Gilbert Isbin, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I started playing guitar at the age of 18, quite late in fact. And from Leonard Cohen, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, my musical taste wandered in the direction of John Renbourn, a folk guitarist who was heavily influenced by early music. This stimulated me to make my own arrangements and compositions of Renaissance and Baroque-related music for a duo with a recorder player. Improvisation was already a part of my music back then. Next, music by Joe Pass, Bill Evans, Lenny Breau, John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, Egberto Gismonti, Leo Brouwer, John Cage, Ralph Towner… led me to jazz and contemporary classical music. At first I composed music that was influenced by these musicians/composers but gradually I developed my own compositional language.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Apart from the above-mentioned musicians/composers other influences were definitely world music: African, Indian, Brazilian music. I experimented heavily with rhythms and got more and more into improvisation. I had a free improvisation period too. Everything was possible. I call it my “Derek Bailey period”. Due to all these influences I developed a new personal vocabulary and different look on composition.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Some 8 years ago I decided to take up the lute, something I wanted to do for a very long time. I have always been attracted to the soft and ethereal sound of this fragile instrument. I wanted to write in a new idiom, different from the traditional early music. I had to learn a completely different playing technique, (thumb under, touching the courses (strings) lightly with the flesh instead of the nails, playing much more softly,…) It’s a very different instrument to the guitar. I try to incorporate all possible lute techniques, compositional devices into my works: open strings where possible, monophonic melodic and polyphonic passages, chordal passages, counterpoint, …exploring the register of the instrument and its most effective sonority. Not easy, but nowadays, it feels very natural to compose and play the lute. By now I have published several books with contemporary lute music, and I do concerts playing my own music

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

It’s always a pleasure to have your compositions performed by excellent players.

A great challenge was the album ‘Stathis Skandalidis Plays Gilbert Isbin’, with contemporary lute works of mine. It took me months to write the compositions but what a great pleasure it was to hear the recordings. It always gives me a big thrill when I am invited to listen to a performance of one of my pieces.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I have always loved to play with other musicians. I am constantly looking for new musical adventures and chaIlenges. For instance I made a record with the American bass player Scott Walton, works for lute and upright bass. We called them comprovisations, a mix of composed and improvised material. We did a big tour in the US, and has a fantastic time, something to cherish. Of course there must be respect for each other. Sometimes it’s difficult to play with big egos, but whenever that happens these sort of collaborations don’t last long.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I like all kinds of musics: contemporary classical, early music, world music, jazz, folk, pop, improvisational music. I apply these influences, mostly unconsciously, into my works. I strive for a music that is adventurous but also melodical, accessible, sometimes singable.

How do you work?

I get inspiration from things that occur in daily life, from reading a poem, a book, or just a title, a view, listening to music, from improvising freely and then writing down some ideas I came up with, from a striking chord, a small melodic or rhythmic cell, an intervallic row, a contrapunctual idea, an interesting scale,… Sometimes I experiment with atonality but I always rework the piece to clarify the melodic line. Mostly I write in an intuitive way. It’s only when I am stuck that I take my list that I put together with compositional devices or variation techniques.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Very difficult to tell. I like so many different musics. Some of my favourite composers/musicians are Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Ralph Towner, Leo Brouwer, John Cage, Francesco Da Milano, John Dowland Josquin Des Prez, J.S. Bach, Jacques Brel, The Beatles, Ravi Shankar, …

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When I succeed to compose something that makes me and the listeners or performers happy, intrigued, moved.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Persevere and work, work, work. Have an open mind, believe in yourself. Follow your own path. Be hungry for new musical adventures. Study, there is always something to learn from.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Family life, creating, composing, playing together with other musicians, studying, walking, reading, having a good chat…

What is your present state of mind?

The older I am the more balanced I feel.


Gilbert Isbin’s compositional and performing style defies genre, blending elements of contemporary classical, jazz, early music, world music and improvisation. He has been compared favourably to the likes of Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti, his music described as “oblique, subtle, and hauntingly beautiful”

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