some do, that free improvisation has become a stagnant approach, requiring fresh thinking to take it forwards?

SA: Not at all. It’s been around at least as long as human beings, perhaps longer – but someone who improvises and wants others to listen and to get something from the music should remember that he or she is playing for other people as well as for one’s self. Like Willie Nelson said, "You can’t make music if you ain’t got nothing to say." The things that make improvisation meaningful for the listener and the musician should be the same things that make meaningful composed music.

You’ve interpreted a couple of pieces by Messiaen. What’s it about his work that you find particularly attractive?

SA: So far I’ve only recorded O Sacrum Convivium and the first six notes of Et Expecto, but there’s something about his music that resonates deeply with me. Bird songs, gamelan, pastoral, carnatic – there’s a majestic sense of mystery, wonder and ecstasy in his music. The chordal structure – consonance mixed so elegantly with dissonance, movement in major thirds, complex and very organic-sounding rhythms – beautiful.

Can you explain the influence of spirituality on your music?

SA: Hmm… well I try to be a good person, try to be kind, patient and to love. Since music is such an integral part of me, I hope this is expressed in my music. I think, though, that one’s approach also has to be "real" – pain, sadness, and suffering are part and parcel of the human condition, and I think, that these also have their necessary place in music.

And “deep listening”?

SA: "Deep listening" often refers to Pauline Oliveros and her way of approaching music, so, in a way, it’s a loaded term. I’ve a lot of admiration for Pauline, and try to listen deeply when I play. Hearing, of course, is, for most of us, natural, but listening is something we can cultivate – be conscious and attentive of the sounds around you – the wind in the trees, the traffic, your daughter in the next room brushing her teeth, the traffic, your fingers tapping on the keyboard. Before and during a performance, I try to listen to the very subtle things going on around me in that particular space and in the audience. I try to hear what they might be hearing. . . this is hard to put into words. . . what they may want or need, and what I may be able to convey with my music.

How important is space/absence in the music that you create?

SA: Every note, every musical sound and every instrument is alive. I try to give each of these room to breathe. My pedal steel guitar is a co-creator, in every sense of the word, with its own voice, so I try to give it space to tell its story. Also, for the notes, if you give them space, then they can begin to tell their story too. You can hear it in all the subtle inflections and in the universe of harmonics interacting with harmonics.

What do you look for and expect from your collaborations?

SA: For the same things I look for with any kind of performance or listening situation. I try not to think too much about it in advance, but I like to play in a setting where we are all listening, where there’s a sense of creation and surprise, of depth and musical challenge. There’s a sense of beauty in playing alone and relating this way to an audience, bit there’s a different energy performing with other people and discovering one another through musical interaction while sharing it in a live situation. This joy of discovery opens up new roads and streams that we as performers may not have come across before.


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