Vocal Music

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ONE VOICE | two or more voices

All the Hemispheres

[2009] – for voice and optional piano – 2’

Premiere April 18, 2009
Rebecca Grad, voice
Le Chambord
Hopewell Junction, NY

Text by Hafiz, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

Composed as the entrance music for my own wedding.
The score is available for free download above – enjoy!

The Arrow and the Song

[2010] – for voice, clarinet and piano – 3’

Text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I wrote this sweet little song for my sister’s graduation recital from a Cantorial program, with an obbligato clarinet part for a friend of hers. Unfortunately, my sister had to cancel the recital due to illness, so this song has become an orphan awaiting a world premiere!

Baby Song of the Four Winds

[2005] – for voice and cello (or guitar) – 2’

Premiere February 22, 2009
Malina Rauschenfels, voice and cello
The Sitar Center
Washington, DC

Text by Carl Sandburg. The score is available for free download above - enjoy!

Honey-sweet we sing for you

[2018] – for soprano, flute, violin (optional) and basso continuo – 11’

Libretty by Jennifer Bullis
Commissioned by Burning River Baroque and Early Music Seattle, with support from 4Culture
Premiere March 19, 2019
Cleveland, OH

Honey-sweet we sing for you endeavors to give a voice to the Sirens, those mythological creatures whose story has always been told by wary men—most famously Homer in The Odyssey. Part lament, part rage aria, this contemporary cantata for soprano and Baroque ensemble features an original libretto by Jennifer Bullis (Bellingham, WA), a powerful feminist poet based who often writes from the perspective of mythological personas. Aaron continues his fascination with period instruments and practices, updating the dramatic conventions of the eighteenth-century cantata to tell this timeless tale with new immediacy and vulnerability. By reframing a very old and familiar narrative about these supposedly dangerous and seductive creatures, Honey-sweet we sing for you challenges its creators and its listeners to reconsider entrenched stories about sexuality and power.


[2019] – for solo voice – 2’

Text by Aaron Grad. For Brian Gillespie.

The Lost Voice

[2013] – for baritone voice, narrator and chamber ensemble – 25’

The Lost Voice in the press: Read the Seattle Weekly's preview.

Supported by a grant from 4Culture, and presented in partnership with the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
World Premiere: April 6, 2014 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle, WA.
Jonathan Silvia, baritone; Aaron Grad, narrator; Julia Tai, conductor; Seattle Modern Orchestra.
Masks by Mary Levinsky.

Watch concert video

The Lost Voice

The Lost Voice, with words and music by Aaron Grad, tells the story of a boy who loses his voice when faced with life’s hardships. To find his voice again, he journeys to a magical forest, where he encounters animal allies and reclaims his own true song. During the 25-minute work, a bass-baritone singer and a chamber ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion move and interact on the concert stage, at times wearing fanciful animal masks created by an artist for this production.

The Lost Voice aims to speak with equal relevance to children and to adults. In this realm, Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf stand as prime inspirations. The sound world of The Lost Voice is bright and whimsical, playing up the humor and dramatic turns of the story. The lone vocalist sings all roles, including the boy, a songbird, a bear and an ant, while the instrumentalists play themes that mimic various other animals. A narrator guides the action and leads a section of audience participation during the work’s climax.

Lullaby for Leo

[2010] – for voice and guitar – 1’

Text by Aaron Grad. Composed for Leo Martinez.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

[2001] – for voice and guitar – 2’

Text by Walt Whitman.

Old-Fashioned Love Songs

[2013] – for countertenor and electric theorbo – 80’

Old-Fashioned Love Songs in the press: Read the Washington Post's concert preview and review, and another preview from the Seattle Times.

Commissioned by Strathmore (North Bethesda, Maryland)
World Premiere: May 11, 2014 at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, NY
Washington, DC Premiere: May 15, 2014 at at the Strathmore Mansion
West Coast Premiere: June 21, 2014 at the Chapel Performance Space, Seattle, WA

View title page and complete program notes
View song texts
Watch concert video

Old-Fashioned Love Songs

This evening of music, Old-Fashioned Love Songs, grew out of two impulses that developed in parallel. The first was my desire to write words and music that expressed the infinite affection, devotion and trust I feel for the love of my life: my wife, Jen. I have written poems and love songs for her before, but I could never say enough in a fourteen-line sonnet or a four-minute pop song; my ideas were too expansive, my execution too mannered. I wanted a platform that would give me space to luxuriate in the subject of love, and yet one that would nudge me to be unflinchingly open and honest.

The other idea that gnawed at me was an obsession with building a new instrument. What I had in mind was something in the harp-guitar family, combining a normal, fretted neck along with bass strings tuned in a scale, as on a harp. I found myself drawn to the theorbo, a member of the lute family that emerged in Italy in the late-1500’s. I first saw and heard this giraffe-necked instrument playing basso continuo in a production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and I fell in love with its sonorous bass notes and smooth chord voicings. Many variants of the theorbo existed throughout its 150 years of active duty around Europe, but I took my pattern from that early Italian type, called the chitarrone. I designed my new instrument with seven fretted strings—tuned in the traditional “re-entrant” pattern, which drops the top two strings into a lower octave—and seven bass strings, descending from the note F (a semitone higher than the low E on a normal guitar) down to G, well below a cello’s range.

I set out to hybridize this instrument with an electric guitar, to give it a sound and function in line with my own musical language. Designing and building the world’s first electric theorbo involved more than two years of trial, error, inspiration, and sometimes dumb luck. I was grateful for the help I received from friends and family through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, which allowed me to acquire the specialized tools, lumber and hardware I needed. (I also offer my deepest thanks to Strathmore, which offered commissioning funds and a performance date at a point when this project was barely more than a thought in my head.)

My research led me to a reinforced carbon fiber tube to support the bass strings, which exert nearly 200 pounds of combined tension over their 40-inch span. I developed a maple sheath to hold the tube within a semi-hollow body; I repurposed harp levers to allow me to raise the pitch of each bass string by a half-step; I milled a bridge out of ebony to hold an array of fourteen guitar saddles to support the strings; I mounted lightweight, gearless tuners upside-down on the body, so the instrument would be balanced and not too heavy; I incorporated claro walnut salvaged from a California walnut grove, spalted maple from Washington state, and black limba from Africa, via an Oregon lumber yard. I bought a used router off of Craigslist, borrowed a band saw and a drill press, and found a woodworker’s co-op that let me access a planer. Even the strings had to be custom made for me, given their extreme length.

As I built the electric theorbo, my plan for Old-Fashioned Love Songs came into focus. To match this new-old instrument, I enlisted a countertenor: my friend Augustine Mercante, a master of that alto-range vocal style inextricably linked with music from earlier eras. I assembled the work as an evening of music that would interweave my own original songs with arrangements of love songs spanning from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. I came to see that Old-Fashioned Love Songs would touch on more than just this moment in my life and relationship; it became a meditation on the complex interplay of love and time.

Other Days

[2002] – for mezzo-soprano, violin and guitar – 4’

Premiere December 14, 2002
Alexandra Christoforakis, mezzo-soprano; Deborah Buck, violin; Aaron Grad, guitar
New York University
New York, NY

A setting of the 99th sonnet from Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets, as translated by Stephen Tapscott. The full cycle of 100 poems, sectioned into Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night, moves gradually from young lust to autumnal warmth. Within the closing pages, so full of nostalgia and reflection, the 99th sonnet takes an unexpected look forward to a mystical, bountiful future.

Inquire for availability.


[2004] – for voice, oboe and string quintet – 9’

Premiere February 12, 2005
Rose Studio, Lincoln Center
New York, NY

Texts by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell) and Aaron Grad.


[2007] – for baritone, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano – 15’

Commissioned by the Saratoga Chamber Players
Premiere December 9, 2007
Saratoga Springs, NY
Dedicated to Jen and King

Texts by Aaron Grad

I. Petals on a Wet, Black Bough
II. Digits
III. Astronomy
IV. First-Act Love Ballad

My family owned just about every Fred Astaire movie when I was a kid, and through those films I fell in love with the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and others. As I developed into a jazz musician, I idolized all of the composers who contributed to the Great American Songbook, but one for whom I developed a special affection was Cole Porter. There was something mischievous—even subversive—in his wry, ironic lyrics and playful tunesmithing, and his sensitivity to human dynamics overflowed the narrow confines of romantic musical comedy on film or stage.

These arts songs are settings of four of my love sonnets, a form I have dabbled in ever since I discovered Shakespeare’s sonnets while in high school. The first three are inspired by the love of my life, Jen Kovarovic, and the last is a sendup of musical theater and its formulas for generating romance. I offer this work as an homage to Cole Porter, the first great writer of distinctly modern and American love songs.

Silk Dresses

[2001] – for soprano and guitar – 20’

Premiere April 19, 2001
Rebecca Bixler, soprano; Aaron Grad, guitar
The Village Temple
New York, NY

I. The Man with the Blue Guitar
II. Meditation Celestial and Terrestrial
III. Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs.
IV. The Emperor of Ice Cream

This is Just to Say

[2001] – for voice and guitar (or piano) – 2’

Text by William Carlos Williams.

Walking Across the Atlantic

[2002] – for voice and guitar – 2’

Text by Billy Collins. Also arranged for voice, horn, trumpet and cello.

one voice | TWO OR MORE VOICES

Clear White

[2003] – for high voice, low voice and piano – 10’

I. Clear Night
II. Snow
III. White

Texts by Charles Wright.

Texts by Billy Collins. The songs may also be performed independently. Clear Night is for low voice and piano, Snow is for high voice and piano, and White is for both voices and piano.

Como Llover

[2003] – for two sopranos and alto (or women’s choir) and piano – 11’

Text by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger.

El Hombre

[2003] – for chorus and orchestra – 5’

Commissioned by the Fairfax Choral Society.
World Premiere December 6, 2003
Fairfax Choral Society and the Fairfax Symphony
Douglas Mears, Conductor
Schlesinger Center
Fairfax, VA

Instrumentation: *2222, 4221, timpani + two percussion, harp, strings, SATB choir

Texts by William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens

Also available for SATB Choir and piano. Inquire for more information.

El Hombre, composed for a holiday concert, is my version of sacred vocal music. Writing it was more like immaculate conception than composition—I had a draft sketched and orchestrated in about eight days—although in retrospect it was brewing in my head long before, ever since I read the four-line William Carlos Williams poem of the same name (El Hombre is “the man” in Spanish, but also a euphemism for God). The musical shape filled in when I read a companion poem by Williams’ close colleague, Wallace Stevens, titled Nuances on a Theme by Williams. I hope the music brings out the qualities I find so appealing in the text: its relevance, universality, clarity, and simplicity. I offer a special thanks to Fairfax Choral Society Music Director Douglas Mears, who made possible an uncommonly swift journey from concept to concert.

“Strange courage” is the heart of the text, and my piece. I even considered "Strange Courage" for a title, but I thought it was important to retain Williams’ oblique suggestion to look higher for an explanation. Williams’ “theme” appears three times in this short piece; I hope it is enough so that the words linger after even one hearing. Strange was the most difficult word to set, it needed to be both beautiful and unsettling. It appears each time with a tonal rub: the first and last time, the tenors hold an E against an insistent F in three octaves on the harp. For the second appearance, the women stack a C major triad over an F major triad in the men, doubled by quivering flutes and strings.

Stevens calls his stanzas “nuances on a theme,” not variations. A variation, in music or poetry, explores some surface aspect of a theme and develops it in a new way. The way I interpret Stevens’ “nuances” is that they are explorations beneath the surface. My setting seeks to match the contrasting colors of the two poets: Williams is bright and crystalline, Stevens is dark and swirling. The two stanzas of nuances offer an opportunity to traverse remote tonalities and rhythms, with soprano, alto and tenor soloists picking up the more obscure strains.


[2002] – for mezzo-soprano, countertenor, violin, guitar, bass and percussion – 11’

Premiere December 14, 2002
Recital of Alexandra Christoforakis
New York University
New York, NY

Text by E. E. Cummings

Rather than focusing on the surface-level gamesmanship of the E. E. Cummings text, I wanted to bring out its beautiful landscape images and sensuous language. My primary device was to split the text into two voices: the mezzo-soprano paints a clear Paris morning, and the countertenor splashes foreign colors and haziness onto the scene. The roles reverse at the end.

Mr. and Mrs. Nelson

[2010] – for soprano, baritone, piano and pre-recorded cello with video – 16’

Premiere May 28, 2010
Ardis Nelson, soprano; Mark Nelson, baritone; Peter V. Stevens, piano
The Henry Gallery, University of Washington
Seattle, WA

Music for a performance piece by Peter Nelson. Watch a video excerpt.