Sharon Isbin - Guitar Gone Global

Fear not the adventurous life. Such must be the credo of certain adrenaline-fueled individuals: skydivers, bungee jumpers, classical guitarists.

Wait classical guitarists? How do ya figure?

Listen to the recordings of classical guitar master Sharon Isbin and you'll understand. Isbin is one of the most adventurous classical guitarists to come along in years. She puts in her time in symphony halls and master classes, that's obvious. But as often as possible she jets away to the jungles of Central America or the riverbanks of the Amazon to get a slightly different take on life than that offered by the dressing room at Carnegie Hall. And musically, too, Isbin is as adventurous a soul as has ever graced the record bins of your nearby classical record store.

Isbin's Grammy-decorated catalog includes the usual collection of Tarrega, Vivaldi, and Bach, of course. But check out her CD Journey to the Amazon, many of the tracks for which were written by Amazonian native Thiago de Mello (de Mello also duets with Isbin on a variety of native instruments), or 3 Guitars 3, documenting her five-year performance collaboration with Larry Coryell and Laurindo Almeida.

And then there is the newly released Teldec recording of two very adventurous pieces Isbin commissioned from composers Tan Dun and Christopher Rouse. "Duns Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra Yi2" and "Rouses Concert de Gaudi" take the classical guitar repertoire to realms never before visited.

In this exclusive interview, and in the accompanying video in which she demonstrates many of her techniques, the director of classical guitar studies at Juilliard discusses her passion for musical adventure, her interest in model rocketry, and her predilection for walking the wild side. You picked up a Grammy this year. That must've been pretty exciting.

Sharon Isbin: I got lucky. It was quite an amazing experience because I was out in L.A. for the awards, in February, and when I heard my name announced, I kind of went into an altered state because I was competing against four pianists, all quite well known. And this is the first time, in 28 years, that a classical guitarist has received a Grammy. Congratulations, Sharon. The album was based on folk music of the world, was it not?

Isbin: Yes. It was all inspired by the folk idiom and its called Dreams of a World. It features music from eight different countries, including places like Spain, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, the Appalachian Mountains, Greece, Israel, so its really quite a multi-cultural experience for the listener, and it includes eight first recordings. How did you find these pieces?

Isbin: Well I was collecting a little pile in my living room, which in my category, in my mind, was simply beautiful music. And as the pile grew higher, I took a look at it and realized it was all inspired by the folk idiom. So that is how the concept was born. And I already had asked John Duarte, who is a British composer, to write me a suite-based Appalachian folk song because no one had done this in the classical guitar literature before. So I had researched while I was on tour in '95, in West Virginia, with a number of Appalachian musicians; went to libraries. I must have listened to about 200 flat-picking tunes and fiddle tunes, collated a group of about 20, which I sent to the composer, and from that he used nine to create the suite, Appalachian Dreams, which is featured on Dreams of a World. Where did you grow up and what got you started on classical guitar?

Isbin: I grew up in Minneapolis. I started the guitar in Italy. Our family lived there for a year on sabbatical, when my father was invited as a scientist to do some consulting work. I feel like I'm coming full circle because the first exposure I had was folk music, so I listened to people like Theodore Bikel and Joan Baez. That was really my first love for the instrument. And it was only later, when I was a teenager, about 14, that I got serious about playing classical. I was in a competition which allowed me to perform for about 5,000 people with the Minnesota orchestra and I thought, This is pretty exciting! Before that, I had been into model rockets and my father used to get me to practice by saying, If you do an hour on the guitar, then you can go launch a rocket. But suddenly, you're with an audience in an orchestra that big, and I thought, This is even more exciting than sending grasshoppers up into space. What were some of the first pieces that you learned? Or, what were some of the first lessons that you had or training that you had?

Isbin: Well, I started with an Italian teacher, so of course the literature that I began with was people like Ruli, and Giuliani, and Carcassi all the is and this was 19th century guitar literature. So when I came back to Minneapolis I studied until I was about 16, then I was on my own. And I used a mirror and a tape recorder many hours a day in order to be my own teacher. I would have lessons with people like Segovia or Julian Bream when they came to town. And in the summer, I studied with Oscar Gilia at the Aspen music festival. Incidentally, now I head the department, guitar teaching at the Aspen festival, every summer mid-July to mid-August. What goes on at the Aspen Music Festival, especially, under your tutelage?

Isbin: It's an amazing place because its the biggest music festival in all of North America. ( It's the only place where you can go as a guitarist and really be immersed in the mainstream of the music world and not just the ghetto-ized guitar part. When I was a student there, it was so great to be able hear, every night, a different concert with orchestra, with singers, with violinists, and pianists. It really gives you a sense of color and where this music that we play comes from because its a much bigger picture out there. As a student, you get to hear all of these concerts. There are several different orchestras; there are 900 students. It's really quite an amazing opportunity and my students get a chance to do a lot of chamber music, not only among themselves, but with other musicians who are not guitarists. And they get to play in a big, popular concert at the end of the summer, as well. And you're teaching master classes at this event?

Isbin: Everything is a master class, which means that even though you have five lessons yourself, you're able to hear everybody elses, so that's a good 10 hours a week of intense training. It's sort of like the Berlitz of classical guitar in the summer. Do players have to audition to become part of this?

Isbin: They simply send in a tape to the festival admissions office along with their application and they have to play classical guitar though, I dont teach any other style. All they have to do is put on three pieces no more than 10 minutes and I eventually get that sent to me where I listen to it. If you're able to get your way around the instrument, you'd have a good chance of getting in. So what level do people have to be with their classical playing to be part of this?

Isbin: They really have to be able to play several pieces fluently, so that they can benefit by my instruction because the kind of training that I would give them will work with, of course, technique, but also musicianship. I have an assistant so if someone is less advanced, they could have some of their lessons privately where we'll work on what their individual needs are. That sounds like a great study opportunity. Getting back to Dreams of a World and your other recent recordings, you've covered Cuban music, Spanish, Venezuelan you seem to be very drawn to the Spanish or flamenco style.

Isbin: Well, I'm drawn to all kinds of things. I did all the Bach complete lute suites, which are available on my CD, J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites. I worked for 10 years with Rosalyn Turek, the great Bach scholar and pianist, at creating those performance editions, setting the music for the guitar. And I also do a lot of work with contemporary composers, whose styles may range from very listenable and tonal like John Duarte to things that are more exotic and far out.

The newest recording I have that came out in May of 2001 is two concerti written for me by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. Christopher Rouse is a Pulitzer Prize winning composer; his piece is inspired by the music of Antonio Gaudi, the famous architect in Barcelona, Spain.

If you've ever seen pictures of some of his work, it's very beyond his time. It's beyond our time, even. It's something quite exotic. It's almost like listening to a Dali painting to hear Christopher Rouse Concert de Gaudi because he takes Spanish gestures, even in the beginning. It starts with something that you immediately identify as flamenco, but that's the end of where that familiarity goes because these gestures then are taken to another level with a modern vision. It's really quite intriguing. Tan Dun was also drawn to the idea of the Spanish guitar heritage and even uses some things where you have the guitar stomping, and then the orchestra is doing wild stuff. Tan Dun, incidentally, just won an Academy Award for his film score, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he uses the idea of folk music also in his concerto.

One of the things that he uses and were talking about Chinese folk music, of course hes inspired by the Pipa, the ancient Chinese lute. And the ancient Chinese lute was played and still is today the Pipa is played with plectrums on the fingernails, metal pieces, and then they [strum forward], but we [strum or pluck backward], so they use a very fast tremolo kind of effect.

And he also uses the technique of bent notes. When Christopher Rouse uses them, they sound more like Jimi Hendrix. So you've got the idea of different approaches of technique on the guitar taken with whole alternative perspectives by these composers producing really very different results. And that's exciting. Each one has a very passionate feel to it. These two are very adventurous pieces, very modern compositions. I know that you have done some recordings in the past that were done partially to expand the literature of modern classical guitar. Is that a particular mission of yours?

Isbin: Well, first of all I enjoy working with living composers because thats part of creating music that reflects our own time, our own culture, my own interests, my own technique, and things that really will last long beyond what I'm doing. So that is not only a mission on my part, but also a joy. And it gives me the vicarious pleasure of being a composer without the responsibility of actually having to fill those blank pages with all those black notes, but I work closely with a composer. If you listen to the Cadenza in the last movement of the Christopher Rouse piece, where the guitar gets a chance to do what sounds like a very improvisatory thing thats something that we worked on closely together in order to give it a real guitar sound, taking his ideas and translating it into that language.

I've had nine different works for guitar and orchestra, nine different concerti written for me, by composers that I requested to do this. As a result the literature of the instrument is really expanding in ways that are exciting. Each time a composer who doesn't play guitar writes for me, they have a chance to go in a new direction, create a new horizon, and extend what we thought were the boundaries of the instrument, but really aren't.

For example, John Corigliano, in his concerto "Troubadours", from my album American Landscapes. It starts with a very fast run that keeps going on and on, and it repeats a couple of times. So when I first saw that I thought, "Well thats pretty challenging." And he said, "I want you to play that walking around." So if you say that to electric guitarists, it's not as big a deal because they're used to walking with their guitar, but [classical guitarists] sit here kind of glued to the chair. So I had to devise a series of suction cups and things that would suspend the instrument, and I paced back and forth in my living room for two weeks until I could play that damn thing walking. And now it's easy for me, but why did he want me to do that? I had to play the role of the troubadour, because the piece is called "Troubadours". It's inspired by the 13th century beautiful, romantic, courtly-love tradition that flourished in Provencal, France. So I start by playing backstage, which is evoking the spirit, the memories of the past and then I walk on as the troubadour playing this fast run interacting with the different musicians until I sit down and the rest of the piece happens.

And there was a work by Lukas Foss [Ed. note: the title track to American Landscapes.] where he wanted to create the effect of a time delay, electronically, but without using electronics, so I had to do some sort of tapping thing while I was playing the different melodic ideas. It really is an extraordinary effect, and then it is combined with the harp doing something quite interesting with harmonics, as well. And lo and behold he achieves that goal of the electronic delay without having to plug anything in. So, its fun for me.

Usually, I'm pulling my hair out when I first see a new piece because I'm thinking, "How on Earth can this be done?" And then I figure out a way. Sometimes there are minor changes to make with the composer, but it's important to work together, so that the end result is something that we're excited about. Do these composers typically write the whole piece and then sit down with you and work on details, or are you often actually right there from the beginning?

Isbin: Usually I ask them to send me pages as they write, often in chunks. So that way if they're off track, I get to catch it early before the whole thing is unplayable. That would be kind of discouraging, so I've rarely gotten a piece in total without ever having seen anything before. And this works because then I'm able to refine as we go along and the end result is something that is playable and guitaristic, exactly what will be a success for the instrument. With some of these composers who don't play guitar and probably have not composed specifically for a guitar in the past, have some of them written things that were physically unplayable, and that you had to go back and explain to them?

Isbin: Sure. I mean I've had to re-voice chords. If it's a matter of putting an A up here, or down here, or taking a couple of notes out. I'll do it with them to make sure it still meets their artistic vision, but nothing drastic. I've given them all kinds of recordings of mine to listen to, and scores to study, so that they're grounded even manuals for composers who don't play the instrument, how to write for the guitar. All of these things help. I also create a cardboard cutout of the fingerboard where if you put your fingers on them, it actually matches the position that you would experience on a real instrument and each fret is labeled with the note value, so they can figure out if they want to, "Will this work or will it not?" And for classical guitarists who are working on their own playing, you've written a book, The Classical Guitar Answer Book.

Isbin: Right. What kinds of questions and answers do people find in this book?

Isbin: Well it was sort of conceived as a Dear Abby or Dear Ann column for Acoustic Guitar Magazine and I started writing this column for them when the magazine first came out. I did it for four years and they decided after four years that I'd answered most of the questions people could think of. They would just write in anything having to do with how to pick a good guitar to how to avoid squeaks with calluses there are ways to avoid them whats the best way to prepare your memory in terms of flawless memory in performance and concert, choosing repertoire, all kinds of things, and 50 questions are addressed in this book. It represents the four years of columns that I wrote. You can see all of this by going to my website, as well, We have the table of contents of the book and how to order it.

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