Susan Alcorn’s guitar tangos, many artists push the boundaries
The milky, gliding sounds of a pedal steel guitar are seemingly chained to the realm of country and western music, but in the hands of Susan Alcorn, it can channel incredibly varied and global styles typically not associated with the instrument.
For example, Alcorn’s album Curandera has the distinction of covering numbers from the country, soul and modern classical worlds (Tammy Wynette, Curtis Mayfield and Olivier Messiaen, respectively), and she has found influence from everything from Indonesian gamelan music to free jazz to Japanese koto music.
Her open-mindedness is articulated with her playing style, marked with nuanced, sculpted notes delivered with a graceful dexterity, demonstrating highly proficient chops and a willingness to jump into improvisational explorations as well.
Her latest album, Soledad, is the fulfillment of a decades-long fascination with the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, with four solo arrangements of his pieces plus one Alcorn original, “Suite for AHL,” with contrabassist Michael Formanek.
While tangos are known for their stormy turbulence, Alcorn’s approach is moving yet not violently melodramatic, instead opting for a warm glow amid the transitions between fast and slow. Toward the end of “Invierno Porteño,” Alcorn imparts some tender counterpoint with a simple yet penetrating descending melodic line, followed by playful and enchanting treble-range celeste-esque notes.
In a moment on “Adiós Nonino,” Alcorn offers tense scampering, but the disorder untangles itself to a placid resolution; later in the piece, Alcorn unleashes a series of unexpected booming slams, which dramatically reverberate.
Proving that a musician doesn’t need to sound unhinged to be adventurous, Alcorn navigates elegantly and calmly through calculated arrangements, punctuated with nimble runs and the occasional distinctive twang of her instrument, and the unique tango interpretations offered on Soledad make it easily one of the most beautiful albums this writer has heard in 2015.
Masterworks of the 20th Century
This writer remembers during the last Record Store Day looking at an $80 Lana Del Ray “deluxe edition” album on vinyl and thinking, “So, has it come to this?” Some people believe there is a vinyl bubble that is bound to burst.
Record labels realize that many young listeners simply aren’t used to paying for music at all. These factors seem to make something like the new 10-CD set Masterworks of the 20th Century possible at this point in time; this writer speculates that inexpensive sets like this one—over nine hours for less than the cost of a single new vinyl record—are a last ditch effort to squeeze some money from a back catalog, aimed at GenXers and Boomers who actually prefer owning music artifacts over streaming.
This set culls material from over twenty of the greatest avant-garde composers of the 20th century, with superb sound quality. All ten of the discs at hand were reissued individually in a joint project by Arkiv Music and Sony Classical within the last two years as CD-Rs as part of the “Prophets of the New” series, but the discs in this set are silver CDs; the packaging is bare-bones, with credits but no other liner notes—which would have been welcome.
Symphony attendees will recognize Igor Stravinsky and possibly also Charles Ives, but conventional orchestras and ensembles stay away from the bulk of the composers here, including daring and provocative figures including Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez and John Cage.
It’s a wildly diverse collection, but it has its own odd cohesion, particularly if one considers the omissions—no Prokofiev, Bartók nor Shostakovich; no Second Viennese School; no minimalists.
Among the embarrassment of riches is the album The World of Harry Partch, included in its entirety, which provides a glimpse of Partch’s unique musical universe with invented instruments and his microtonal scale; Charles Ives’ “Sonata for Piano No. 2,” better known as the “Concord” Sonata, sports a compellingly erratic flow peppered with dynamic blasts and occasional borrowed song melodies.
Some possibilities of technology and electronic instruments in the classical world are realized on the vibrant 1964 album Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and for this writer, the most mind-blowing, revelatory disc here is the 1967 album Extended Voices directed by Alvin Lucier, which radically transforms vocal music into startling, sometimes monstrous creations.
Once the eager and curious listener starts digging in, he realizes that 10 CDs barely scratch the surface and serve merely as a point of departure—let’s call it “The Young Person’s Guide to Visionaries of 20th Century Classical Music.”