New Directions in Pedal Steel Guitar: Three Conversations
The pedal steel guitar – with its crystalline arpeggios and moving-voice harmonies; its swooping slides and glides – seems to be just about everywhere these days. Most often, it’s used as a marker for some sort of roots Americana attitude, which makes sense in light of the instrument’s close association with country music. But the common language of the instrument, requiring the navigation of highly complex precision mechanisms designed to push and pull strings – and change their pitches – by way of pedals and levers, was invented and perfected by true musical adventurers and pioneers: players like Alvino Rey, Speedy West, Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Day, Ralph Mooney, Lloyd Green, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow, to name but a few. And while it may seem that many current players are mostly – and I say this with no disrespect whatsoever – mining the lodes dug out by their predecessors, there is still some prospecting of new pedal steel territory going on. This article presents profiles and interviews featuring three players at the exploratory frontiers and wide-open spaces of pedal steel guitar. All three are also composers, each with his or her own unique approach to sound and communication, each incorporating steel guitar as an integral part of their musical expression.
Steel guitar started, by most accounts, in Hawaii, near the beginning of the 20th century. Tuned to an open chord, fretted with a piece of metal, the Hawaiian guitar covered plenty of emotional ground, from a tremulous, throbbing vocal cry to a skittering, laughing flurry of notes. Before long, blues, hillbilly, and jazz-conversant Western swing players adopted the instrument for their various approaches, and each style added to the steel guitar vocabulary, all the while building upon the Hawaiian lexicon.
The addition of foot pedals began as an easy way to change open tunings; but something momentous happened when players – Bud Issacs was among the first – figured out that by sliding the steel bar and changing the notes via pedals simultaneously, they could open up a whole new world of moving-chord harmonies, of expressive licks and tricks. Thus was the predominant sound of country pedal steel established in the 1950s and 1960s.
While that sound still dominates, there are other audible currents: The impassioned, melismatic sacred steel gospel style of players like Aubrey Ghent and Robert Randolph; the intense, often horn-like straight-ahead jazz improvisation of Dave Easley; the succinct and lyrical approach that session genius Greg Leisz has evolved in his work with Bill Frisell.
The artists interviewed here – Bruce Kaphan, Chas Smith, and Susan Alcorn – talked about their compositional approaches, and each provided insights into the central place of steel guitar in their work.
Bruce Kaphan’s spacious and well-articulated style on pedal steel first came into prominence with the San Francisco-based American Music Club. After that band’s breakup, he went on to become a highly regarded session player, along with further work in sound design and soundtrack composition. He’s also been the pedal steeler for David Byrne’s band. Kaphan’s 2000 album Slider is a steel guitar classic; a cinematic journey into wide open spaces and sonic vistas, with a haunting, organic feel akin to the work of Michael Brook or the Apollo-era collaborations between Eno and Daniel Lanois. Kaphan’s sonic palette is all his own, however, as is the long-lined, lush-yet-sparkling melodic approach he brings to his playing.
Kevin Macneil Brown: Your work on Slider seems rooted in many of the classic idiomatic sounds of pedal steel while stretching into new territories, especially with regards to melodic lines and ambient textures. Could you discuss some elements of your compositional process?
Bruce Kaphan: When in my teens I first began writing music, I used to wait for inspiration, which thankfully used to come frequently. The more I wrote, the more I realized that all it ever took for me to write was to carve out the time to do it. Unfortunately, due to the rigors of survival, composing for me almost always is and almost always has been a pragmatic matter. In other words, as much as I would like to sit around and write and produce music strictly for my own edification and enjoyment, in order to scratch out a living, whenever I have the opportunity to compose, it’s almost always because I’m getting paid to. Slider came into being when a mutual friend introduced me to the owner of Hearts Of Space Records, Stephen Hill. Stephen said that he had been looking for someone to make a pedal steel-centric “space music” record for ten years. He said he had communicated with a couple of other steel players, but had never found the “right one” to make the record he wanted to make. He and I connected nicely. He gave me a number of his favorite “space music” records to listen to get myself acquainted with a genre to which I previously hadn’t had much exposure. In addition to Slider (and hopefully future solo albums...), I get paid to compose arrangements, and to do film scoring. In every case of writing for hire, the object is to satisfy the parameters set forth by the producers, artists and other team member that are going to live with the work I do. Even though I am the featured artist and produced all of the tracks on Slider, the concept of the album was absolutely a collaboration with Stephen Hill. Stephen had the right to reject tracks that he didn’t think fit the album, and in fact he did reject at least a couple that I submitted. But this was a good thing, because he had a very strong vision for what would make the album work as a concise piece of art, not a resume for an aspiring session player.
So, to me, the experience of making Slider was very workaday, much like scoring a film. In this case, the project was very largely described by Stephen Hill’s vision. One thing I really like about scoring film is that the premise of a particular piece of score comes “pre-justified” by the context and content of the visuals, dialog, narrative, etc. To me, the experience of scoring has a lot in common with putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The big difference is that, although many of the pieces exist in the structure of the above elements, instead of finding and placing the remaining pieces, they have to be created from scratch. Talk about fun! So before I began working on Slider I had a very strong idea of what it needed to be. In fact, when I work as a producer, this is always the first thing I stress with an artist: what do we want the record to be? If you have a strong idea of the target, it’s possible to start working backward to defining the elements that will comprise the album.
My writing formula was as follows: every day, I’d get up at sunrise and take a three mile walk down the levee along Alameda Creek, which is just a stone’s throw from where I live. The abundance of aquatic life, the exercise and scenery filled me with energy. Usually by the end of the walk I’d have a collection of ideas floating around in my head. These ideas might include themes, melodies, chord motion, etc. I’d enter my studio and hit the ground running.
One of the production rules I made up for myself was to write, then produce immediately. In a certain sense I was modeling this method after the production technique of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, with whom I had worked when I was in the band American Music Club. Every other album project I had ever worked on was made using what I call “batch” production technique, wherein to keep production costs down, the whole album is produced in batches of work based upon the setup required for each batch – first basic tracking for all of the songs, then overdubs for all of the songs, then mixing. This is disruptive to the creative process in that every song is created on an assembly line, attaching various bits as the schedule allows. Tchad and Mitchell were all about vibe; staying glued to a track from its start to its finish seemed a very good way to achieve that vibe. After my walk, upon entering the studio, I’d sit at my steel or at a keyboard and immediately record the ideas that had come into my head. In some cases, these first sketches became part of the final production. With these kernels of ideas, then the jigsaw process began. Because steel is a non-fixed pitch instrument, and because I can’t stand to listen to out-of-tune pedal steel, in many cases I had to build what I call “scaffolding” tracks. Certainly a click track is a very common scaffolding track, but in the case of needing to define a pitch center guide track, I’d usually have some sort of synth or sample track either droning or playing a simple as possible structural guide, so that I’d have a pitch center to record the steel to. I recorded Slider on Pro Tools, so I was able to manipulate images to my heart’s content.
KMB: One very noticeable feature of your work is the approach to sonic space: high definition elements presented within a spacious, evocative field. What ideas and influences have contributed to this?
BK: This is a long story; one which would be hard to quantify… I made Slider to fit a genre in which spaciousness is a key ingredient in defining the genre; in fact is even contained in the very name of the genre – “space music.”
For me, music and sound have been inseparable ever since I started playing music when I was just a kid. Now, of course literally, without sound there would be no music, but this isn’t my point. If you’ve ever listened to an elementary school orchestra (I still pity poor Mr. Cooper, my elementary school music teacher!) you’d have to agree that music notation, even when interpreted relatively correctly, doesn’t always equal music, per se. My point is that I’ve never been one of those musicians who plays well even if the tone is rotten, the instrument is out of tune, etc., etc. The better I sound, the better I play. This led me to a deep interest in musical instrument construction, maintenance and recording at a very early age. In fact one of my first post-school jobs was repairing instruments at a local guitar shop. Almost my entire career has been spent straddling the fence between being a musician and being a recording engineer. There have been times where I have made my living doing both at the same time, and/or one or the other. I most enjoy wearing as many hats simultaneously as my head will allow. I love scoring for this reason – it calls upon me to compose, produce, play, and engineer not just audio, but audio in sync with video.
Prior to my membership in American Music Club, I had been working toward developing a more spacious pedal steel sound, but with very few outlets for expressing it. In American Music Club, because of the nature of the band’s music and the personalities of those making it, I was forced to figure out how to play absolutely as minimally as I could conceive of playing. Part of what made that work was figuring out how to hang sounds out as long as possible. This led me to thinking about both sonic and harmonic solutions to playing as little as possible. Sonically, I gradually designed and built a stereo rig, one with an amazingly transparent sound. Harmonically, I got into playing lots of clusters. By introducing the listener’s ears to what some might consider “non-chordal” tones, I could hang chords for a longer time-letting the harmony of one chord spill over onto the adjacent chords, etc. I view this approach as having a very direct lineage to music of the Impressionist era.
KMB: Do any other steel players stand out as particular influences?
BK: Long before my associations with American Music Club, David Byrne, Jewel, Slider, etc., I played in honky-tonks. I was in the house band for over four years at “The Saddle Rack” in San Jose, CA, which billed itself as “California’s largest nightclub”, and was the west coast equivalent of Gilley’s (as made famous in the movie Urban Cowboy). As such, I was constantly playing top 40 and classic country music. In order to do this I was constantly ear training by listening to records, copping the best steel players Nashville had to offer. I know for sure that I learned from more steel players than I could possibly list. Some of my favorites, not in any particular order, include Buddy Emmons, Buddy Charleton, Lloyd Green, John Hughey, Pete Drake, Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
KMB: To many people, steel guitar is a striking instrument, both visually and sonically. What, in particular, was it that drew you to steel guitar?
BK: It was largely an accident. Straight out of school, I was working in a guitar store repairing instruments. One day a Sho Bud Maverick came in on trade. I played around with it and got hooked. It was during this period of time that pedal steel began making inroads into pop music on albums like Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song “Teach Your Children.” I was working both as a guitar player and drummer playing mostly cover music in local nightclubs. It already seemed like every other person I ever met was a guitar player. I thought learning the steel would help separate me from the hordes of guitar players. I never dreamed at that point that I would eventually essentially stop thinking of myself as a guitar player.
When I bought my first steel, I was determined to incorporate it into my gigs as quickly as I could. I holed up about six hours a day, seven days a week working away at my Winnie Winston instruction book. After six months I gave up. I put it in my closet and tried to forget how bad I sounded. I was out of tune; I was constantly missing the strings I was trying to pluck; I couldn’t coordinate the pedals and knee levers. It sounded like a catfight, and I was mighty sick of how hard I was trying and how little I was getting in return. Eventually, I dragged it out of the closet and tried again. I think it must have been sheer determination, but gradually I started to get a grip on the technique. I began working it into my gigs, one song at a time.
At this point in time, after many years of playing, because of the amount of musical intelligence that is built into the instrument’s functionality, I actually think pedal steel is easier to play thoughtfully and interestingly than guitar is.
KMB: Can we hope to hear another instrumental album from you in the future?
BK: I certainly hope so! It has been my intention to follow up Slider for the last two or three years. Unfortunately in everyone’s life there are periods where it just seems that the Gods must be angry with you. First, a few months after Slider was released, Hearts Of Space’s distributor (DNA) went bankrupt. Then my dearly beloved mother-in-law was diagnosed with Cancer. My wife and I took her into our home and cared for her until she died. Shortly after this my wife was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease. Shortly after this my sister was diagnosed with Cancer. All of these life events carved heavily into the time that I could spend doing work which may or may not be particularly remunerative...
During these other catastrophes, Hearts Of Space Records was sold to Valley Entertainment. Without going into any of the sordid details, after Valley made it clear that they were disinterested in Slider and me, I spent the next year (and then some) in legal battles with them, first extricating myself from a contract option then fighting to regain ownership of Slider. I was pretty bitter as to how difficult this process was; as a result I found it impossible to conjure the motivation necessary to do an elective project. I’m happy to say that I finally prevailed and intend to reissue Slider in the coming months.
Setting up distribution for Slider and subsequent releases is one of the final precursors to allowing myself to carve a month or two out of my life to do a new album. I want to make sure that there’s a way to get it into the marketplace before I make it. I’ve been tooling up my studio for this purpose, recently upgrading to a Pro Tools HD Accel system. I’ve also been working on some new techniques and tools (for me at least) for recording steel.
Chas Smith creates music that moves slowly through space and time, with a sculptural – sometimes monolithic – shifting of textures and color fields that change subtly and reveal new facets as they unfold in the listening consciousness. Along with a variety of steel guitars, Smith also utilizes an array of unique instruments he has designed and built himself. Indeed, Chas Smith may well be one of the foremost composers working in the spirit of Harry Partch, inventing his own sound worlds and the tools with which to realize them. His releases on the Cold Blue label – Aluminum Overcast, Nikko Wolverine, and An Hour Out Of Desert Center – make for deep and fascinating listening. A new disc is scheduled for release in early 2005.
KMB: Your music seems to contain strong elements from the visual arts. Can you describe some of your approaches to composition?
Chas Smith: I've been accused of doing drone music, which is not what I think I'm doing, but I do use long tones and slowly evolving structures which, relative to the frenetic world most of us live in, probably seem static, by comparison. That stasis could be thought of as having mass and gravity, and as it slowly evolves it could be like viewing it from different perspectives, like a sculpture. When I'm composing, I tend to assign mental colors and shapes to the sounds I'm working with to give them a visual element and help me keep
track of them. And constructing pieces with sound isn't all that different from constructing things with metal: the tools and the materials are different, but the techniques are similar.
The "structures" are in fact "melodies" and phrases of notes and textures that I think of as having a life span. These are placed in time, above and below each other, over the duration of the piece, and as their lives play out they create the incidental vertical harmonies. It’s essentially the same thing that JS Bach was doing, so it's not a radical idea. This is why I think my compositions have a narrative trajectory.
When a complex sound isn't moving quickly, there is time to listen to the details, and for me, that is the experience of being drawn into the sound. When music just hangs in the air, like a tapestry, and I'm drawn into it, that's where the magic is.
KMB: Your work in design, metals, fabrication, instrument building, etc. puts you in a unique position to master the physics of sound production. What effect has this had on your music?
CS: I have a small welding and machine shop in front of the studio. The beauty of this is, I get to enjoy the combination of my skills. This is the real wealth.
I've always loved complex sounds, even though I think that shakuhachi music approaches perfection. I'm not entirely sure what came first, my attraction to the complex sounds in metal structures or the fact that I've been a metal worker for over 30 years and maybe I just got used to it. Be that as it may, the harmonic complexity – that is, the details that makes up the sounds – is influenced by the various alloys and shapes. So what started off as a trial and error of fabricating things out of bronze, steel, and aluminum alloys, which is the affordable way to start, has progressed to titanium and inconel alloys where the T and E can get pricey.
Initially, I was building instruments for the enjoyment of the sounds they made; later, some of them were also made to be used in film scores. It was an ideal situation where I was getting paid to do something I loved. I spent a number of years trying to figure out how to write for these kinds of sounds, where the piece wasn't about "showcasing" the instrument or the sound, but rather, the sounds existed only as elements in the composition and the composition was self-referential. The problem with working with textures and unfamiliar pitch relationships was that, even I was getting lost after 12 minutes or so. We are so inundated with eight-tone music in 4/4 time that (this) becomes our point of reference for everything else. So I was having to include "tonal markers" as a form of grounding.
KMB: Do you create the instruments and their scales first and compose for them, or do you build instruments for the music you've already conceptualized or created?
CS: Yes and yes. Usually, there's a sound I want and I work backwards from that to devise an instrument that will produce that sound. Then it becomes a trial-and-error process and perhaps what I was building didn't make the original sound, but it made a different one that was interesting and usable. Because I've been doing this for a long time and I've made a lot of "duds", I have a fairly decent idea of what is or isn't going to work before I start.
The idea wasn't to use a formal scale or tuning system, but rather use whatever the instrument had, so it's a form of indeterminate tuning. In my compositions, what pitch the note is, has less importance than what the note does and how much "life" it has in it. So scales and tuning aren't really an issue.
For instance, the DADO has six steel plates spinning over pickups. The original frame was for an instrument that didn't work so I recycled it, but because of the size, the largest plate that would fit was 16 inches square. These were cut to have mathematically related tines and whatever the pitch was, that's what got used.
The Pez Eater has 36 tuned rods mounted vertically in front of pickups to make tonal textures, originally to be used in film scores where the guys who sign the checks tend to prefer tonal sounding music.
My favorite instrument is the Copper Box (I know it's a dumb name) that has 36 36-inch bronze rods, with set collars, welded around the perimeter of two 24" steel discs, in the shape of a helix. The collars help to control the "splash". On each rod, the struck pitch is different from the bowed pitch and the bowed pitch varies with where the rod is bowed and with what pressure. It has its own multiple scales and, when it's being used as the lead instrument, those pitches are the reference point – and because the steel guitar is not fixed-pitch, I can harmonize any of these, if need be.
KMB: Do you compose using standard or any other musical notation?
CS: Sometimes. If it's traditional sounding, I still write from the piano, but once you get beyond the traditional 12-tone tuning system, standard notation starts to lose its ability to represent what you're doing. If you think about it, dots on lines is an abstract way to represent music, which is abstract to start with. So, any graphic representation, if it's comprehensible, works equally well. One of the reasons for a musical notation, besides documenting what you've done to give to other players, is to facilitate an analysis of what is there. If, for instance, I'm stuck on a section, I can look at how I got there and where I want it to go, then apply some compositional technique to at least get something started.
I go back and forth between being intuitive about where I place things and using traditional techniques. Because a lot of what I do is "single event", I start working on a piece from different places in the center or near the end, then I work backwards and forwards from there to "connect-the-dots". This is a lot easier to do if there is some sort of graphic. I envy the person who can compose backwards using improvisation techniques.
When I'm working with textures, there's usually a tonal center to them that becomes a reference point, like the prominent color of a color-field. I recently did a solo concert where I played Guitarzilla and I used three Electrix Repeaters for real-time loops. Guitarzilla is a four-neck console guitar with two "prepared" necks, and a five-string bass neck, with pickups on both ends of the necks, and the fourth neck is a titanium framed 12-string non-pedal guitar that bolts onto the side of the main body. The "preparation" on the front necks is 66 vertically mounted rods that are bowed with a violin bow and struck with hammered dulcimer mallets. The piece opens with bowing the rods into a short loop, followed by a series of seven-cycle patterns of struck rods into a four and a half minute loop where I have to keep track of the measure count so that I end at the right time. I then switch to the 12-string neck and get out the sheet music with the measure numbers written across the tops during the first seven-cycle playback. I come in at the beginning of the second. I have to sight read the "hymn" and keep track of the measure count so that when I overdub myself, on the second four-minute pass, everything lines up. I finish the piece on the bass neck and it all clocks in around 20 minutes, which was my program allotment.
Another very useful graphic is the waveform display in a DAW, which like standard musical notation, is a time and frequency domain.
KMB: At times you exploit the idiomatic, "recognizable" sound of the pedal steel; at other times the instrument seems to be used as a trigger or controller for complex sonic treatments. What in particular might cause you to "cast' pedal steel as a voice in one of your pieces?
CS: One of the problems of writing with the pedal steel is that it has a very strong "signature", which is also its strength. As a lead instrument, it can "cut" through all of the other stuff around it. One of my guitars has a MIDI pickup on it and I can trigger a sampler (Emu EIV) with it. I've sampled most of my instruments and I use the sampler like a tape deck, The reason being that the majority of my instruments can be cumbersome to play. And rather than spending my time becoming a virtuoso on each, I decided to become an adequate player and spend the rest of my time composing with the results.
I have a three octave set of steel crotales, that I made, as well as a collection of metal cutters, a couple of zithers and the Pez Eater, all of which have been sampled and seem to blend well with the steel. When I pick a note on the steel, it plays and then the sampled note chases and overtakes it. That way the steel note evolves into something else, in real time.
KMB: Do any other steel players stand out as strong influences?
CS: I am in awe of so many players. Once you realize how hard it is to play the instrument, watching the comfort and effortlessness of the "big guys" is very humbling. That being said, I idolize the lyrical players and the innovators, who influenced everyone else. At the top of the Pantheon would be Joaquin Murphey and Jerry Byrd (who I once heard say, "I've spent a lifetime trying to play as few notes as possible"). Followed by Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Day, Speedy West, Ralph Mooney...You can't over-estimate the impact that Buddy Emmons has had on the design and development of the instrument as well as the playing techniques for both necks.
Speedy West once told me that he came out to California and wanted to play like Joaquin Murphey, but he didn't have those skills, so he developed his own style, which included "percussive" techniques and exploited more of what was available. Wynn Stewart asked Ralph Mooney to come up with something that would set them apart from everyone else. So Ralph came up with a "bouncing" picking style that has been called the "West Coast" or "Bakersfield" style. One player creates an entire genre of music... and when I asked him about it, he simply replied, "I was just doing my job..." It was Ralph's playing that seduced me into wanting to play steel guitar.
Alvino Rey built a solid-body electric Spanish guitar in the mid '30s, years before Les Paul, (by the same token, Paul Tutmarc made a solid body electric bass guitar, for sale in 1937, long before Leo Fender) and was in a position to campaign Gibson to build him a pedal guitar in 1938, the Electroharp. I don't think Alvino got all the credit he deserved.
KMB: What, for you, is the appeal of steel guitar?
CS: It's a console instrument, usually with multiple necks of 10 or more strings on each neck and multiple pedals and knee levers, that change the tunings on each neck while it's being played. So it's a complex instrument, but then, so is a piano. However, the keys on a piano are arranged in a linear repetitive pattern of 12 fixed-pitch notes. You know what this 12 do; you know what the next 12 do...
The note-patterns of the steel guitar could be thought of as a non-fixed-pitch, three-dimensional matrix, up and down the neck. There is the tuning that goes across the neck (y-axis), the tuning that goes up and down the neck (x-axis), and both of those tunings can be altered by pushing the pedals and knee levers (z-axis). Very complex; and what that allows is the smooth transitions of internal chord voices and dynamics, similar to choral and ensemble playing. Also, the tuning and pedals and knee levers on the front neck are completely different than those on the back neck, as are the traditional playing styles; the front neck being the "country" E9, or "money neck", the back neck being the C6, jazz and swing.
To my ears, the sound has a raw elegance where single and double lines seem to have an elevated importance; the high lonesome sound. Because it's electric, it can have multiple colors where it blends beautifully with other instruments and orchestra. When Joaquin played, it sounded like a clarinet; It can function as a horn section or comp like a B3. Because of the way it's played, with a bar and volume pedal, a sensitive player can get the dynamics of a vocalist.
Also it looks cool, it's very versatile in various traditional and non-traditional settings, and it goes well with cowboy boots.
There is a whole choreography going on under the guitar with both feet and knees, pushing and releasing multiple combinations of pedals and knee levers as well as a volume pedal while the right hand is picking notes and chord groups while the left hand is moving the bar across and up and down the neck while damping the strings that aren't being played. And then you gotta be musical… All of this has to be automatic, which means years of practice. It also helps if you're a little OCD – obsessive/compulsive. It also probably contributes to the camaraderie among steel players, in spite of our differences.
When I was first getting started, we lived in a house between two apartment buildings and I didn't have a headphone setup. I'd be tuning up, and my housemates would run into the room screaming “NO, NO, NO“, so I'd wait until they left, before I started playing, then the neighbors would throw their garbage into our yard as payback. It was very encouraging and affirmative...
From the relatively unadorned sound of pedal steel and amplifier, Susan Alcorn brings forth music that is as full of emotional honesty as it is of melodic and harmonic exploration and surprise. She possesses a virtuosic technique that is always at the service of the musical moment and its possibilities for expression and communication. Her solo recording Uma (Loveletter) and her duet with Eugene Chadbourne on An Afternoon in Austin (Boxholder) chronicle some of her expressive journeys through and beyond the liquid sound of the pedal steel. Alcorn performs at this year’s High Zero festival in Baltimore, which runs from Sept. 30 through Oct. 3. For more information, visit www.highzero.org.
KMB: Your work crosses genres and categories; indeed, it seems to be in a category of its own. That said, it does share some elements with the best jazz: a deep exploration of harmony and melody, a sense of re-invention and discovery through improvisation and variation of composed structures. Could you discuss some aspects of your creative/improvisational/compositional methodologies?
SA: When I write (or when I improvise, which, to me, is very similar), it is usually when something just sort of seems to come to me, and I almost feel like it’s cheating when I put my name to it, because it’s not something that I “came up with”; it’s more like something from outside that comes briefly into my head. That said, though, much of it is related to what I’ve gone through in life and the places I’ve been in my musical journey, whether it’s country music, Messiaen, nueva cancion, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Indigenous music, or whatever. In this way the music is grounded – it has roots in music that has been around as long as there have been human beings and birds. After the initial melody comes to me, then sometimes I work quite hard to find just the right place for it – the right phrasing and the right harmonization within a composition. And with melodies, there is so much more that we can do. There is much more that can be said with a note if you are willing to go outside of the narrow parameters of what has constituted a “note” in Western music. This is, I think, one of the appeals of things like Gamelan music. There is a community – actually many communities – and a universe of notes, tones, and sounds in, around, and between the notes we are accustomed to hearing. I try to find ways to enter this universe and these communities and communicate with them and coax them to tell their stories in a way that makes sense for the listener. This is where so-called “extended technique” comes in.
KMB: A unique aspect of your work is the way you explore and exploit the technical possibilities of a particularly complex instrument while expressing what seem to be very intense emotions. Are there specific techniques or preparations – musical, physical, psychological, or spiritual – that help enable you to do this so effectively?
SA: Well, yes, there are, though some of this is rather personal. Musically, I practice constantly so that my technique on the instrument is sufficient to be able to say what I want to say when the time comes. But really, that’s of secondary importance because if you have nothing to say, all the technique in the world won’t help. So to prepare for a performance, I try to do whatever I can to be in the right place when I play. There is a lot that goes into this, and I do different things at different times. Usually before I perform, I try to find a quiet space to sit, and if I can hear the audience while I’m sitting, that’s not so bad. I want whatever I do to reach my audience, and I want to be in a space where they can reach me. When I play at home and write music, I try to allow myself to be moved by the world around me and to bring this to the music I play.
KMB: Could you discuss what part the audience might have in the way your solo performances unfold?
SA: In my performances, the audience plays an incredibly important role. I like to think of a musical performance as being akin to some sort of primordial shamanic ritual – invoking together – performer and audience – the spirits of understanding, wisdom, beauty, ugliness, and healing. In terms of the musical composition our roles are equal – we are both creating an atmosphere for whatever the music can allow itself to say. 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.” 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.
So my responsibility as a musical performer is to give the listener just what he or she needs to be able to do this – to be able to touch some depths of feeling, perhaps heal a bit, perhaps be, at least for a moment, in a different place. This, of course, is not easy, because everyone (myself included) brings his or her own experiences to a concert. Sometimes I feel a certain hush in the audience, a certain silence, and then I know that they are following the music, hanging onto and letting go of the notes, that it has somehow reached them – this is when the magic can start to happen.
KMB: Do any other steel players stand out to you as influences?
SA: When I first started playing the steel guitar, I listened to, and learned what I could from, all the great steel guitarists of that time, and wore out the needles on my record player. From Lloyd Green I learned the importance of economy and that “simple” was not so easy, nor was it really all that simple when you looked at it carefully. I listened also to Jimmy Day because of the feeling and emotion he put into everything he did. Buddy Emmons plays with a certain beauty that seems to transcend emotion. I listened to Curly Chalker and Joaquin Murphey, who were jazz-oriented steel guitarists, and I was drawn to the sense of abandon that they had in their playing. Maurice Anderson was another important influence – his chord voicings and his use of four finger picks.
However, for the past 10 or 15 years, I have rarely listened to other steel guitarists. I guess because I spent so much time and energy listening to them when I was younger, I needed, and perhaps still need, some distance to help find my own voice.
KMB: To many people, steel guitar is a striking instrument, both visually and sonically. What, in particular, was it that drew you to steel guitar?
SA: Ever since I was young, I have always been drawn to slide instruments – I guess it’s something about the instruments and their ability to play the notes in between the notes. Before I played the pedal steel guitar, when I was a teenager, I played slide guitar, dobro, and Hawaiian guitar. However, what drew me to the “pedal” steel guitar was just what you described – it is both, visually and sonically, a gorgeous instrument. The first time I saw someone playing it live, I was hooked – the way the metal bar just seemed to float over the top of the instrument, the strangely beautiful sound it made. I knew that I had to get one, and I knew that my life would never again be the same.
I also liked the comparative ease in which more complex musical ideas could be expressed.
KMB: Pedal steel is regarded as an instrument that’s difficult to play, requiring high levels of hand-leg-foot coordination, and lots of mental multi-tasking. What are your comments on this? Do you have any special methods or techniques for dealing with these considerations?
SA: Well, I think that any instrument is difficult to play well, but the pedal steel guitar is one of the more difficult instruments to learn. It’s not like the guitar or piano which a beginner can play with a good sound without much practice. The coordination that’s involved with using both hands, both knees, and both feet is something I rarely think about; I think I’ve internalized it. For me, technique is very important, so I spend a lot of time practicing scales and other techniques for developing my abilities with both hands and feet. I try to learn or transcribe music which is very different from what is usually performed on the pedal steel guitar – classical piano music, choral music, string quartets, tango music, Japanese koto music, gamelan; lots of things. So in doing this I learn a little more about my instrument and ways of playing which can be useful in other avenues. I always try to stretch my personal horizon a little bit and think outside my personal box. I like to listen to singers – the way a vocalist approaches melody, tone, and sound. Also, I practice on extended techniques and using them in musical ways. There are certain ways of hitting or touching a string that will give you different overtones; the string has to be touched very carefully – just right – you coax it rather than strike it. Also, different materials. There are other things besides the standard steel bar that can give birth to all kinds of ideas.
Also, my approach is not to “master” my instrument. It’s like riding a horse. It’s best to cooperate with and respect the instrument. Then, like a flower, it will open up to you in ways you could never imagine.
KMB: Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects you would like to talk about?
SA: Certainly. I have a new CD coming out on Fleece Records called Curandera which I’m quite excited about. This CD covers quite a bit of ground – an Olivier Messiaen transcription, a Tammy Wynette song, something by Curtis Mayfield, and my own compositions, which are a little different from those on Uma.
This summer I did a lot of traveling and was involved with some interesting recordings which I really like – duets with LaDonna Smith in Alabama, saxophonist Joe Giardullo in upstate New York, and drummer/percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani at his studio in New York City. I also participated on an album of murder ballads with Kentucky mountain singer Danny Dutton.
One project I’d like to do in the future would be an album of South American music. I have spent some time in Chile and Argentina – the “Southern Cone” – and what I heard and experienced there has affected me deeply. Such heartfelt music – Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, Inti-Illimani, Astor Piazzolla, Mercedes Sosa, Carlos Gardel. And also Brazilian music, though that’s another universe. I’d like to do something with that.
By Kevin Macneil Brown