Spotlight: Susan Alcorn

The potential of the pedal steel guitar is criminally under utilized. If you are unfamiliar with the pedal steel, check out my short history here. This complex and gorgeous sounding instrument is too often restricted to playing country music clichés. Though country steel can be heartbreakingly beautiful and some players have explored its jazz capabilities, all too few have investigated more modern uses for this harmonically rich instrument. Susan Alcorn is one of those few. Fully versed in the country tradition she has traversed new paths with the pedal steel, applying its singular attributes (contrary motion string bending, volume swells, natural sustain) to everything from free improvisation to Astor Piazzolla.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument? 

Well, proficiency is somewhat subjective and contains many different levels: technical and virtuosic, increasing facility with different genres of music, finding your voice, going beyond your own voice, etc. So for me it is a continuing process.

What initially drew me to the pedal steel guitar was how beautiful it sounded playing country music, and I spent many years, decades playing this style. It’s a music I truly love. At its best it is deceptively simple, honest, and direct; heartfelt and poetic. However, I’ve always had an ear for music not so easily accessible. As a child I discovered, more or less on my own, 20th century classical music and the music of John Coltrane, especially that of his later years. I always endeavored to find a way to also express the particular beauties of these forms of music, but it took many years to be able to play that music.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

In my teens, it was FM radio, what they called “underground” stations at that time. One night, while I was lying in bed, John Coltrane’s “Invocation to Om” came on the radio, from an album called John Coltrane: His Greatest Years. I was absolutely mesmerized. I also heard “Ameriques” by Edgard Varèse, recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra. These two, along with my personality and life experiences, did much to set me on the circuitous path I followed to get to where I am today.

What I create, or perhaps more accurately channel, is the sound in my head that wants to come out. I don’t choose to play in an idiomatic way, but I don’t reject it either. I think music at its best reflects the gamut of human experience, what we think of as beautiful and also that which is sometimes painful to look at, and then somehow transcends all of that into something nameless and formless, but never insubstantial.

Whose music inspires you?

My first experiences with music were when I was very little, listening to my mother’s classical music albums and my father’s big band albums, music which I rejected at the time—I was a kid. After I acquired my first transistor radio, I started listening to AM radio.

I suppose all music we’ve ever heard is present in some form or another. Growing up, I loved John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble, Pharaoh Sanders. Edgard Varèse, Honegger; I liked the mid-sixties girl groups, ’60s pop music, blues, psychedelic music, folk music, rock, and then country rock. Carly Simon was an influence as was Petula Clark, Laura Nyro, Dion, Bob Dylan, Tammy Wynette, Roberta Flack, and Dionne Warwick.

I’m inspired by classical music. I like the dense orchestration of much 19th and 20th century music, and the inevitable logic of Baroque music and Bach. I’m also inspired by Beethoven, Wagner, Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Penderecki, Ligeti, Giacinto Scelsi, Xenakis, Eliane Radigue, Morton Feldman and Phillip Glass to name a few. In contemporary times, the living ghost of John Cage is hard to ignore. Pauline Oliveros, her deep listening philosophy, and her music are a continuing inspiration.

Folk music, especially the trova and neuva canción music of Latin America: Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, Elis Regina (not really nueva canción, but I like her), Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez, and Ariel Ramirez (particularly his Misa Criolla and Alfonsina y el Mar). Astor Piazzolla is a big influence.

Of course, country-western music has always had an effect on me as has steel guitar music. Steel guitarists who have inspired me are Lloyd Green, Jimmy Day, Curly Chalker, Buddy Emmons, Joaquin Murphy, Speedy West, and Jerry Byrd.

More recent inspirations are the music of Evan Parker, Matthew Shipp, Michael Formanek, Ingrid Laubrock, pianist Yoko Miura, Mary Halvorson, Zane Campbell, Joe McPhee, Joe Giardullo, Nels Cline, John Butcher, Ben Goldberg, Josephine Foster, and Michael Raitzyk, most of whom I originally heard at performances in Baltimore. Also, a couple of months ago in Detroit, I saw Travis Laplante’s tenor saxophone quartet “Battle Trance,” which had a deep and visceral effect on me. I felt like it hit me in the chest—powerful and so very spiritual.

How did you get better at your current style?

That’s a continuous and never-ending process if one is serious about it. I listen to all kinds of music and try to digest what moves me. I’m also pretty serious about practicing. Practice, and some kind of fluency with the instrument, is important to being able to express whatever I feel the need to convey. I get ideas in between dreams and try to quickly write them down before I forget them (resisting the urge to wait until morning because the idea is so obvious). I play scales, and learn pieces of music that are different from what I’m used to, or are difficult to play.

What are you trying convey with your music?

That’s difficult to put into words, but perhaps I can find words that will hint at an answer. To me, music is a form of communication on a very deep level. It includes—but goes beyond—colors, shapes, emotions, and memory. It imparts physical sound as well as a certain silence. It ideally moves at its own pace and forms its own sense of intonation. It speaks a common language we as a species have always known in some form or another—a nameless something we can never grab hold of, but once in awhile can briefly touch, or it touches us. It’s a bridge to a kind of physical awareness; it is also that awareness itself.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

There are three pedal steel guitars I use for different purposes; all three are instruments I feel fortunate to own. I play a single neck 12-string Anapeg (Another Noel Anstead Precision Electric Guitar) guitar for my own compositions, other composed music, and my solo performances. The Anapeg is a beautiful-sounding and precisely engineered pedal steel guitar that was built in Australia by Noel Anstead. A friend gave it to me, and Noel Anstead was kind enough to rebuild it for free.

I also play a single neck 12-string MSA “The Universal,” built in the late ’70s for my mentor and friend, the late Maurice Anderson. He told me he played this guitar to record his Universal Direction album. It oozes overtones that are inspiring and interesting to work with. I usually use this when I’m playing free improvisation with other people.

A third guitar I play is a 1974 (black) Emmons push/pull guitar, a double neck ten-string model that was originally built for the Nashville session musician Russ Hicks. This guitar has a gorgeous bell-like tone that cuts through in band situations without being too loud. I call this guitar “Black Beauty,” and use it mostly for the odd country gig or singer-songwriters who cross my path.

I use a Telonics volume pedal, a Maxon analog delay pedal (for slap-back), and a Lexicon MPX 500 reverb. For recording, an Eden World Traveler 550 amp and an old Lexicon 200 reverb go into a Mytek a/d converter and then to Pro Tools. For live performances, I use either the Eden amp with an enclosed 15″ speaker cabinet or a recently acquired Fox Vintage tube amp with two twelve-inch speakers.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I enjoy both; in recording, there is a certain solitude and sense of quiet in the process, with the sound often playing between my ears through headphones. It’s a chance to try different things, perhaps change them, and build something. I can come back to it the next day and continue the process.

In live performance, there’s that edge related to music happening within in a specific moment, an audience to share it with; a process of imparting and receiving. It is a time when the music sort of carries me away. At times, a certain silence in the audience lets me know they are along for the same ride and we can share this all together.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

I’ve never had a plan, nor have I ever given it much thought. I’m not sure there is much of an audience for what I do, but every once in a while, I hear from someone who has been moved by my music, and I feel very happy for this. I try not to think about whether I have much of an audience or a following. I try to keep making music, try to say something with it, and then, like a message in a bottle, cast it into the sea and hope somehow somewhere it will reach someone and affect that person in a positive way.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

Thirty years ago my dream was to do a project with Charlie Haden. I used to think, in my near-complete ignorance, that if I saved up enough money, maybe he’d play on one of my songs. Of course, that dream is no longer possible.

I like the organic and somewhat happenstance nature of collaborations; I never know who will get in touch me and ask me to do something, so it always seems to come out of the blue—always a pleasant surprise.

Some of the recent projects I’ve collaborated on are ones I really cherish. Jeff Snyder composed a piece called “Substratum,” which the Mivos Quartet and I helped bring to life. We premiered the piece at Princeton University last year and did a recording a few months ago. I’ve enjoyed projects with Brooklyn songwriter Ember Schrag, Kentucky musician and librettist Dan Dutton, cellist Janel Leppin, (several with) bassist Michael Formanek, Ellery Eskelin, Evan Parker; I loved playing with Vinny Golia last summer. Mary Halvorson is a guitarist whose music I’ve always loved; we played together a year ago, and in December I’ll be part of her octet project. I’ve treasured collaborations that have happened with Pauline Oliveros, Ellen Fullman, Jandek, Eugene Chadbourne, Caroline Kraabel, Maryland country singer Zane Campbell, and a few others.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

The newest project is Soledad, an album consisting mostly of Astor Piazzolla’s music interpreted on solo pedal steel guitar. It’s an album I wanted to do for almost thirty years, from the time I saw him perform with his quintet in Houston, Texas. It’s Piazzolla’s music and hopefully his musical voice mixed in with improvisation and a bit of my own voice. It also features one of my own compositions, “Suite for Ahl,” a duet with Michael Formanek. The album was released on April 7th, and is available online from Relative Pitch Records, as well as various distributors around the world. It’s also available physically, in a bin, at Downtown Music Gallery in New York.

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