Interview with Susan Alcorn
How did you start playing guitar and pedal steel guitar and why?
I started playing guitar a long time ago, when I was about 12 or 13. Before that, as a child, I played viola (for a year), then cornet. I took cornet lessons at a local music store in Orlando, Florida where I lived at the time. When I told my teacher, the store owner, that I wanted to play electric guitar and asked if I (my parents) could buy one, he told me not to give up the cornet because instead of being a total failure like that Elvis fellow if I only played guitar, I’d only be a half a failure. Within a year I disappointed him and became the total failure, but not like Elvis.
The pedal steel guitar came about when I was twenty or twenty-one. I was in a nightclub with some friends, and saw someone in the band playing this strange instrument where the bar seemed, from a distance, to just sort of magically float over the strings. The sound was entrancing; I went out and bought one, tried to learn how to play it (I’m still trying to learn), and have been hooked ever since.
What is your musical background?
My parent loved music and were active listeners. My mom had sung with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under George Szell and played piano at home, mostly hymns. My father was a talented mime, which in those days was a big thing – he could imitate famous singers and their moves, thugh he never performed professionally. At home, I mostly heard classical music (form my mother) as well as big band, dixieland, mainstream jazz (Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers), and novelty groups like the Harmonicats and Spike Jones.
So that was the first music I listened to. When I reached adolescence, I started to form my own tastes – the Beatles and the British Invasion, girl groups, folk music, and that sort of mainstream mid-60’s pop music. A few years later I started to listen to the “underground” rock (that you would hear, in those days, on FM “underground” stations), psychedelic music, and blues (I was fascinated by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House, and people like that). I also started listening to people like John Coltrane and Edgar Varese (the latter courtesy of the back cover to Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out” album). Later I became fascinated with bluegrass and country-western music. The sounds then were so much more visceral; is that something that happens with youth and then in the later years your experience is more cerebral – or is it just me. Whenever I hear Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”, the Beatles “She Loves You” and that great guitar solo (Keith Richards?) on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. Even Varese’s “Ameriques” instills that physical memory.
What impressed me about your music is that you keep moving inside a traditional context but at the same time you are expanding your vocabulary playing contemporary music, how did it start this process?
Well, I guess that traditional-sounding music – whether it is jazz, or pop, classical, or country is part of my roots, the sounds of my childhood and the sounds of my musical upbringing. I love lyricism. I love melody. I love that with certain music you play note for note comes out different every time you play it – the infinite possibilities of any piece of music. But I’ve always heard something different as well. There’s a universe of sound, countless universes of sounds and sound communities surrounding every note and every vibration. That’s what I, in my humble way, always try to summon or maybe access. I try always to follow my muse wherever it takes me. It’s what I am, so I can’t do otherwise.
I was amazed by your last record Soledad devoted to Piazzola’s music, how did it start this project? What were the difficulties to “translate” Piazzola’s music for your instrument?
In a way, the project for the Soledad album started in November of 1987 when I saw Piazzolla’s quintet (actually, a sextet at the time with the addition of Daniel Binelli on bandoneon). I was completely taken by Piazzolla’s music and the sound of the quintet, and ever since that night I had wanted to do a solo record of his music – it a way it was both a blessing and a curse because it took so much energy away from other things I was doing. I finally got the chance in late 2013; I worked on the transcription arrangements and recording for six months or so that winter.
I tried to get as much as possible of Piazzolla’s original arrangements. However, covering five virtuosic instrumental parts – bandoneon, violin, electric guitar, piano, and double bass on a 12 string pedal steel guitar, an instrument with scant history or development outside of American country music was a challenge to say the least. I had to think of what were the most important notes at any one time and what would sound good on my instrument. For pieces like Soledad, I ended up writing parts of my own in sections where just copying an arrangement wasn’t working (funny thing is that I enjoy playing those sections the most because I remember where I was when I thought of them – one part I wrote in a hotel room overlooking the plaza in Taos New Mexico, and every time I play it, in mind I see the curtains fluttering in the breeze. Another part at the end reminds me of my father-in-law playing his guitar. In the end, I think when you adapt music, or at least how I adapt music, it is, in the end, a process of feeling it out and ultimately going with that.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
I rarely “think” about improvisation unless I have to teach a class, give a workshop, or someone asks me about it. Putting it into words is, for me, not that easy. I think that improvisation is something we humans do every day. A million years ago that was necessary just to survive, and perhaps it still is. So I think improvisation is an important part of any music. With free improvisation, much of it depends on what your roots are – where your hands or your fingers have been trained to go – letting go of that and yet embracing it at the same time. One of the wonderful things about what they call “European free improv” is that many of these musicians came from a classical background, so those melodies and chords were an intimate part of their language..
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
Error is interesting, and it is always there. Something happens – you play an unintended note, make an unintended sound or drop something, forget what you’re doing, hear a sound that wasn’t part of the plan. So there it is, sitting there – it is, in essence, a reality in that cannot be otherwise because there it is. So now that this is in the sound field, what do you do with it? That’s where it starts to get interesting, and that’s where your imagination and usually-hidden abilities start to kick in. And this is where the fun starts.
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?
I guess it’s important to be a good self promoter, but I’m probably the worst person to ask about that because I’ve never been good at it. I feel embarrassed promoting myself and when I do it, I feel like a phony. My advice for modern musicians would be learn your craft. Think deeply about why you want to play music and what you want to express. What is the one beautiful thing you want to offer to the world, to the universe of sound whose echoes will remain in the ether long after you die.
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island ...
Hmmm. That list would probably change every day, but here (for this moment) goes:
John Coltrane “Ballads”
Olivier Messiaen: “Quartet for the End of Time”
Mercedes Sosa “30 Años”
Phillip Glass “Kundun”
Pharoah Sanders – “Journey to the One”
The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”
Astor Piazzolla – “En Vivo” (live at the Regina Theater)
Dinah Washington – “This Bitter Earth”
Sorry, I cheated – that’s more than five.
What are your five favorite scores?
Olivier Messiaen “Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum”.
Arvo Pärt – “Tabula Rasa”
Astor Piazzolla – Invierno Porteño
Richard Wagner – “Tristan & Isolde”
Donald Byrd – “Cristo Redentor”
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
Who would I like to play with? I don’t know; I think I like to let fate handle that and be surprised. The music I listen to is, like everyone perhaps, dependent on my mood and where I am. If I’m in the car, and sometimes when I play away from homeI’m in the car for long periods of time – at sunrise I might listen to Pharoah Sanders or Phillip Glass’s “Kundun”, Shostakovich. Later on I might listen to music that makes me happy – The Supremes, country music (Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine”), Bruce Springsteen, Sarah Vaughan. Sometimes I’ll listen to classic rock or Latin music on the radio. At home I listen to everything – if I need to learn music, I listen to that over and over again.
Your next projects?
Continuing with the Mary Halvorson Octet with new songs and some gigs in NY.
A solo or duo record next year on the Relative Pitch label.
A possible duet album with Joe McPhee.
A duet with virtuoso guitarist Dom Minasi
A quartet record by the Nate Wooley Quartet (Nate Wooley, Mary Halvorson, Ryan Sawyer, and myself).
That and whatever whatever comes up on its own.