It took eight years to release the fantastic music of «The Heart Sutra». Finally, Viennese label Editions Mego and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley Ideologic Organ imprint came to help and the live concert of music by American pedal steel master Susan Alcorn, as curated and arranged by cellist Janel Leppin during Alcorn’s residency at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room from May 2012, sees the light of day.
Leppin arranged nine compositions of Alcorn for a sextet, with no pedal steel player, but for an ensemble of experimental improvisers – guitarist Anthony Pirog, vocalist Jessika Kenney, violist Eyvind Kang, bass player Skúli Sverrisson, clarinetist Doug Wieselman, and Leppin herself on cello and modified cello. She met Alcorn a year before when both recorded Kang’s composition «Thick Tarragon» («Visible Breath», Ideologic Organ, 2012) and she has studied carefully Alcorn sonic universe, who expanded exponentially the vocabulary of the pedal steel instrument, originally identified with country music, with the music of visionaries as French composer Olivier Messiaen, John Coltrane, Argentinian nuevo-tango composer Astor Piazzolla, deep listening, feminist philosopher-composer Pauline Oliveros and Indian classical ragas.
Alcorn’s compositions refer to the elusive, spiritual essence in music, and offer music that demands focused and profound awareness. Alcorn herself expands on this kind of spiritual-mystic experience on the liner notes: «music is the one I chose (or perhaps it chose me)… there has always been certain magic, feeling the vibrations through my bones as a child and now as an adult. With that magic, there has always been, for me, a need to wade deeply then swim in those vibrations and communicate what it feels like – an experience beyond pleasure or pain, beyond emotions. A feeling of transcendence but also of being rooted like a tree in the earth below. A connection with that mysterious universe of musical vibrations, vibrations within vibrations, and the spaces between in which stillness is only relative».
The hour-long concert focuses on this kind of meditative sonic experience. You can sense, in the most physical meaning of this term, the fragility of the resonant vibrations or their compassionate depth. It is also clear that Alcorn’s compositions navigate in a world of their own, one that does not recognize cultural, geographical, genre boundaries nor are bound by brutal past or present traditions and beliefs. There is great emotional power in Leppin’s acoustic, chamber abstraction of Alcorn’s music, highlighting the infinite palette of colors and shades. An irreverent modesty, with no great dramas, but with transparent dynamics and poetic imagination. The wordless vocalizations of Kenney (except for the «Suite of Ahl», with lyrics in Spanish by Leppin, dedicated for Alcorn and Kenney’s late father, MJ Miguel Kenney), who employs traditional vocal techniques of Persia and Indonesia, and the nuanced arrangement of string and reed instrument radiate magically these enigmatic feelings, with impressive grace and passion. These healing qualities are best captured in the title-piece, titled after one of the most important sutras in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the last, most fragile «And I Wait the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar».
Anthony Pirog (g), Janel Leppin (c, modified c), Jessika Kenney (v), Eyvind Kang (viola), Skúli Sverrisson (b), Doug Wieselman (cl, bcl)