Sharon Isbin

The American guitarist reveals the inspirations behind her latest CD, Journey to the new world


You’ve just recorded your first disc for Sony, Journey to the New World. What was the inspiration for it?
Originally I wanted to honour Joan Baez as she was one of my folk-music heroes, so I asked John Lord to write the Joan Baez Suite. Once she heard my performance of it she offered to sing on the album. I was also collaborating with Mark O’Connor, who is one of the great country music fiddle players. The work he wrote for the two of us is an evolution of folk music through the violin, moving chronologically from early Irish jigs and reels up through the ragtimes and waltzes to swing and beepop. All this began to gel as a concept of the evolution of folk music.

And it’s something of a journey in time and place…
As Americans we really owe the British for our music – the folk music of the British isles. Composers like John Dowland were the pop music writers of their time. So this CD is like hopping on a boat from the earliest beginnings of this music with John Dowland and 'Greensleeves', arranged here so beautifully for two lutes. It seemed the perfect bridge would be the songs set by Edward Flower, which hail from 17th-century Ireland and 18th-century Scotland.

What’s the highlight of the disc for you?
'Greensleeves' is a highlight for me, and Baez doing ‘Wayfaring stranger’ is haunting. In the Joan Baez Suite, ‘Where all the Flowers Have Gone’ takes on new meaning: the flowers are the fallen soldiers in Vietnam who never return home, and the tune is juxtaposed with ‘Taps’, the bugle call played at military funerals. For the lute music, I enjoyed exploring embellishment – it was the jazz of their time. Performers knew to vary the repeats, change the trills and passing notes. Something you can’t do on the lute because you play without fingernails but can on the guitar is add a lot of tone colours. It takes on a crystalline clarity on the guitar as we use our fingernails and the flesh of our fingers, and the angle on the instrument to vary the attack.

How did the pianist Rosalyn Tureck influence your approach to embellishment?
I was her student for ten years and a devoted friend for a good 30 years. I owe so much of my musical insight to her. During the time of our work together – she doesn’t play the guitar and I don’t play the keyboard – we met on a musical level that was special, unique and powerful. I studied performance practice with Tureck and together we created the first performance editions of all the Bach lute suites. That EMI recording was a landmark in Baroque performance on the guitar, and certainly informed my later explorations – not just ideas about ornamentation and embellishment but also phrasing and structure. With Tureck I gained an enormous education from someone who I’d say was the premiere Bach performer.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Audio clip: Journey to the new world: Greensleeves

Related links:
Elegant Celtic dances and airs
Songs from a Golden Age

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