Perambulating the Bounds

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Pedal Steel Innovator Susan Alcorn Back In Nashville

Susan Alcorn, who does breathtaking things with the pedal steel guitar, is going to be back in town for a show next Wednesday at Angle of View. Starting from her home base in Houston, she’s doing a tour that will end up in New York. The details are:

<>Location: Angle of View, 417 Gallatin Road
Date: Wednesday, July 13
Time: 8:00 or so

I’m opening for her with a short solo set, then she’ll do a substantial solo set, and then we’ll play some duets. Chris Davis is trying to line up a couple of local bands to play after us since we want to start kinda early.

Susan has defined a musical realm for herself that is nearly unique. She is thoroughly grounded in country and jazz, but has gone way past that to integrate Indian music, gamelan, minimalism, and contemporary classical music. Her music is lush and meditative, and usually works from defined melodic material, but she improvises freely and organically. Her harmonies, timbres and textures shift in unexpected ways. In addition to her own compositions, she has adapted old hymns, Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready, a choral piece by Oliver Messiaen named O Sacrum Convivium, Piazzolla tangos and Chilean Nueva Cancion. The pedal steel guitar has an amazing sound, and Susan starts with the material qualities of its sound and distills it in an almost overwhelmingly emotional way.

I think an important reference point for Susan’s music is the work she has done with Pauline Oliveros over the years. Oliveros is a minimalist composer, but her work has evolved to include strong meditative and psycho-spiritual aspects. It seems like people who work with her develop a distinct stance towards sound, they see it as powerful and sacred and healing. The Argentinian band Reynols absorbed a lot from Oliveros. So has Susan.

In addition to her performances with Oliveros, Susan has recorded with Eugene Chadbourne, played with Chris Cutler and Peter Kowald. It seems like she has been touring more – she played at High Zero last fall ( Then she participated in the London Musicians’ Collective’s annual festival in November (there’s a picture of her at that event and a nice mention in the review in the January 2005 Wire, p. 87).

The sound of Susan’s music, her words about music, and the qualities of her personality have been deeply influential on me. It is worth taking a look at her web site ( The following passage comes from her “performance notes” page:

“Blurry the distinction and uneven the border between notes and sound. Music has so much to say and so little time to say it. For this reason, I often feel that music should be more shamanic ritual in nature and less recital for each note is a god or goddess, and they live with others of their kind in the primordial space under the fingers, between the strings and surrounding the twelve notes that humans have delineated. And in this community of countless notes surrounded by sounds and noise, each has a story to tell if it is properly beckoned and if our ears will hear it. This is the nature of music. It is this beauty, the depth and the heart of sound formed from this community of notes and from the original sound that I hope to touch lightly, to bring forth, and to share with you in this time and space tonight.”

The passage about each note being a god or goddess comes back to me all the time.

Susan and I have played a couple of times over the years. They have been among the best musical experiences I have had.


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