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Sharon Isbin: Exclusive Interview: June 29, 2010

Sharon Isbin

On Thursday, June 10 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with celebrated American guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin – whose Sony release, Journey to the New World, won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance (her third Grammy award). In this fascinating discussion, Ms. Isbin discusses the genesis of this unique and diverse recording, with music ranging from Dowland lute duets to British folk tunes to new works to collaborations with singer Joan Baez. Other topics covered here include Isbin’s distinct approach to musical color on the guitar, her active role in commissioning new works (including a moving account of her collaboration with John Duarte, the composer of the Suite for Joan Baez), her various “crossover” projects, and much more. Don’t miss the insightful reflections of one of the top classical guitarists of our day!

“I have long been inspired by the lyricism and heart-felt quality of Joan Baez’ singing... I think it’s been a part of my aspiration as an instrumentalist to sound like a singer ­– because my goal as a player is to be able to capture not only the rhythmic and harmonic spirit of the guitar, but also the sense of its vocal quality.”
– Sharon Isbin

Nolan Gasser: Let’s start by talking a bit about your latest Sony release, the Grammy-Award winning Journey to the New World. Clearly, folk music has long been a key influence on you, and has been featured in various guises on several of your recordings; this CD is rather distinct: it’s a mix of traditional folk songs from the British Isles; transcriptions of lute works by Dowland, Johnson, and others; a few contemporary works, and even a couple of songs with Joan Baez. So, what exactly was the impetus for this unique collection of works?

Sharon Isbin: Well, I’ve always been inspired by folk music, going back to when I first took up the guitar: I was nine years old, and our family was living in Italy on sabbatical; my older brother wanted guitar lessons, so when he met the teacher [Aldo Minella] and realized this was classical – the teacher had studied with Segovia and was touring all over Italy – my brother said, “No, I don’t want classical; I want to be like Elvis Presley.” So, he bowed out – and I volunteered to take his place, mainly because I was familiar with folk music, and figured this couldn’t be too different; but I fell in love with the guitar right away. As my career evolved, this came full circle, in that I began to explore a lot of these folk-inspired influences on the guitar, from a variety of different countries.

For example, when I commissioned English composer John Duarte to write me a second guitar suite [the first being Appalachian Dreams, from 1999], I asked that it be inspired by the folk music that Joan Baez sang in the early part of her career – and that became the focal point of the album. When Joan heard my performance of the suite, she offered to sing on the recording – which took the album in another direction. Later, I began to associate the music of the Joan Baez Suite with influences from the Old World and the British Isles, as well as with a lot of the music that has become part of the American vernacular: I began this journey with lute duets (that I do with myself) by composers like John Dowland; I moved on to 17th and 18th century Scotland and Ireland; and then crossed the ocean with the immigrants – who took with them their songs, their stories, their dreams, and their ambitions. When they came to the New World, it became a new language – that has become part of our folk music culture.

One of the bridges for this transition is a work by Andrew York called Andecy. When I first heard it – on a Windham Hill compilation – there was no information about the piece; but I just was so moved by it.

NG: Yes, it’s a beautiful piece.

SI: It is, and I instantly felt that it fit perfectly as a bridge between the two Worlds. I asked Andrew what the music was about, and he told me that his father and uncle used to perform hundreds of American and British folk songs – and that this piece was written with that idea in mind. So I intuited the message, and the piece communicates itself in a very magical way, I think.

When Joan Baez offered to sing on the album, I suggested two songs that were part of her background, but that would have very different settings: Wayfaring Stranger and Go ‘Way from My Window. Around the same time that Joan and I went into the studio, I was premiering with Mark O’Connor a work he wrote for the two of us: Strings and Threads, set for guitar and violin; these works are a kind of folk history of the violin in the US, tracing the 13 colonies and their migration West. Mark’s family, of course, came from the Irish potato farmers who fled to escape the famine, and who tried to start a new life in the States; as one of the world’s premier country fiddle players, he wanted to explore a lot of the influences – so this particular suite has everything from Irish jigs that become the reels to waltzes to ragtime, swing, and bebop to the blues; it’s really a travelogue in itself. After the premier, I said to Mark, “This would fit perfectly on my new record; will you go into the studio with me next month?”

And that’s really how it all came to be: a journey with the immigrants from the 16th century in the British Isles to the New World.

NG: This certainly does sound like the typical patchwork quilt that defines the American experience. It’s a wonderful collection, and makes for such an enjoyable listening experience – plus, it’s such an eclectic mix of material. I can imagine that as the concept coalesced, there must have been challenges in deciding what would work well on the album; and you’ve painted a vivid picture of how things came to your mind as being good fits. I was a bit surprised, though, that there really isn’t too much in the way of early American works – from the late 18th or 19th centuries; there is a 19th century spiritual that is sung by Joan Baez, Wayfaring Stranger, but nothing else. Was this a deliberate choice, or was there just a lack of room on the album?

SI: Well, one could do many volumes on this same theme, so there was no way that I would attempt to present everything – it was really meant to present the hint of the idea. What was most important to me was to feature two world premiere recordings, of works written for me – and that really forms the centerpiece of the album. And even though Mark O’Connor’s works are all original – none of them are actually based on source material – they have in their spirit the ideas and characters of those different time periods as they progress chronologically through each movement. The Joan Baez Suite, on the other hand, is all based on source material; and I actually took part in choosing some of the songs with the composer. For example, I said, “I really want you to be sure to include Where Have All the Flowers Gone; and so we got permission from Pete Seeger to do that song – in fact, we got a very enthusiastic response from him.

NG: It’s a wonderful setting of that particular song – with its use of “Taps” as a symbolic counterpoint.

SI: Yes, and of course by using Taps it creates a very poignant message about our world today as well.

Because Joan Baez has been one of my folk music idols of all time, it was really an homage to her to be able to create this album – and to be able to work with her, and perform with her, was beyond a dream come true. It was a magical experience having our first rehearsal at my home in New York. After a bit of visiting, she said, “Would you play something for me?” So she positioned a chair about four feet in front of mine and sat down, and I began to play. I usually have my eyes shut, but I peaked a few times and saw that Joan had tears streaming down her face! This was such a powerful and intimate connection of souls; to think, that this was the woman whose music has made me cry for so many years, and now she was experiencing this emotion. It was something I can’t even begin to describe.

NG: Well, that actually was my very next question: there’s definitely a very important link in this album with Joan Baez, and you’ve mentioned how she has been a long-time hero of yours. Can you talk a bit more about how specifically Joan Baez’ music has been an influence on you – to the degree that you felt a need to honor her in your own music?

SI: Well, Joan has always moved me as an artist, and I have long been inspired by the lyricism and heart-felt quality of her singing; there’s something so special about her voice that has always touched me. I think it’s been a part of my aspiration as an instrumentalist to sound like a singer; of course, there have been many classical influences, from [sopranos] Elly Ameling to Benita Valente to [baritone] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and I could name many other singers that I’ve listened to for years – because my goal as a player is to be able to capture not only the rhythmic and harmonic spirit of the guitar, but also the sense of its vocal quality. This is much trickier to capture, but it can become very important – because unlike a piano, for example, the guitarist can create that “cry” between two notes, like a singer or a violinist can.

NG: Absolutely, and I think there are so many instrumentalists – whether violinists, guitarists, or pianists – whose goal it is to emulate that most natural of instruments, which is the human voice. They can bring us to tears when they make that kind of connection.

SI: Yes, and the guitar has a unique set of qualities – in that perhaps beyond any other instrument, it’s capable of producing a variety of timbers and colors: from very bright metallic to extreme caressing dolce pianissimo – very velvet sound. And all of that can be achieved by one’s technique: how much nail you use; the position of the nail; the angle of attack (we don’t use a pick); how close to the bridge, or to the sound hole or to the finger board; and then the various combinations of all of those factors inter-playing with each other can produce literally an infinite variety of colors. And because we’re not “separated” by keys, reeds, bows, or pedals, it’s really a direct contact between the fingers – the flesh – and the string.

NG: Yes, I’ve heard you speak about color in a number of contexts; clearly, it is a very important part of your aesthetic. Indeed, you yourself have been likened to the painterly arts in several descriptions – you’ve been called the “Monet of the guitar”; and one of your performances was likened to “a painting by Vermeer,” etc. You have talked – just as you have now – about the range of color that the guitar can produce, depending on the position and attack of your right hand, and as being something beyond that of most other instruments. Can you talk a bit more about how you’ve come to see color and timbre within your overall performing aesthetic – and do you perhaps feel that this is an area that other guitarists too often overlook?

SI: I think that it’s an area that I pay special attention to because I see the music in a colorful way and try to capture those colors – like actors on the stage with different voices and different moods and different spirits, we can do that with the kinds of colors that are possible on the guitar. And I feel that when this is ignored, you really are missing 90% of the instrument.

NG: So, when you first begin to learn a piece that you haven’t performed before, are there parts of your preparation that are dedicated specifically to deciding which timbral or coloristic approach one passage will have as opposed to another – perhaps changing when the same music comes back a second time?

SI: Absolutely, for applying different colors will influence the way one perceives the repeats; for example, if you listen to the first and second lute duets – where, again, I play both parts – I really have fun playing with the colors on the repeats; it’s a lot like a conversation between two or more people, and changing the color really adds to the imagery, and to the uniqueness of the interpretation.

NG: And is this emphasis on color something you garnered from your early studies with Oscar Ghiglia [whom she studied at the Aspen Festival] and Andrés Segovia [with whom she studied privately while a student] – or perhaps even back to when you were a kid working with Aldo Minella – or has this been more a part of your personal discovery?

SI: It would be difficult for me to answer that because I can’t say exactly how I’ve come to be who I am today; but it certainly is true that over the years I’ve learned how to produce varied colors on the guitar – but then my application of this, I think, is pretty unique.

NG: Let’s come back a bit to your new album: you’ve talked about the Suite for Joan Baez that you commissioned from composer John Duarte. Now, I understand that this was written back in 2002, and so your desire to pay homage to Joan Baez goes quite a ways back. Indeed, you noted that you were involved in the actual selection of the pieces…

SI: Yes, on some of the pieces in the suite.

NG: I also imagine that working with John Duarte was easier than working with some other composers you’ve commissioned, since John was a guitarist himself.

SI: Yes, absolutely, I didn’t have to change a note. We had already gone through this process with the Appalachian Dreams Suite [1999] that he had written for me – for an album I did called Dreams of the World, which won a Grammy in 2001. For that project, I did a lot research on various fiddle tunes and flat-picking tunes all over the Appalachians, and sent John a packet of these; plus he did his own research. He then culled from all of these sources to create that particular five-movement suite. I really like John’s style of what I would call “creative arrangement” – and that was what I actually requested from him for the Joan Baez Suite.

NG: Yes, I think that’s a very apt way of putting it – they are “creative arrangements”: the original melodies and harmonies are generally present, but there’s always some interesting tweaking going on. Of course, we’ve discussed the great setting of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” with it use of “Taps”; I also noticed there’s a subtle use of both the [Gregorian Requiem chant] Dies irae as well as “Dido’s Lament” from [Henry Purcell’s] Dido and Aeneas in his setting of “The Unquiet Grave”. I believe that the Joan Baez Suite was one of the last works that John Duarte wrote before he passed, so I’m sure it must have been a very moving experience for you to have received and recorded the work…

SI: Yes, you can imagine… John was dying of cancer; I was in Berlin to do the mixing for my recording with the New York Philharmonic [of guitar concertos by Rodrigo, Villa Lobos, and Ponce], and made the trip to his home in London. He rallied, and we spent this wonderful day together. Apropos “The Unquiet Grave”: as you mentioned, there’s a juxtaposition in the middle of the beautiful lament from the Purcell opera, Dido and Aeneas; and it turns out that this was one of John’s favorite works of all time, so it’s a very sad work – and the song is talking about, “when I’m dead, you’ll meet me in the grave; and don’t blame me for all the things I’ve done.” So, it was just heart wrenching; he played a recording of the Purcell, and the two of us were sobbing – because we knew he was going to die very soon.

NG: Wow, I can imagine – it clearly must have been very poignant for him to, in essence, talk about his own passing through music in this way, to come to grips with it in such a creative manner…

SI: Yes, and it was very important for me to be able to work with him on the piece, to ask him tons of questions, and to get coaching from him before I recorded it. And that was the purpose of the trip as well – not only to say goodbye, but also to have a chance to give the final word to the composer.

NG: And so he got a chance to hear you perform it before he passed?

SI: Yes, I played it for him at his house when we were there. He spent hours coaching me on it, and we listened to the Purcell and cried… It was so valuable, I can’t tell you: he advised me on tempo, on interpretation, colors, articulation; it really informs the whole basis of how I play the piece – and that was long before I made the recording.

NG: Now, I’ve read that Joan Baez herself heard your performance of the Suite, and that this was what inspired her to want to record with you. What was the setting in which she heard the piece?

SI: I actually just made her a copy of the premiere performance, and sent it to her – because she had to miss the World Premiere: she was on tour on the East Coast, and the World Premiere was in San Francisco. But she sent her then 91-year-old mother to the concert, and we hit it off famously – and so it all got going then.

NG: Well, it sure sounds like recording this album has been a very personal, very dramatic, and quite an emotional journey.

SI: You better believe it! We could have called the record “Cry Me a River!” [laughter]

NG: It makes me think that there should be a Journey to the New World Vol. 2, and 3 – so hopefully Sony will be up for continuing the series.

SI: We’re plotting something new right now – it won’t be quite along those lines, but it will be something very unique, special, and exciting – and something that no one’s ever done before…

NG: Wow, that’s quite a teaser.

SI: Yes, stay tuned!

NG: Okay, we will, and we’ll feature that recording when it comes out.

Now, Journey to the New World earned you your third Grammy Award, which is quite a feat for a classical guitarist – so let’s move on and talk a bit more about you. You’ve performed now in every major concert hall in the world, with almost every major orchestra and soloists, a couple times at the White House – and you’ve been widely regarded as among the greatest guitarists of our time. You claimed at one point that you never set out to conquer the world, just to be the best guitar player that you could – but you obviously have some special spark that has given you not only a great career, but somewhat a status as a spokesperson for the instrument. So, did you ever imagine when you were a kid – when you were first realizing that you had this special connection with the guitar – that you’d have this kind of career, and can you highlight some of the elements in your playing that you feel have allowed you to attain this kind of success?

SI: Well, I certainly never dreamed all of this would happen. I just began playing the guitar in Italy because my brother didn’t want the lessons, and my passion was soon to become science and model rocket; in fact, my father used to get me to practice by saying, “You can’t launch your rockets until you put in an hour on your guitar.”

NG: [laughs] Sounds like me with my kids…

SI: Right. So, I did not think of music at all as a profession until I was 14, and won a competition that allowed me to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra in front of 10,000 people; and I decided – literally on the spot – that this was more exciting than sending my grasshoppers up into space, and that I would switch gears and make music my vocation. So I began practicing about five hours a day at that point, and had lessons with Segovia and [Julian] Bream… I just shifted my focus, and it began to pay off.

NG: I read that you had taken piano lessons for a few years before you picked up the guitar; as far as you can recall, did you show any special connection to the piano?

SI: No, on the piano I just felt like one of a thousand students; it didn’t feel very special, so I had already given that up by the age of 8.

NG: It just shows the importance of finding the right instrument if one is going to make a career in music; it has to be an instrument that really speaks to you.

SI: Exactly, and of course the guitar in the late-1960s was just not a classical thing in the United States, it was a rock thing; so had we not gone to Italy, I probably never would have been drawn to the instrument.

NG: Clearly your brother wanted to be the next Elvis Presley or John Lennon on the guitar; did you also have an interest to play rock or pop guitar when you were a teenager?

SI: No, Italy launched me straight into classical, and that’s where I’ve stayed ever since. Of course, I have come to appreciate many styles of music: I have a duo with the rock guitarist Steve Vai; I’ve worked with the famed Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim; and I’ve collaborated with other guitarists like [“new age” musician] Michael Hedges and [jazz musician] Herb Ellis. I have really enjoyed doing projects that are beyond the classical framework – one of the early “crossover” projects I did was before the word was even sanctified (it was considered a dirty word in those days, in the late ‘80’s): it was with [Brazilian guitarist] Laurindo Almeida and [jazz fusion guitarist] Larry Coryell. Later on, of course, everybody wanted to do that sort of thing. I have a trio with [saxophonist] Paul Winter and the Brazilian percussionist from the Amazon, Thiago de Mello – we still do a lot of performances together.

NG: Yes, I saw that you actually have something coming up in a few days with Thiago de Mello…

So, on the subject of your work with jazz guitarists: you’ve mentioned Larry Coryell and Herb Ellis; plus, you also did a guitar summit with Stanley Jordan and Ellis back in the late 1990’s; the guitar is obviously a seminal jazz instrument, and brings with it the realm of improvisation. When you work with these players, do you improvise as well, or are you playing pretty much what’s written on the page?

SI: They improvise, and I play as if I am – but for the most part, I’m doing what’s on the page; there are some chordal things I’ll improvise, for sure, but most of it is done as part of an arrangement – so that we’re each doing what we’re good at.

NG: In looking at your discography, it seems that the guitar summit you did with Jordan and Ellis was never recorded – is that right?

SI: No, sadly we never recorded it; and unfortunately, Michael Hedges and I were going to record something together, but he was killed in a car accident just after one of our tours.

NG: Yes, it certainly is a tragedy for music that Michael Hedges passed so young.

Now, among the many accolades that are bestowed upon you concern your pivotal role in commissioning new works for the guitar: concertos as well as solo works – such as the Suite for Joan Baez that we’ve talked about. I’ve read how once you get a composer to agree to accept a commission – which in the case of some, like John Corigliano, is not always easy – you’ll often supply him, assuming that he’s not a guitarist, with some useful materials: scores, recordings, manuals and even a cardboard cutout of the fret board, which I find very creative. So, for those composers that are not guitarists, do you generally end up working with them while they’re in the process of composing – suggesting changes or particular techniques – or do you wait until they deliver a score before giving them your feedback?

SI: Every situation is different: for example, Christopher Rouse suggested that his work be inspired by the famous Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí; with Lukas Foss, I suggested that it be based on American folk themes; Joseph Schwantner played the guitar, so he did his own thing, and I didn’t have to change a note – though he did ask me to write half of the cadenza; Tan Dun decided to be inspired by the ancient Chinese lute, or pipa, and the heritage of Flamenco guitar – mixing and inter-melding these two cultures in a very unique and creative way; and with John Corigliano, it was my suggestion that his piece be inspired by the 13th-century tradition of the French troubadours.

NG: Right, and that was the thing that got John to take the commission?

SI: Yes.

NG: I read that that the performance challenges in John’s piece [Troubadours: Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra, 1993] – where you actually stroll around the stage – were what led you to initiate a relationship with an audio engineer, and to create the wireless microphone system that you use today.

SI: Yes, the DSA system; I have been using this wireless system since 1993, and it revolutionized my life – because it’s so subtle, nobody knows that I’m amplified; but it gives an extra resonance and volume to the instrument, so that it really projects throughout the hall, yet there’s nothing to see.

NG: Are you finding that this technique is this being adopted by other classical guitarists?

SI: Actually, no one else has figured out how to do it [laughter]; so I’m still the only one doing it.

NG: That certainly gives you an edge.

SI: Yes, seventeen years later, I’m the only one doing it!

NG: Well, I’m sure that at some point, another guitarist will figure out the secret, and try to emulate it. And the Corigliano commission has been among your most successful in terms of subsequent performances, right?

SI: Yes, I’ve done more than sixty performances of that work, but also more than fifty performances of the Rouse, and many performances of the others as well.

NG: Terrific. Now, this process of commissioning new works has become something of a mission for you, and in fact it goes back to your teenage years: I saw that you first commissioned a concerto by the Israeli composer, Ami Maayani, when you were 17. Where do you think this drive to augment the guitar repertoire with new commissions came from – and can you talk about your overall goals in carrying out this mission, and how they’ve been met so far with the dozens of commissions you’ve initiated?

SI: Well, when I was 17, I happened to meet the Israeli composer Ami Maayani, and heard his harp concerto; I thought he sounded like a composer who could write for guitar as well, so I asked him to do it. At first he said, “No, I hate the guitar!” But I played for him, and he then he said, “I think something is possible.” A year later I had my concerto, and premiered it with the Minnesota Orchestra, and then with the Jerusalem Symphony. By that point the bug had bit me, and I was hooked. And I also learned that “no” just means that I need to try harder, until they say “yes”.

NG: So it seems. Can you talk about any upcoming commissions that you have made, or that you’re working on?

SI: Well, right now, I’m focused on another big project, which is finishing a documentary that’s being made on my life and work – and it includes interviews with many of these composers, as well as people like Joan Baez, and conductors, and performers with various orchestras; even Martina Navratilova makes an appearance – she’s a good friend, and we discuss the similarities and differences in discipline between tennis and music. This is a very big project and I hope it’ll be out some time next year – it’s being designed for public television.

NG: That sounds very exciting, and is another example of your high profile in the music world – and your key role in helping to elevate the profile of the guitar.

SI: Thanks. It’s been very fun to hear the composers talk about their work and the writing process – many of us do coaching together.

NG: And have you done any composing yourself?

SI: No, I do some arranging and cadenza work; but I’d rather not face a blank page.

NG: Right, it can be intimidating, there’s no doubt.

One final topic I’d love to cover concerns another big aspect of your career: as an educator. You created the Guitar Department at Juilliard in 1989, and you’re the Director of the Guitar Department in Aspen. How did you come about to create the Guitar Department at Juilliard?

SI: I was asked to create the department in 1989, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do so – and to fashion it after the belief that I have about the guitar department being integrating with other departments; it’s been very exciting. I’ve had students from almost twenty countries come to study with me, and many have returned to their countries to become some of the premier players.

NG: Well, I’m sure it must be a nice personal “give-back”, given the challenges that you faced as a young guitarist to find a good local teacher – where you were basically obliged to wait until the summer Aspen Festival to work with Oscar Ghiglia, or to when Segovia or Bream happened to come into town.

I’m curious about one thing: I’ve read about how few female guitarists there were when you were a student – for example, only 2 out of 50 at Aspen when you were working with Oscar Ghiglia. Has this dynamic changed over the years – are there more girl guitarists coming to audition for you at Juilliard and Aspen?

SI: Oddly enough, the situation hasn’t changed much in the United States. In Europe, which has a much different tradition, there are more women who are studying the guitar. But of all my students at Juilliard, the only women I’ve had have been from other countries, none have been American.

NG: Why do you think that is the case?

SI: Very simply: there is still an association in America with coming to classical guitar from the rock world; so, if you’re a 13-year-old budding rock guitarist and you hear a classical CD, you can switch gears. But there are still fewer young girls who are into the whole rock scene than there are boys; that’s starting to change, but it’s a slower process.

NG: Given your ever-increasing profile within the music scene, I’m sure that more and more girls will be picking up the classical guitar straight away – even without needing to spend a year in Italy with their family.

SI: That would be great, for sure.

NG: Well, thank you, Sharon – I really appreciate your time.

SI: Thanks so much; it was great to talk with you.

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