Sharon Isbin’s new collaboration with sarod master Amjad Ali Khan, Strings for Peace, finds her a few thousand kilometres outside her comfort zone—and yet absolutely at home.
For the New York–based classical guitarist, the undertaking is foreign because it’s her first serious venture into the world of North Indian music. The project came together so quickly that she had very little time to learn a new and complex musical language—although, as she reveals in a telephone interview from her home, it’s also the result of a 10-year gestation.
Isbin and the Khan family—Amjad Ali’s sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash are also virtuoso sarodists—met a decade ago, at a New York concert, and it was obvious that there was an immediate musical and social rapport. “Every time they came to New York I would go to one of their performances,” she recalls. “And then, about six years ago, Amjad Ali Khan really became serious about crafting music that I could perform with him, ’cause he was fascinated by the idea of sarod with guitar. So they found somebody who could notate the music for me. It took that person a couple of years, and then I heard from them very recently—it would have been about last November—that they had finally completed the project, and that they were sending me actual ragas that he had composed for me that were set for sarod and guitar.
“I flipped over it,” Isbin adds. “I just thought it was absolutely beautiful music—and they said, ‘Good, because we have already booked a tour for you in India, for February.’ ”
She laughs; like those of most great classical performers, her calendar is usually finalized months or even years in advance. But she found a way to arrange some time off, only to encounter a new challenge once she arrived on the subcontinent, three days before the first concert.
“Of course, what I discovered was that the tempos were all faster than the demo that they’d done, and then the next rehearsal they were faster yet,” she explains. “So I kept changing my fingerings, and then by the first performance, things were even faster. So it was a real process of flexibility and finding ways to quickly meet the challenge, and that made it very exciting.”
By all accounts, the Indian shows were received rapturously. And as soon as she got on-stage, Isbin realized that this new musical world also connected deeply with some of the first music she had performed and recorded as a professional: the foundational compositions of the classical-guitar repertoire, most of which hail from Spain.
“That just hit me like a lightning bolt,” she notes. “I opened the concert with a work by Isaac Albéniz called Asturias, and it struck me how much similarity there is between the ornaments and melismatic ideas in the slower sections of Indian music and those in Spanish music or Sephardic music. And when you realize that the roots of flamenco really did come from India, you’ll see that there is a symbiosis of culture and countries and music that is extraordinary.”
This, she continues, speaks to the core impetus behind Strings for Peace, which will receive its premiere in Vancouver, as part of the annual Indian Summer Festival.
“There’s really only one world,” Isbin says. “Human beings are really one. We all have little variations here and there, but we’re one species, and being able to work together and communicate and share our passions and interests is a very beautiful thing.”
Amjad Ali Khan & Sons with Sharon Isbin play the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on July 12, as part of the Indian Summer Festival.