Learning to Listen
Susan Alcorn Charms Stories Out of Her Pedal Steel Guitar
"I feel very deeply whenever I play," says pedal-steel guitar improviser Susan Alcorn. "Sometimes it's emotionally exhausting, and physically as well. Sometimes I think it takes a little too much out of me and affects my health--like when I played with Jandek. When I finished playing with him I was so tired I didn't think I was going to be able to put my steel guitar away. I was getting heart palpitations, and it was, just . . . I didn't even know who he was."
And right there the door opens, even though Alcorn has enough to talk about without having to field any Jandek questions. She moved to Baltimore at the end of last summer looking for a more inviting and active experimental-music community, leaving Houston after 26 years. Twenty-six years of working as a touring pedal-steel guitarist in country and western and western swing bands. Twenty-six years of slowly broadening her musical mind through listening to out-jazz and modern composers while mastering the licks of a large country and western songbook. She only rigorously started to explore free improvisation in the 1990s, playing her first solo show in 1997. Since then she's become well known for her innately lyrical and masterful playing, working with Eugene Chadbourne, Lê Quan Ninh and Sean Meehan, Joe McPhee, Tatsuya Nakatani, and traveling local performers such as Audrey Chen and John Berndt. Her gorgeous 2007 LP And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar is one of the more disarming and ethereal instrumental albums you'll hear in a very long time. Her 2005 "The Road, the Radio, and the Full Moon" article in Counterpunch magazine earned her an appearance in that year's edition of Da Capo's Best Music Writing series. And this weekend she makes her first Red Room appearance since moving to Baltimore, in a duet with Chen.
But now that the Jandek name has been uttered, the temptation is too much. Alcorn--a petite, thoughtful, and inquisitive woman in her early 50s who teaches English as a Second Language at the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts in West Baltimore--sits on the edge of the sofa in her Charles Village apartment, taking a moment to recall what it was like playing with Jandek, an artist she didn't even know about before she was asked to be part of that July 2007 gig outside Fort Worth. He was also based in Houston, an obscure Texas artist who has been the obsession of many wing-nut fans, in whose army this writer has served since about 1984. And Alcorn now finds herself in the unfortunate position of being the first person this writer has ever interviewed who has met him.
She laughs with the polite social grace of a teacher confronted with a question she's heard about 500 times. "I was kind of led to believe that he may be a little bit country--he had a fiddle player [for the gig], and he was going to play harmonica," she says. "And then I heard what a notorious recluse he is--that he's from Houston, and I had never met him or even heard of him before. And he has this huge cult following that wants to know what brand of toothpaste he's using. And when they listed the gig and who was going to be playing with him, I got all these e-mails from people asking me what Jandek is like.
"So I drive up to Fort Worth to play with him and I met him," she continues. "He's very personal, very pleasant--I enjoyed working with him. And his music is very--I couldn't begin to classify it, but it's real and kind of visceral in another way. And the other musicians we played with that night--we'd never met before and we had a rehearsal, and he just had a song list that had keys and the style of music. He's a nice guy. He just follows the beat of his own drummer."
She might as well be talking about her own indelibly singular career. For most music fans, the pedal-steel guitar is used primarily for country and western music and electric blues. It's Lloyd Maines' licks in Joe Ely's 1970s bands. It's Sneaky Pete Kleinow in the Flying Burrito Brothers. It's B.J. Cole on Elton John's Madman Across the Water. It's Robert Randolph putting the sliding shuffle behind his Family Band's soulful funk.
What you don't consider is a quietly intense woman coaxing a small symphony of sounds, timbres, moods, and emotions out of an instrument you expect to holler with a twang or electric slide. And what Alcorn does with the pedal-steel is a combination of her professional expertise and a deeply sympathetic ear.
"I think one of the things that's really interesting about Susan, and I think this is also true of some of my other favorite experimental musicians, like Gianni Gebbia, is that she's a quite out experimental musician, but her approach is based on virtuosic conventional music technique," says local improviser John Berndt. He and the High Zero collective brought Alcorn to Baltimore for the first time in 2004 for the festival of experimental improvisation. "So she's actually a great crossover person. One of the issues of experimental music is how people get the motivation to sit still for it long enough to be fascinated by it and realize there's content there. I think Susan's a great player, and her music appeals to people who maybe aren't already grounded in experimental music, but it can be a really interesting thing to get them into it.
"I also just think her breadth is just amazing," Berndt continues. "She's got great country and western chops, but she's also got Indian raga chops and has done a lot of more out kinds of stuff. And I'd say she has a lot of lyricism and a lot of melodic vocabulary, but she's not constrained by them in any way."
Alcorn's path there started by picking up the steel guitar, bottleneck blues guitar, dobro, and Hawaiian guitar in junior high school and high school and seeking older musicians to teach her how to play. And then "I saw somebody play a pedal-steel guitar once, and I just thought that was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Alcorn says. "The shiny bar that just seemed to float above the guitar itself. I felt, I got to have one. So I went and got a used old one, the cheapest I could find--and tried to find somebody who knew how to play and bug them to show me how to do it."
She was living in Dekalb, Ill., with her parents then, outside Chicago. In 1981 she moved to Houston, and quickly started playing with regionally touring country and western swing bands. "I was doing that for a living, but at the same time I was also listening to Edgar Varèse and Krzysztof Penderecki, and John Coltrane and Sun Ra, so there was this kind of split-personality thing," Alcorn says. "I'd go to these country gigs after listening Albert Ayler in my cassette player and I'd go, and I'd start playing"--and she air-plucks out a lick in an Aylerian marching tempo--"and people would look at me like, `Why are you playing so weird?'''
Those other interests soon took over, and she was trying to find other people with whom to play Ornette Coleman and Weather Report. In 1997, she finally decided to give it a go alone. DiverseWorks--Houston's experimental visual and performing arts organization--held a program called 12 Minutes Max. Instead of scrounging up a band, Alcorn played solo.
"I thought, I'll just go out there and be by myself and I'm not going to plan anything, I'm not going to think about anything, and I'm just going to do it for 12 minutes," she says. "I felt that that was kind of the most weird and frightening thing I could imagine for me. There'd be all these people judging me, and here I am and I don't know what to do. So I just thought I'd open myself up to the audience. And I looked at them--I think that was kind of weird, too. I don't do that anymore, but I looked at them while I was playing, and it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop, and I really felt this kind of connection."
Playing solo freed Alcorn to explore the more liberating aspects of her instrument and her own musical approach. "When I'm performing I try to bring a sense of honesty and sincerity and kind of an unflinching sincerity, and . . . sometimes the more you talk about things the more you cheapen them," she says. "I started listening more to sound and the very subtle, subtle aspects of what sound is involved in music. And that sort of led me away from just playing the notes. I wanted to hear the note and just every little thing about it. And in any instrument, and I think especially in steel guitar, I think of the strings as like--this is going to sound crazy--as little communities that are living, that exist as sentient beings or whatever. And each of them is like a little universe. And I think that they have stories to tell. And I try to play and approach my instrument not to get in the way of that, to let that come out--that's as good as I can put it into words."
It more than suffices as the background ideas shaping one of the most lissome and surprisingly versatile vocabularies in experimental music. You don't expect the sharp peaks of volume immediately descending into intimate softness, the sustained squeal of a quickly strummed chord, the symphonic swells of one solitary note, the percussive abilities of a player not afraid to use the slide as a mallet. Whatever the moment calls for is fair game.
"I've been playing less with notes and more with other things but still trying to keep it on--I hate to use the world `spiritual'--some sort of basis of honesty, compassion, and empathy," Alcorn says. "Almost like a ritual--to always let yourself be surprised and let yourself be taught. You have to have the humility to be taught new experiences. Driving through West Baltimore every day, it has a subtle effect, and I think as a musician it's your duty to allow yourself to be affected with that and share that with others."
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