I was listening to NPR in the car recently and I heard composer Philip Glass say something that really got me thinking. He described being asked by a student, “What is music?” And he replied (without having really thought about it before), “Music is place, a place where musicians go.” This reminded me of my time playing in a band and we would often talk about “going to that other, better place” when the music was really cooking. When it felt like we were communicating telepathically, at the speed of sound, we were seemingly living and breathing in another world, one of freedom and inerrant harmony—but only as long as the music lasted. As soon as the last vibration dissipated, we were back on earth and all its intractable difficulties.
What about the listener, though? The non-musician? Is this place called music accessible to them? Glass’s formulation seems to exclude the audience: the musician goes to this special place and the listener hears the result. As a musician myself, I can attest that playing music is a very different experience than listening to it. Moreover, it is impossible for me to hear music as a non-musician does because I am constantly analyzing how it’s made—I can’t avoid it. For better or worse, I cannot un-know what I know. You know what I mean? So, then what does a non-musician hear when listening to music? I have no idea.
I was reminded of this when I read an interview with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn where she said, “I think that music exists solely in the mind. We take the sounds around us, musical and otherwise, and we as listeners create the structure that allows us to experience this in a meaningful way as ‘music.’” In this definition, Alcorn privileges the audience over the musician: “When I am performing, it is the audience, the listener, which is taking the bits and pieces of what I put out and making it into something that hopefully has a personal meaning for them.” Glass is correct to say that music is a “place”—but we all go there in our minds, musicians and listeners together.
To be sure, everyone was transported to that other better world during Alcorn’s solo set at The Emma Bistro last Saturday evening. She coaxed outrageous sounds from the instrument: her left knee moving levers, both feet pressing the several pedals (including the ever-crucial volume pedal, which she played barefoot), while picks and slides glided over the multiple strings. It was incredible to watch—but also deeply moving. Like many other audience members, I could only close my eyes and revel in the beautiful music. Her set opened with the meditative “Heart Sutra” followed by “And I Await The Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar”, a tour de force of extended techniques inspired by hearing Olivier Messiaen’s “Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum” on the radio on the way to a country/western gig. Touching stories of a trip to Argentina and the death of her father prompted gorgeous interpretations of Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino” and “Invierno Porteño”, both of which later found their way onto Soledad, her latest CD on Relative Pitch Records. Closing with “The Healer” (an original composition dedicated to her acupuncturist), Alcorn playfully quoted Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-soul classic, “People Get Ready,” which drew knowing smiles from the audience. As the last sighing note decayed into silence, it seemed we could perhaps stay in that other, better world forever.
Afterwards, I asked her about music being a place—one that, as she put it, exists only the mind. “Of course, I cannot know what is going on your brain,” she said. “But John Cage showed that we can choose to hear any sound as a piece of music—or not.” Then she added, “Playing Piazzolla’s music is like being in his mind, though. I feel his emotions—they are not my emotions.” Regarding her years playing country music, she revealed her frustration: “Some people thought I was out to destroy the instrument—I got death threats.” Although she bravely went her own way into the realm of free improvisation, she retains an enormous affection for the music. “Doing anything well is difficult and sometimes the simple things are the most difficult to do really well.” She added, “Country music is like haiku. Add a syllable and it’s no longer haiku. It may be good and interesting, but it’s not haiku.” As we heard on Saturday at The Emma Bistro, Susan Alcorn is a musical poet and a true original.