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Pedaling classical music: It's never sounded like this
Published July 23, 2006

I've always had a weakness for the sound of the pedal steel guitar. Probably the first time I heard its woozy whine was on Sleepwalk, a Top 40 hit by Santo and Johnny in the summer of 1959. Bob Dylan included the instrument in his band during his Nashville period, most memorably on Lay Lady Lay, and Jerry Garcia played it with the Grateful Dead spinoff, New Riders of the Purple Sage. Of course, countless country bands have featured steel guitar since Webb Pierce first used it on his 1954 hit Slowly. There's something about the instrument's melancholy twang that says, "Let's have another round before the lights come up."

But for all its expressiveness and character, that sound is not one I ever expected to hear in the performance of classical music, until I listened to a pair of CDs by Mike Perlowin, a Los Angeles pedal steel guitarist. They are remarkable ear-openers, the first a collection of mainly classical standards, with Stravinsky's Firebird suite as the centerpiece, and then Perlowin's musical theater followup, Bernstein's West Side Story.

There's something about the best of Perlowin's improbable renditions of these concert works that seems weirdly, sublimely right. His performance of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun has a purity of tone that captures the thick, narcotic texture of the music beautifully. As Perlowin's first effort in classical-pedal steel crossover, it was an instinctively smart choice, since Debussy had a special affinity for another unwieldy stringed instrument with pedals, the harp. The album has two other Debussy works, Le Petit Negre and Maid With the Flaxen Hair. Perlowin performs virtually the entire score of West Side Story. Not only does the pedal steel shine where you would expect - in yearning love songs like Tonight and Maria - but it also negotiates some of the funkier numbers, such as the Dance at the Gym medley, with surprising agility. The bluesy lilt of Something's Coming is perfect for the instrument's capacity for shaped notes.

Perlowin's inventive arrangements deploy percussion drummer Dave Beyer is a mainstay on both discs, other guitars and strings, mandolin and banjo, piano, keyboards and all the resources of what must be a pretty elaborate home studio, but the pedal steel guitar is at the heart of the mix. Most of the time it all works, even in such unlikely repertoire as a cartoony polka from a Shostakovich ballet.

Sure, the pedal steel goes over the top in some of the more saccharine melodies, but isn't the inherent cheesiness of the instrument part of its charm? Perlowin's percussive effects can sound ticky-tacky. But the occasional missteps are overshadowed by such achievements as the shimmering wash of languor the pedal steel gives to Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 (from a Debussy arrangement) or the surreal harmonies in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man.

Recently, I spoke with Perlowin by phone from his home. He's 60, a veteran guitar picker in the L.A. folk, rock and country scene who took up the pedal steel relatively late in life and never looked back. "I came to the conclusion I was put on Earth for the specific purpose of playing pedal steel guitar," he writes on his Web site. When I said to him that the instrument, with its complicated system of foot pedals and knee levers, which allows tuning http://www.sptimes.com/2006/07/23/news_pf/Floridian/Pedalin...

to be changed during performance, seemed awfully difficult to play, he begged to differ. "It's not hard to play," said Perlowin, who has a 12-string MSA pedal steel. "It's hard to learn. The first time I sat down with one I found it utterly and totally confusing, because it doesn't work the same way a guitar does." A player uses both hands, both feet and both knees. As Perlowin puts it on his Web site, the pedal steel "does not conform to the most basic rules of how stringed instruments work, but within its own convoluted logic, it does make sense. It has its own logic that doesn't relate to any other instrument." Certainly, it is the least showy of instruments, with the musician sitting down, as if working at a table, and watching his hands on the strings and concentrating to make sure the intonation is correct. Perlowin told me he got the idea to bring the pedal steel guitar to music by the likes of Stravinsky and Debussy while listening to jazz.

"One of my favorite jazz musicians is guitarist Johnny Smith, and he recorded a piece by Debussy, Maid With the Flaxen Hair, on an otherwise all jazz album," he said. "When I heard that piece, I thought, 'That's gorgeous. I want to learn to play that on the steel.' That's what got me started. I knew the Firebird. But I was pretty ignorant of the genre."

Perlowin may have been something of a newcomer to classical music, but as he recounts in a biographical essay on his Web site, he was steeped in American folk music and blues, having heard many traditional singers in the early 1960s at an L.A. club called the Ash Grove. It's an influence that, I think, is pivotal in his work. In its homemade, slightly mad quality, his pedal steel music reminds me of a phrase that critic Greil Marcus coined: "the old, weird America,"
evoking seminal folk musicians from Dock Boggs to Uncle Dave Macon, Furry Lewis to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Perlowin spends a long time making each CD. "It's very labor-intensive," he said. "The Firebird took seven years to complete. West Side Story took five. And the new one (a work in progress with Spanish and Latin repertoire), I've got about six or seven years tied up in it already, and the end is nowhere in sight."

The CDs have not been widely distributed, and I learned of them from a brief review of the Firebird in the American Record Guide, which covers classical music. The recording was originally released by Newport Classics and sold 1,000 copies, Perlowin said. Now it and the West Side Story disc are self-published. They're sold on the Web site of the Steel Guitar Forum, reachable through a link at www.mikeperlowin.com.

Perlowin's dream is to perform with symphony orchestras, and he has discussed doing a pedal steel guitar concerto with James Domine, music director of the San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra. For now his following is strongest among other musicians and especially steel guitar aficionados, who, in reviews collected on his Web site, rave about his adoption of unorthodox repertoire. Still, he gives credit where it's ultimately due. "I think of myself as an illiterate musician playing literate music," he said. "If my music sounds great, it's because I'm playing great music. Despite what anybody may think, I don't show that much imagination and creativity in doing these. I'm basically following the sheet music. I show a certain amount of creativity in choosing which pieces to play and which sounds I want, but it's still Stravinsky's music, it's still Bernstein's music, as interpreted by me."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.
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