East Meets West: Guitar and Sarod for Peace


For the past few years, Alan Fletcher, executive director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, has taken the issue of diversity very seriously.

More and more festival events feature female composers as well as composers and performers of color.

This is the story of a guitarist who has worked for a long time with musicians all over the world.

And when it comes to the Aspen Music Festival’s diversity campaign, guitarist Sharon Isbin is a perfect fit.

Isbin has collaborated with musicians around the world for decades, bringing their musical voices into his recordings and performances.

But traveling in this time of COVID-19 has become a real challenge for Isbin. She’s actually wearing a full hazmat suit when she does. She also gives herself maximum protection wherever she goes.

When Chris Mohr invited Isbin for an interview, she insisted that they both wear N-95 masks.

Sharon Isbin travels in a full hazmat suit.

Isbin has strict sanitary rules, but his musical horizons have no borders.

“I enjoyed flirting with folk and bluegrass folks (as well as) other collaborators and artists who have such extraordinary talent.”

Diversity found an early place in Isbin’s repertoire – and in his heart.

She was only 14 when she met Carlos Barbosa Lima, a great Brazilian guitarist who died earlier this year.

Lima introduced Isbin to Antonio Carlos Jobim, whom Isbin calls a “bossa nova icon.”

Professional collaborations for all three guitarists followed, as did recordings.

In Aspen on Saturday, Isbin will bring us music from 12 time zones with artists from India for a program they call “Strings for Peace.”

Isbin, originally from Minnesota, graduated from Yale University.

So how did she become interested in North Indian music?

“A lot of listening,” she said, “that’s for sure!” His interest dates back to his college days.

So what is a raga?

Western musicians traditionally use major and minor scales, with a few other scales or modes added.

North Indian musicians use countless different scales called ragas, all creating musical effects that are unfamiliar to traditional Western ears.

Many listeners will be at least familiar with the sitar and Ravi Shankar.

But Ibsen will play with a master of the sarod.

The sarod is a stringed instrument that is neither a sitar nor a guitar, but it is central to the flavor of North Indian classical music.

Isbin jokes that the sarod is not an instrument a classical guitarist can pick up quickly.

North Indian classical music includes a strong element of improvisation.

Western classical musicians usually play notes on the page.

According to Isbin, improv won’t be entirely new to her.

“Playing with improvising jazz musicians” gives him a “beautifully compatible” experience with classical music from North India.

A North Indian-derived practice that Isbin was already practicing—Transcendental Meditation—proved helpful in identifying with this new culture.

Isbin jokes that it kept her from freaking out!

“Literally, when I left at the airport to fly to India, I knew I didn’t know music yet.” Without Transcendental Meditation, she would have lost it on the plane.

But she also believes that the practice can open a person up to “your own inner core of creativity,” which makes it especially useful when you need to improvise in a whole new style!

“Strings for Peace” takes place Saturday at Harris Hall.


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