American guitarist and three-time Grammy winner, Sharon Isbin speaks to Priya Singh about the link between classical music and meditation, and about her debut India tour.
Dubbed by music critics as “the preeminent guitarist of our time”, Sharon Isbin has won countless awards, including three Grammys. In this interview, the US-based virtuoso talks about her career, and the collaborative show, “Peace Tribe”, that she performed at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium on 22 February with musicians Ayaan and Amaan Ali Bangash, Vijay Ghate and Sridhar Parthasarathy.
Q. How and when were you introduced to the guitar?
A. My mother introduced me to recordings of folk musicians and flamenco guitarists when I was a young child.
Q. What made you want to learn to play the guitar?
A. Our family moved to Italy for a year during my father’s sabbatical as a university science professor. When my older brother asked for guitar lessons, my parents found a wonderful teacher who had studied with Andrés Segovia and was concertising in Italy. But when my brother learned, it was classical, not Elvis Presley. So he declined and I volunteered to take his place.
Q. Tell us about experience of being trained by the legendary guitarist Andrés Segovia.
A. I had several lessons with Segovia beginning at age 14. I have never forgotten the beauty of hearing his magical tone up close when he would demonstrate on the instrument.
Q. Who were your early musical influences?
A. I studied for several summers with Oscar Ghiglia, and for ten years with the great Bach scholar and keyboard artist, Rosalyn Tureck, with whom I collaborated in publishing and recording the first performance editions for guitar of the Bach lute suites.
Q. You have won many awards for your music, including three Grammys. How important are these awards in your life?
A. It is an honour to be recognised by my colleagues and the music industry, and I am appreciative that these awards have opened many doors in my career and artistic life.
Q. Can you tell us about your creative process? How do you go about composing a track?
A. I am not a composer, but I play an important role encouraging others to write for me, and in editing their music to sound idiomatic and natural on the guitar. To date, have premiered more than 60 works composed for me, including more than a dozen with orchestra.
Q. When was the first time you performed on stage in front of a live audience? And how did it go?
A. I was 10 years old, and the good news is that I didn’t give up. I was 14 when I played as a soloist with orchestra for the first time, and the experience of playing for 10,000 people was so thrilling that I decided to give up my ambition to be a scientist and devoted myself to the guitar.
Q. How do you create a set list you want to perform at a particular show?
A. The concept of a show can be based on any number of ideas, including genres of music, countries, styles, or in this case [the Delhi show], a meeting of Indian and Western classical traditions.
Q. What sort of challenges did you face in the early phases of your career, when you were trying to establish yourself in the music industry?
A. It has been important and gratifying to break through many glass ceilings, both for the guitar and as a woman playing the instrument.
Q. Which Indian musical instrument would you like to try your hand at, and why?
A. Ever since my teenage years, I have listened to and been fascinated by outstanding sitar, sarod and tabla performances. But it takes many years to master a new instrument, so I prefer instead the pleasure of collaborating with those who are masters while I try to incorporate some of their stylistic influences on the guitar.
Q. Tell us about your performance Kamani Auditorium show in Delhi.
A. This is my first trip to India, part of a tour that also includes Mumbai and Kolkata. I feel so fortunate and honoured to perform with the brilliant sarod masters Ayaan and Amaan Ali Khan, joined by Vijay Ghate on tabla and Sridhar Parthasarathy on mridangam, in giving the world premiere of beautiful ragas masterfully composed for us by their father, Amjad Ali Khan. His music interweaves Indian and Western traditions in a brilliant way that is sure to be fascinating for the audiences.
Q. How much time do you spend practicing your guitar skills on a daily basis?
A. Many hours when I am preparing a new collaboration, recording or learning and editing new music.
Q. Is there a link between meditation and classical music?
A. I opened the Delhi concert with a solo work for guitar, Asturias, by the famous 19th-century Spanish composer/pianist, Isaac Albeniz. It was ideal for our program of ragas as it begins in a very quiet meditative mood which then builds with tremendous intensity, and leads to a song-like middle section evocative of Spanish cante jondo (deep song) tradition. One of my most memorable experiences was performing this work three years ago for a sold-out audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall, awakening 2,800 people in a darkened hall from a session of transcendental meditation! I have practiced transcendental meditation (which originated in India) daily since I was a teenager, so that was a remarkable and meaningful meeting of the spirits.
Q. What does music mean to you and how important is it in your life?
A. Music has the power to bring people together and inspire us. I’ll never forget the feeling of performing at the first memorial to the victims of September 11 at Ground Zero in New York City, for 40,000 family members and survivors, during the reading of the names of the nearly 3,000 who perished, televised live throughout the world. Looking into the eyes of those gathered, seeing the posters they held of lost loved ones, I realised as never before the power of music to help, heal and give strength. It made me appreciate music even more, and made me understand why I was a musician and why that is meaningful.
Q. What are you working on these days?
A. I’ve just recorded an album of Italian music for guitar and string quartet with the wonderful Pacifica Quartet that will be released in September 2019. My recording of a concerto written for me by Chris Brubeck will be out in spring 2020 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the jazz composer Dave Brubeck.