Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel guitar playing is uniquely her own
Some would say that the distinctive gliding, glossy sounds of the pedal steel guitar are suited for both kinds of music—country and western—and in the pantheon of great pedal steel players, Susan Alcorn is a rarity: an eclectic musician with the mastery of the instrument who goes far beyond country and western genres, influenced by such sources as the modern classical music of Krzysztof Penderecki, Indian ragas, visionary composer Pauline Oliveros’ “Deep Listening” and Indonesian gamelan music.
Alcorn took the time to answer a few questions for The Pulse in advance of her Oct. 1 concert at Barking Legs Theater, supporting her new album Soledad which spotlights the tango music of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.
The Pulse: You played various instruments before concentrating on the pedal steel. What drew you to the instrument?
Susan Alcorn: One night at Alice’s Revisited in Chicago, I saw Muddy Waters perform, and it struck me like a lightning bolt: the power of one note played with a slide on an electric guitar and the constellations of sounds and emotions in vibrato, in that space sliding between two notes.
So I started playing slide guitar which eventually led to dobro and bluegrass. I loved the emotive quality and the ability to phrase in a certain way on the dobro, but I got frustrated that I wasn’t able to get bigger chords and more complex ideas; so I started thinking about the pedal steel guitar.
The first time I saw the pedal steel live was at a nightclub in the early 1970s. A shiny metal bar seemed to float over the strings, and the sound made a deep and visceral impression on me. The next day I made it my business to find one to buy and to somehow learn how to play it.
TP: How would you describe the instrument’s appeal?
SA: All instruments have their own exquisite sound, unlimited possibilities, and their own innate qualities that touch the human heart, but to me there’s something about notes that aren’t preset to a certain pitch—the only determinant of pitch being a steel bar, sitting and gently moving, often in microtonal increments, on top of the strings—that appeals to me; expressive like a bowed instrument, but with the ability to play chords.
It can play a single part, or it can be an orchestra in itself. It’s a baby of an instrument, really, so we are just seeing the beginnings of what this marvelous instrument can accomplish.
TP: Can you describe the path between hearing Astor Piazzolla’s tangos live in 1987 and releasing Soledad in 2015?
SA: A friend of mine sent me a copy of Astor Piazzolla’s album Tango Hora Cero which I liked quite a bit, so when I saw that Piazzolla and his quintet would be performing in Houston, where I was living at the time, I made sure to get tickets to see him perform. Nothing prepared me for the experience of a live concert by Piazzolla and his group.
His live performances ran the gamut of ideas, emotions, strong defiant passages, milongas, ballads, elegant counterpoint, hints of jazz, African, and classical music, and incredible virtuosity, often within the space of one song.
I told myself that night that somehow I would find a way to learn to play and then record an album of Piazzolla’s music. That opportunity came 26 years later when I suddenly found myself with a great deal of time on my hands, so I started until I finished.
My feeling at the time was whether anybody every heard the recording or not, at least I had done it. It was truly a labor of love and I didn’t think there’d be much interest in an album of nuevo tango music on the pedal steel: not quite experimental, and not pure tango.
TP: What are some things that have inspired your favorite improvisations?
SA: In the musical world I inhabit, there are two kinds of improvisations, both closely related. If I’m playing a written piece of music, something I’ve written, Piazzolla, jazz, or whatever, I improvise, hopefully, with a sense of freedom, though with an understanding of the thematic, melodic, and harmonic structures of the piece.
Free improvisation is similar, though there is no text or fixed idea to reference. At its best, a sense of meaning, a structure, and sense of movement will develop naturally on their own.
I usually begin improvisations with no conscious thought or musical intent. I try to get out of the way and let the musical direction speak for itself, to enable it to tell a story, to speak to an audience in a commonly understood language that is beyond words.