Guitarist Sharon Isbin's American 'Journey' The classical guitarist discusses her new album, Journey to the New World. It traces the evolution of American folk music from 16th century Renaissance England to the advent of bluegrass.
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Guitarist Sharon Isbin's American 'Journey'

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Guitarist Sharon Isbin's American 'Journey'

Guitarist Sharon Isbin's American 'Journey'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And this is Sharon Isbin, playing her guitar in our studio earlier this week.

(Soundbite of song, "Natalia")

SIEGEL: Sharon Isbin, welcome back to the program, and thanks for that.

Ms. SHARON ISBIN (Musician): Thank you. It's a joy to be here.

SIEGEL: What were you just playing? Tell us about the piece.

Ms. ISBIN: This was a little Venezuelan waltz by Antonio Lauro called "Natalia," named after his daughter.

SIEGEL: And you get to show off a lot of your instrument there, playing that piece.

Ms. ISBIN: Well, one of the fun things about playing classical guitar is that because the strings are nylon, and we don't use a pick, we use our fingernails as a substitute for the pick. And by changing the position, for example…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ISBIN: …I can get a very bright sound or…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ISBIN: …if I add flesh and angle, it becomes very dolce, like a sweet, soft caress.

SIEGEL: Now, your new CD is called "Journey to the New World," and it's a journey. It starts back with some Renaissance lute pieces and it ends up, I guess, on the verge of bluegrass.

Ms. ISBIN: Yes. It's a journey that starts in the 16th century in the British Isles, with the person who would have been the pop music composer of their time John Downland. And as time moves on, I go to the 17th century and then the 18th century with something inspired by an old Scottish song.

SIEGEL: There are a couple of pieces that were composed especially for you to play, the "Joan Baez Suite" and then Mark O'Connor, the violinist's piece that the two of you play together.

Ms. ISBIN: Right.

SIEGEL: Tell me about the idea behind the "Joan Baez Suite." This piece was written for you. You commissioned it. Was it your idea that you should take songs we associate with Joan Baez and turn it into a solo guitar piece?

Ms. ISBIN: I had worked with John Duarte once before.

SIEGEL: The composer (unintelligible).

Ms. ISBIN: And he had written the "Appalachian Dream Suite" for me, and loved it so much that I asked if he would do something in a similar kind of creative arrangement, taking songs that were familiar and turning them into a composition and to do that with music that Joan Baez made famous. She was really my first musical hero and certainly my favorite folk musician. And again, it takes music that had its origins in the old world and became transformed. So you'll hear everything from "Lily of the West," you'll hear "House of the Rising Sun."

SIEGEL: Now, for some people, the old world here is the 1960s. So if you evoke a little Joan Baez from way back when for us, if you could.

Ms. ISBIN: Oh, yes, well, if you think about something like "The House of the Rising Sun."

(Soundbite of song, "The House of the Rising Sun")

Ms. ISBIN: And then he might do a variation of that later on in the piece.

(Soundbite of song, "The House of the Rising Sun")

Ms. ISBIN: And so you have all this kind of different approach, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" for example. You'll hear the tune begin in a major key.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?")

Ms. ISBIN: And later on, he turns it into a minor key.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?")

Ms. ISBIN: So you can get immediately the different spirit that's communicated by that.

SIEGEL: Now, there is a piece on "Journey to the New World" that you performed with the violinist Mark O'Connor who wrote it, and we'll hear a bit of it from the CD because Mark O'Connor's not here with us.

Ms. ISBIN: Right. Right.

(Soundbite of song, "Strings & Threads Suite")

SIEGEL: Tell me about this composition.

Ms. ISBIN: This is a work that really traces the evolution of folk music on the violin in America, and it is in a number of different movements. It'll have everything from jigs and reels, ragtime, blues, swing, bebop, all just to -before the real start of bluegrass.

SIEGEL: There are parts of that suite, the "Strings & Threads Suite" by Mark O'Connor. He's giving you quite a workout.

(Soundbite of song, "Strings & Threads Suite")

Ms. ISBIN: When I first got the score, I figured, well, I don't even need to look at it because he plays the instrument. And then about a month before our premiere, I started to take the score out and wait a minute, no matter how hard I practiced, some of this stuff just wasn't happening. I realized that there were a lot of places that were not playable.

So we ended up meeting for two days, I'd say about seven hours a day, just going over, measure by measure, and making it absolutely idiomatic for the instrument, so it fit perfectly. And it turned out he had never tried it on the instrument. So the joke was when he took the guitar off the wall, I said Mark, if you can play it, then I'll play it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Strings & Threads Suite")

SIEGEL: In addition to your performing the "Joan Baez Suite," the piece commissioned that's based on so many familiar Joan Baez songs, songs that she played, you actually do perform with Joan Baez on this CD.

Ms. ISBIN: Yes. When she heard the work, the "Joan Baez Suite," she couldn't come to the premiere because she was on tour, but Joan eventually heard the music and loved it and offered to sing on the album.

(Soundbite of song, "Poor Wayfaring Stranger")

Ms. JOAN BAEZ (Singer): (Singing) I am a poor, a wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe…

SIEGEL: You performed together, or this was with headphones and recordings?

Ms. ISBIN: No, I actually - we had our first rehearsal in my home in New York, and that was a very memorable experience for me.

Before we started to rehearse, she asked if I would play something. I said sure, and she took a chair and literally positioned it about four feet in front of mine, and I began to play. And I opened my eyes at one point and noticed she had tears streaming down her face. And it was just such a moving, powerful, poignant moment for me because here's the woman whose music has made me cry for so many years, and we're having this extraordinary sharing of souls together in the most intimate of ways.

(Soundbite of song, "Poor Wayfaring Stranger")

SIEGEL: Well, Sharon Isbin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ISBIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Sharon Isbin's new CD is called "Journey to the New World."

(Soundbite of song, "Poor Wayfaring Stranger")

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