When I first heard of Susan Alcorn, my initial response was incredulousness: pedal steel guitar in an avant-garde jazz context? Impossible! But when I put on her new CD on Relative Pitch Records, I was swept away from the very first note. Consisting of four compositions by Astor Piazzolla performed solo (plus a duo improvisation with bassist Michael Formanek), Soledad is a sonic revelation.
The pedal steel guitar is horrifically complicated to play, with its pedals and knee bars enabling (requiring!) the performer to change the tuning of multiple strings simultaneously—the 3D chess of musical instruments. Combined with a metal slide and a variety of picks, an infinite sound world of pitch and tone color is available—though it is the weeping chords and swooping glissandos that define its idiomatic role in country music. Alcorn has certainly paid her dues on the boot-scooting circuit but she has taken it exponetially further by introducing alternate tunings and extended techniques to create uniquely personal and expressive music on this most difficult of instruments.
Along with a love of South American tango, Alcorn also draws on a diverse range of musical influences, including jazz, modern classical (notably, the avian sonorities of Olivier Messiaen), the Japanese koto, South Indian ragas and East Asian gamelan. And while her technique is truly astonishing—lightning fast single-note runs, complex multi-part polyphony, and otherworldly sounds and textures—there is a meditative calm at the center of the music. This points to her work with Pauline Oliveros and the “Deep Listening” project as well as her deep respect for the instrument’s roots in the vernacular.
While the music on Soledad is as challenging and “avant-garde” as anything else on the Relative Pitch label, it is also a sublimely beautiful record: inviting and accessible yet also wildly creative and inventive. Frankly, I have never heard anything quite like it—and now I'm on the lookout for the rest of her discography. Most highly recommended!