Q&A with composer and musician Susan Alcorn, one of the world’s premiere exponents of pedal steel guitar

"Humans are social creatures, and musicians are human beings (at least I think they are), so especially when they are playing with and for other people, music is a social act."

Susan Alcorn: The Words of Music

One of the world’s premiere exponents of her instrument, Susan Alcorn has taken the pedal steel guitar far beyond its traditional role in country music. Having first paid her dues in Texas country & western bands, she began to expand the vocabulary of her instrument through her study of 20th century classical music, visionary jazz, and world musics. Though known as for her solo work, she has collaborated with numerous artists including Pauline Oliveros, Chris Cutler, the London Improvisors Orchestra, the Glasgow Improvisors Orchestra, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Nate Wooley, Ingrid Laubrock and Leila Bourdreuil, George Burtm Evan Parker, Michael Formanek, Zane Campbell, and Mary Halvorson among others.                                                    (Photo: Susan Alcorn)

In 2016, she was voted "Best Other Instrument" by the International Critics Poll. In 2017 she received the Baker Artist Award, and in 2018, along with saxophonist Joe McPhee, she was the recipient of the Instant Award in Improvised Music. She has written on the subject of music for the UK magazine Resonance and CounterPunch. Her article “The Road the Radio, and the Full Moon” was included in “The Best Music Writing of 2006” published by Da Capo Press. Solo recordings include Uma (Loveletter 2000), Curandera (Uma Sounds 2005), Concentration (Recorded 2005), "And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar" (Olde English Spelling Bee 2007), "Touch This Moment" (Uma Sounds 2010), "Soledad" (Relative Pitch 2015), and "Evening Tales" (Mystra 2016).

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues, Jazz, Roots and world music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In a way, that’s the world I came from. My parents listened to big band music and jazz, so I heard music by people like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, even Thelonious Monk in the house. As a teenager in the late sixties, I was really drawn to blues. I listened to every album I could afford, many of them compilations, so I listened to Willie McTell, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker,John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Big Mama Thornton, and Albert King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, and tried to figure out how to play like them on the guitar.

Later I was exposed to John Coltrane’s later music which had a big effect on how I heard things (and how I saw life). In my late teens I gravitated to bluegrass, old-time, and what they now call classic country. I think what all these styles have in common and that I have carried with me through life is that the music speaks with an immediacy of directness of feeling and emotion. It says what it needs to say without beating around the bush.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What touched (emotionally) you from the pedal steel/slide guitar?

My sound and music philosophy? that’s a subject worthy of a book, or at least a chapter. I think that maybe I have a sound, but I don’t know if I could accurately describe because it’s too close to me and too personal to put into words. My philosophy of music, in short, is to play from the deepest part of myself, to not get caught up in my ego, and to hopefully communicate, which is always two way, a sense of the profound, of what cannot be communicated by words. I hope that in some way, after the performance, the listener (and the performer) will in some small way be a different person than he or she was before.                                                              (Photo: Susan Alcorn)

It’s hard to accurately put into words why you are attracted to an instrument. I have always been drawn to the sound of sliding string instruments, from the bottleneck blues of the rural blues musicians to the side guitar of Muddy Waters. What initially attracted me to the pedal steel (I had been playing dobro at the time) was its ability to be able to play things, ideas, that I was unable to do on the dobro; I did this by pulling on the strings (to change the pitch) from behind the tone bar. Eventually I saw a pedal steel in person when a country rock band was playing at a bar near where I lived. I was standing in the very back. There was this strange keyboard-looking instrument on the stage, and when the steel player moved the bar across the neck, I couldn’t from a distance see the strings, so it looked like the bar was floating in mid-air. After that I made it my business to go out and find one and learn how to play it (as anyone who has ever played or tried to play a pedal steel guitar knows, there is quite a learning curve). Listening to other pedal steel guitarists, in particular Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, Jimmy Day, Curly Chalker, among others, I was struck, and continue to be struck, how utterly lyrical the instrument can be. It can play (in the right hands) pretty much anything a guitarist can play, and it can play chords like a piano. Unlike those two instruments, the pedal steel, the bar which, along with pedals and knee levers, is used to change pitch, never rests solidly on a note. So there is always a slight difference each time you play the note. The ability to use glissando, both subtle and extreme, gives the instrument more expression. Pedal steel guitarists also use a volume pedal while they're playing which gives it even more expression - in this way it is similar, emotively, to wind instruments, strings, accordions, and electronic instruments like the theremin.

To my ears and my mind, the pedal steel, a baby of an instrument, is an instrument whose sound is expressive, mysterious, and beautiful, one that will be around for a long time and which through the years into the future will make music of no little importance.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Once when I was eighteen years old, at an audition for a folk club, the Quiet Knight in Chicago (a gig I didn’t get), U. Utah Phillips walked up to me and gave some valuable advice on live performance techniques which I still remember almost 50 years later.

As a pedal steel guitarist, the legendary jazz musician (and steel guitarist) Maurice Anderson, who I met in the early eighties, was an important mentor. My brief studies with him and a lifelong friendship considerably changed how I approach the pedal steel guitar - the tuning, picks, how to express music with chords.

Then in 1990 I met the composer and music philosopher Pauline Oliveros whose “Deep Listening” philosophy changed how I heard and related to music. What is music at its very basic? (it’s all in the mind). What is the nature of sound as opposed to a note? How can we be aware of all the sounds we are hearing at any given time. How do we incorporate that into an aesthetic?

"My sound and music philosophy, that’s a subject worthy of a book, or at least a chapter. I think that maybe I have a sound, but I don’t know if I could accurately describe because it’s too close to me and too personal to put into words." (Photo: Susan Alcorn)

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

When I first started playing country music professionally, I received the same acronym perhaps everyone receives - K.I.S.S. - Keep it simple, stupid and When in doubt, lay out, probably the sum total of the advice I received (not counting advice like, “Sell that thing and get a day job!”), but it informs everything I do.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Like any musician, I have a lot of stories and have heard a lot. Musicians when they’re working or traveling often spend an insane amount of time together in places far away from home. If you play in a bar, you’re around all the regulars who, many of them, having had a few drinks too many will do stupid and sometimes hilarious (and often dangerous or deadly) things. The same holds true for the musicians. When you’re touring as a group, you are with the same small group of people traveling to different towns every night, so there tends to be a bit off a dissociation with everything else. That said, I don’t know if there’s anything in particular I could relate that would be of much interest to anyone who doesn’t already know the people involved. I’ve played at bars, dance halls and ice houses (a big thing in Texas), rodeos (at one, a calf was being chased in the “calf scramble” where parents put their children, mostly pre-school, into the arena to chase a calf and remove its scarf - the winner gets a prize. In the middle of being chased, the calf stopped, turned around and started chasing and head-butting the kids one after another - high entertainment), jam sessions with old members of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, geodesic domes, bars where I witnessed countless fights and a murder, art galleries, theaters all over the US and Europe, solo gigs, pickup C&W gigs, solo tours, tours with jazz groups, and now streaming concerts where you play for a half an hour or so in your home to whomever may or may not be listening, and when it’s over, I turn off the amp and walk into the kitchen to fix dinner. Like it never happened.

One memory I cherish is from my C&W days. I was playing with a band at a dance hall somewhere around Houston, and in between songs, a woman walked up, carrying her daughter who was probably three or four at most. She pointed at me and told her daughter, “See that sweetie? That’s a steel guitar player, a woman steel guitar player!”

"Unfortunately, women’s opportunities have been limited, and our contributions throughout history have until recently been ignored by music historians. I think women’s opportunities in music are related to women’s position in society. Though we still have a long way to go, I am excited by the many incredible women musicians in all genres of music and on all instruments and the opportunity now for young girls to have role models in the music world." (Photo: Susan Alcorn)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I guess what I miss nowadays from music of the music past, especially popular music, is how it spoke to me when I was growing up. To me, there was something very different about music in the 60s and very early 70s as opposed to earlier music, say what my parents listened to. I became less and less attached to the current popular music. I think it hit my nervous system in a certain way during puberty, and I somehow identified the music as different from, and more interesting than the music my parents listened to. By the time the 80s came around, I felt less and less attachment to the current pop music. I can appreciate good music, I can’t know how it feels for a teenager today to listen to Lady Gaga or whoever the current pop stars are.

Music and society, social issues, are for better or worse, tied to each other. So many of my fears for music are fears for society as a whole. But humans are humans, and since the days of the Neanderthals or maybe even earlier, we’ve always made music. There will always be people who play form the heart - folk musicians, classical composers, singers, instrumentalists, and creative experimental musicians going beyond the boundaries, making a music that speaks to people of its time and place.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

James Brown and popular opinion aside, music has never been a man’s world, and women have always been important contributors. Unfortunately, women’s opportunities have been limited, and our contributions throughout history have until recently been ignored by music historians. I think women’s opportunities in music are related to women’s position in society. Though we still have a long way to go, I am excited by the many incredible women musicians in all genres of music and on all instruments and the opportunity now for young girls to have role models in the music world to look up to.

"If I were to spend a day in the past or the future, I think I’d like to go back to an eastern Europe 50,000 years ago and spend the day with the Neanderthals, hopefully the one to make the first flute by carving holes into the bone of a cave bear. That is where I’d like to go . . . for a day." (Photo: Susan Alcorn)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

As a musician, always show up on time, always do your homework, respect your fellow musicians and your audience. Remember that everything is about the music itself and not you personally. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Play from the heart. Play your own truth in an honest, sincere, and humble way. Learn your instrument and learn from it. Treat it as a friend and as an equal. Don’t try to “master” your instrument like an overseer, get closer to it and together discover the possibilities. Help it tell its own stories and then delve further into the vibrations, themselves alive in a universe separated from us by time and magnitude. Allow and enable these vibrations to tell their stories too. Live. Breathe. Experience. Play. Repeat. Go deep - that is where the magic resides.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to aect people?

Humans are social creatures, and musicians are human beings (at least I think they are), so especially when they are playing with and for other people, music is a social act. I never gave that much thought until recently when the prospect of a dystopian world quickly became a dire and immediate threat. So my live shows have changed a bit. I take inspiration from musicians of the past who sang and struggled for freedom, equality, and justice, especially the toreador and nueva canción musicians of Latin America. Nowadays I pay tribute to them and try to explain, through music and stories, what has happened in history - in America and in other parts of the world; it’s surprising how much people, especially younger people, are not aware of. We as a human race are facing an existential struggle for the future of our planet. Musicians are beginning to take that message of hope and change, and through sound hopefully contribute to a more just society and a better world.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Hmm, that’s an interesting proposition. If I were to spend a day in the past or the future, I think I’d like to go back to an eastern Europe 50,000 years ago and spend the day with the Neanderthals, hopefully the one to make the first flute by carving holes into the bone of a cave bear. That is where I’d like to go . . . for a day.

Susan Alcorn - Home

(Photo: Susan Alcorn)

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