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East meets west: guitar and sarod for peace

Guitarist Sharon Isbin will be joining Indian music masters Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash on Saturday at Harris Hall.
Aspen Music Festival and School
Guitarist Sharon Isbin will be joining Indian music masters Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash on Saturday at Harris Hall.

For some years now, Alan Fletcher, executive director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, has been taking the question of diversity quite seriously.

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

Here is the story of one guitarist who has a long history of working with musicians from around 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 worldwide for decades, bringing their musical voices into her recordings and performances.

Traveling in this time of COVID-19, Isbin gives herself maximum protection wherever she goes.

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

Isbin in full hazmat suit traveling
Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin once traveled in a full hazmat suit for her first concert journey in early 2020.

Isbin has some strict health rules, but her musical horizons have no boundaries.

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

Diversity found an early place in Isbin’s repertoire — and her heart.

She was only 14 when she met Carlos Barbosa Lima, a great Brazilian guitarist who passed away early this year.

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

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

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

Isbin, who is from Minnesota, is a graduate of Yale University.

So how did she get interested in the music of north India?

“A lot of listening," she said, "that’s for sure!” Her interest goes back to her college days.

So what is a raga?

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

North Indian musicians use countless different scales called ragas, all creating musical effects that are not familiar to traditional Western ears.

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

But Ibsen will be performing with a sarod master.

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

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

North Indian classical music includes a strong element of improvisation.

Western classical musicians generally play notes on the page.

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

“Playing with jazz musicians who improvise” gives her experience that is “beautifully compatible with north Indian classical music.” 

One north Indian-derived practice that Isbin already practiced — transcendental meditation — proved helpful for her in identifying with this new culture.

Isbin jokes that it kept her from panicking!

“Literally, when I went off to the airport to fly to India, I knew that I didn’t know the music yet.” Without transcendental meditation, she would have just lost it on the plane.

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

"Strings for Peace" will take place Saturday at Harris Hall.

Classical music reporter Chris Mohr has loved classical music since he was twelve. “And I owe it all to radio,” Chris explains. “I grew up in a farm town east of Cleveland. One day I turned on the local classical radio station. They were playing Vivaldi, and it was like the gates of heaven opened up to me!" Chris is also a composer, and is working on a 53-note-to-the-octave oratorio, "Melodies of the Shoreless Sea." This is his ninth summer working for Aspen Public Radio.