SUSAN ALCORN

a short musical autobiography

I began playing the pedal steel guitar almost 40 years ago, and in that time my perception of the instrument, its capabilities, and my outlook on music have gone through some profound changes.

I was raised in a musical family; my earliest musical experience was, as a small child, sitting under the piano while my mother was playing - I played the pedal - my first musical instrument. As a child in the 1950's and 1960's I was surrounded by the classical and big band music that my parents listened to -- Igor Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Micky Finn, Al Hirt, as well as the pop music that sounded on my transistor radio every night.

I remember lying awake at night listening to Petula Clark, the Beatles, Bobby Hebb, and also to the stations that played Aretha Franklin, Bobby Blue Bland, Wilson Pickett and James Brown. Then one night, when I was about 16 years old, in my bedroom listening to an underground FM station, they played the song "Invocation to OM". There was something about that song that drew me to it. I remember the DJ saying that this selection was from the album, John Coltrane: His Greatest Years. The next day I went out to find that album. Around the same time I also happened upon "Ameriques" by Edgar Varese.

When I was thirteen I began playing guitar, and felt a particular affinity for slide guitar (my inspirations soon became Robert Johnson, Son House, Willie McTell, and Muddy Waters - in fact when I was older I would often go to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago at Alice's Revisted. What I was struck by was the awesome power and feeling that was evoked in just one note) and dobro (my favorites were Mike Auldridge, Josh Graves, and Tut Taylor)

Then, in 1975, while I was in college, I saw someone play the pedal steel guitar in a nightclub. I remember that wondrously magical metallic sound and the way the shining steel bar seemed to float over the top of the instrument. I was hooked. The next day I went out and bought one. This was my send-off for a lifetime of musical discovery with this heavy, mechanically-complicated, and difficult-to-play instrument.

A short time later, while still really a beginner, I began playing with traditional country-western bands in the Chicago area. My first compliment as a steel player was from a musician who came up to me and said, "I like what you play on the pedal steel." I eagerly thanked him; then he continued, "What I meant is I like the songs you play, not the way you play your instrument." My initiation into Chicago-style country music was an interesting one. I wasn't very good at the time, and the musicians I encountered had no sympathy. They would stand behind me and make gestures, signal unexpected modulations without telling me, all sorts of things. It seemed pretty brutal at the time, but it's an education that I am now thankful for. It taught me to listen more carefully, to be aware so I wouldn't get lost, and to have a thick skin - something that I would later need when the crazy muse I followed caused me to stretch the boundaries of my instrument.

During that time, I was listening to a lot of steel guitar music and wore out the needles on my record player trying to learn how to play everything I could by copying licks from my new heroes - musicians like Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, Jimmy Day, Curly Chalker, and Maurice Anderson, among others. The Buddy Emmons black album was, and still is, a cherished possession. I did the same with blues, 20th century classical music, traditional and free jazz, and whatever else piqued my interest at the time. In addition to the thousands of hours with my steel guitar and record player, I sought out and took lessons from whomever I could find who would teach me something, including Jeff Newman, Maurice Anderson (who had been enormously supportive), and a couple of group sessions with Buddy Emmons.

In 1981, my family and I moved to Houston, Texas where there were plenty of opportunities to play with local and regional touring country and western swing groups. It was there, in Houston, that my real musical education began to take place. To play in a band, you had to know every intro, turnaround, signature lick, and ride from 1940s Ernest Tubb on up. In those days there was a steady jam session at a place called Franks Ice House on Waugh Street where I would listen to, and sometimes sit in with, some of the great local musicians from that time - Cliff Bruner, Bucky Meadows, Herb Remington, Ernie Hunter, and various older western swing musicians. The recordings these people made are great, but it's difficult to describe how wonderful they sounded live. Also, during this time, I drove down to the Third Ward every week to study jazz improvisation with the late Dr. Conrad Johnson whose pentatonic approach to improvisation really opened up improvising for me. I found that I could play across chord progression rather than endlessly trying to connect scales with the different chords. Houston was booming in those years, and the dance halls were full, so I worked quite a bit.

However, at the same time, as much as I loved (and continue to love) playing country music, I also felt a longing and a pull that's difficult to explain with words for something that had been with me for as long as I could remember and could not ignore - my original fascination with the mysteries of sound and the vast musical possibilities of dissonance. I began writing my own material. Eventually I was able to find a few good musicians in the Houston area with whom I could share, to some extent, my musical vision, and we began performing my compositions live. However, the audience and the appreciation weren't there.

Then in 1990 a musical watershed came when I met, spent time, and eventually collaborated with the composer and philosopher Pauline Oliveros who introduced me to her Deep Listening approach to music (and life) a way of listening, relating to, and playing in which all notes, harmony, melodies, composition, people, and space were approached, from within and without, through the basis of listening deeply and closely to the sound itself and to the space in which it occurs, free from preconceptions.

In 1997 I was asked by David Dove, a trombonist who would later play on my Uma CD, to perform solo at for an event called Twelve Minutes Max at an arts space in Houston called Diverse Works. I could do anything I wanted as long as it was no longer than . . . twelve minutes. There were pieces I had written and musicians who could play them, but for twelve minutes, it hardly seemed worth it, so I decided to do this with absolutely no preconceptions, nothing planned, and, if possible, no melody running through my head. I had never played solo before and was scared out of my wits. That night I walked onto the stage, sat at my steel guitar, looked the audience in the eye (that way, I thought, it would be more difficult to retreat into a world of my own), and when the moment felt right, I touched my picks to the strings and began to play, hopefully something that would connect with these people on a deep level as human beings. The experience was liberating; there was absolutely nothing to hide behind - not personality, not virtuosity, not pleasant melodies, only myself, the steel guitar (a vibrant personality in itself), the audience, and the room. The result was a sense of intimacy with the space and the audience that I had never before experienced as a musician.

It was at this moment that I decided to make solo performances my main focus. Today I compose, practice, improvise, learn, and perform music. Before I play, I try to empty my mind, and, when the moment feels right, just start playing; then, when the time feels appropriate, perhaps begin improvising or playing a composition - one of mine or others. And if there's extraneous noise - birds, cars, trains, wind, sirens I welcome them into my sound world, acknowledge their presence and keep playing. However, when people talk while Im playing, it still bothers me, but Im working on that.

Another musician who was influential during that time was Eugene Chadbourne whose Shockabilly recordings I had been quite fond of. In the late 90s when he came to Houston, I was asked to open the show for him. One of the songs I played that night was an instrumental version of Merle Haggard's "If We Make it Through December". I played the melody with a rather different approach to the chordal structure - quartal chords (stacked fourths) moving up and down chromatically with the melody. Eugene was the only person in the room who recognized the tune. A few years later, we recorded a duet version of the song.

In 1999, bassist Peter Kowald came through Houston, and I was asked to play with him. I had never heard of him, but he was possibly the best double bassist in the world. He had incredible technique, and with a virtuosic touch he could play harmonic over harmonic over harmonic - all freely improvised, and all precise, appropriate, and musical as well as wildly adventurous. I felt that his approach to playing the bass would also work for the pedal steel guitar if I worked at it hard enough.

Other musicians who had made a deep impression on me were composers Astor Piazzolla (an influence I sometimes regard as a curse because Ive felt driven to play his for me very difficult music) and Olivier Messiaen (whose choral piece "O Sacrum Convivium" I recorded and whose "Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum" I referenced in my "And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar"0, singer Roberta Flack whose timing and phrasing give life and soul to every note she sings, and saxophonist Joe McPhee who imbues free improvisation with a healthy dose of lyricism. But really, I'm influenced by everything, and I can't think of a genre of music that doesn't interest me. Music is simply part of being human; its always been with us, and it is equally spread through every culture.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, my compositions and performance began to take on a different feel. I tried (and still try) to stress a respect for the voice of the instrument itself and the infinite array of sound communities on each string and between each note of the pedal steel guitar, sort of my own approach to deep listening - a personal style that ties the haiku-like economy and heartfelt immediacy of American country music to my influences of free jazz, avant-garde classical music, nuevo tango, Indian ragas, Indigenous traditions, South American folkloric music, Gamelan, and whatever else it is I have listened to. The intricacies of the human voice were and are important to my musical approach, allowing both space for the notes and the instrument to breathe (as we ourselves must do), and time for the listener to hear the subtle harmonic qualities of notes and chords.

I lived in Houston for 27 years until 2007 when I moved to Baltimore where I live now. Here, there is a receptive audience and a thriving community of experimental musicians; now I perform, mostly solo or with small groups, in Baltimore, Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as visits every six months or so to Europe or South America.

I enjoy listening to and playing all music and any music in which I can feel a sense of heart, sincerity and purpose. I also think that music should address the issues facing humanity and all sentient beings living on this planet.

This short musical biography is, of course, selective. In trying to give you an idea of an entire musical life, there are things I have to leave out, either because they're boring, too painful, irrelevant, forgotten, or too long. Music is many things, but most importantly, it is, for me, the act of living. I'm grateful for the experience (a fascinating journey) of life itself, the love of my two daughters, and my husband David. I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to develop my personal style of playing on an instrument I love, and fortunate that Ive had the opportunities to play with some of today's greatest improvising musicians. And I am grateful that there have been audiences with whom I feel I am sometimes able to make a connection.

Recordings include - Curandera (Majmua), And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar (vinyl - Olde English Spelling Bee), Touch This Moment (Uma Sounds); Soledad (Relative Pitch) Evening Tales (vinyl - Mystra Records) three duets - Ambient Visage with Alabama violinist LaDonna Smith, Giving Out with London saxophonist Caroline Kraabel, and A&B with Scottish guitarist George Burt;  a compilation of live performances, Concentration (Recorded); and Away With You with the Mary Halvorson Octet.