SINCE PERFORMING VIVALDI’S “CONCERTO
in D Major” with the Minneapolis Orchestra
at the age of 14, Sharon Isbin has emerged as
one of the world’s preeminent classical guitarists.
Isbin, the creator and director of the
Guitar Program at Juilliard School of Music,
has recorded more than 25 albums with material
including the Bach lute suites and Rodrigo’s
“Concierto De Aranjuez,” as well as works she
has commissioned from leading contemporary
composers. She plays between 60 and 100 concerts
annually worldwide, and has performed
with more than 160 orchestras.
But Isbin has never confined her musical
pursuits to the classical guitar world. Besides
her recordings of South American, folk, and
various forms of world music, she has performed
with rock, jazz, and fingerstyle guitarists
including Stanley Jordan, Steve Vai, and the
late Michael Hedges.
Isbin continues to explore fresh musical territory
on her most recent album, Journey to the
New World [Sony Classical], which charts the
migration of 16th, 17th, and 18th century
British music to the United States, where it
shaped much of America’s folk music. The CD
is both a testament to Isbin’s dazzling virtuosity
and the musical eclecticism that has long
marked her career.
What was the concept behind Journey to the New
The late British composer John Duarte had
written the “Appalachian Dreams” suite for
me, and I recorded it on Dreams of a World,
which won a Grammy in 2001. I liked that piece
so much I asked John to write an homage to
one of my musical heroes, Joan Baez, with songs
from the early part of her career such as “Lily
of the West,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and he
was delighted with the idea. We both contributed
source material and he came up with
a seven-movement suite that used more than
a dozen of these songs in very creative settings.
So, my original idea was to do a solo album
using the suite as a centerpiece, along with
other music from folk sources.
How did Joan Baez come to sing on the CD?
She had given me her blessing before the
“Joan Baez Suite” was even written because I
wanted to be sure that she would be okay with
it. Then, after she heard the music, she offered
to sing on the recording.
Tell us about the suite that violinist Mark O’Connor
I’d heard his “Strings and Threads Suite”
that he wrote for solo violin and I thought it
would be perfect arranged for guitar and violin.
It’s really a folk history of violin in the U.S.,
going back to the old Irish jigs and reels and
his own Celtic background. Being an excellent
guitarist himself, Mark made an extraordinary
arrangement that really utilized the versatility
of the guitar, and we worked to make it completely
idiomatic for the instrument. The guitar
part is an equal partner rather than an accompaniment,
and very challenging to play.
The CD opens with four Renaissance lute duets
on which you play both parts on guitar.
Yes. I decided to do both parts myself so
that the concept would be perfectly matched
musically, artistically, and sonically. I used a
capo on the second fret to get a more lute-like
What is the connection between the lute pieces
and the folk material?
The lute pieces are a combination of the
plucked sound that later became such a big
part of British and American folk music, and
music celebrating the songs and dances of the
16th century. Some of the folk songs in the
“Joan Baez Suite” go back directly to England,
which is the origin of many familiar
folk songs, so lute music was a great place
to start the journey.
You follow the lute pieces with guitarist
Ed Flower’s arrangements of two folk songs,
“Drunken Sailor” and “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Yes. “Drunken Sailor” was originally
a 17th century Irish song and “Wild
Mountain Thyme” evokes the 18th century
Scottish song, “The Braes of
Balquidder.” So, it seemed like a great
way to continue that journey from the
16th century lute songs. I followed these
with Andrew York’s “Andecy,” which is
a really haunting work.
The arrangement of “Drunken Sailor”
I found it pretty tough. When I first
heard a recording of it I was sure it was
two guitars. I kept thumbing through the
music thinking, “Where’s the second guitar
part? He must have forgotten to send
it.” Then I realized it was one guitar!
What guitar did you use for the recording?
I played a 2007 Thomas Humphrey
Millennium with a North Western cedar
top and Brazilian rosewood back and
sides. It’s called La Sacrifice, named for
the painting on its back by the artist
How did you achieve such clarity when playing
the harmonics that occur throughout the
“Joan Baez Suite”?
I play lightly near the bridge, without
forcing the sound. That maximizes the
bell-like ringing of the harmonic and minimizes
finger noise. After striking a note,
I use either a rest stroke to accent and
project the sound, or a free stroke, which
lends lightness and fluidity. I often mix
the two, and the trick is to do so seamlessly.
I include an exercise in my Classical
Guitar Answer Book to make this come naturally
and without changing your hand
What right-hand techniques do you use to
get so many tonal colors in the Renaissance
To get the most metallic sound, I use
only the fingernail and no flesh, and I
strike perpendicular to the string, playing
as close to the bridge as possible.
Using a fingering in the first position
instead of higher up the neck will also add
brightness. If I want to play sweetly and
caressingly, I’ll divide the string in half
and strike midway between the fretted
note and the bridge, or at the 12th fret if
it is an open string. I’ll also add flesh and
angle the nail, though it is important not
to bounce from flesh to nail, as that produces
an annoying click. You want to have
the nail and flesh both touching the string
before moving your finger to sound the
pitch. Another way to add warmth is to
play a note in a higher position, say, the
E on the third string 9th fret rather than
open E first string. And when using the
thumb, playing with just the flesh produces
a super-mellow sound.
What would you tell classical guitarists
who want to explore other styles of music?
We all have to discover our own path.
Doing what you love, what you’re passionate
about, that’s the first priority.
Finding something new that no one else
has done before is so inspiring, and you’re
making a contribution to the music world.
It’s a wide-open field and the only limitation
is one’s own creativity.