COMPOSER & GUITARIST | ARTISTIC CONSULTANT

Featured Compositions

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Aaron Grad has composed nearly fifty works for concert instruments and voices, as well as dozens of pop songs and jazz charts. He strives to create music that is melodic and emotionally resonant. Click on the titles to access audio samples, score downloads, program notes and more.

Here are some featured compositions:

Old-Fashioned Love Songs

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

sound score
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.

The Lost Voice

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

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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.

The Father Book

[2011] – for guitar and electronics – 37’

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The Father Book is available on CD! Purchase hard copies from CD Baby or digital downloads from amazon.com or the iTunes store (search for Aaron Grad).

The Father Book in the press:
Radio feature by KUOW, Seattle's NPR affiliate
Review of The Father Book in The Washington Post
Interview with Aaron on Gazette.Net

Commissioned by Strathmore (North Bethesda, Maryland)
World Premiere: April 28, 2011 at Gallery 1412 in Seattle, WA
New York Premiere: May 18, 2011 at Jalopy in Brooklyn, NY
Washington, DC Premiere: May 19, 2011 at the Strathmore Mansion

Preparations for The Father Book began, in a sense, in 1967, when John Grad, a nineteen-year-old music major at Hamilton College, built a clavichord from a kit. In time he went to law school, got married, and had three children (I am the youngest), and through the years his clavichord languished in the attic of our house in Alexandria, Virginia. By high school I was immersed in jazz guitar, and would not necessarily have cared about an ethereal keyboard instrument from the Baroque era, but I fell in love with a recording of songs from Porgy and Bess, featuring guitarist Joe Pass and the great pianist Oscar Peterson playing, of all things, a clavichord. Inspired by those duets, my father and I tried to revive his clavichord, but years of warping and cracking prevented it from staying in tune for more than a few seconds.

Not long after we relegated the clavichord back to the attic, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died in 1998, and a few months later I graduated from high school and my family sold the house in Alexandria. I went to New York to study jazz, and the clavichord went into storage. I moved to Brooklyn in 2001, and, in need of a desk, I remembered the clavichord. Compact, sturdy enough to hold a laptop, and free, it was ideal apartment furniture. I discovered that I could access the keys even with the lid closed, and I developed a habit of exploring its strange, out-of-tune sounds while idling at my computer (this was the era of dial-up internet). The otherworldly beauty of this accidental music inspired me to record about eight hours of plucking, scraping and pounding inside the clavichord onto my portable DAT recorder. And because the instrument is so quiet, the boosted recording level captured myriad other sounds on tape, including my breathing, screeching truck brakes outside, and the church bells across the street. I held onto those tapes for years, unsure how to proceed, until I formulated a plan for a large-scale suite combining live guitar and processed recordings. It would be a duet with my younger self and, in some inexplicable way, a communion with my late father.

I began composing The Father Book in earnest in 2009. The piece combines a through-composed part for seven-string electric guitar with an accompanying track derived entirely from the clavichord. Each movement involves at least one sound from those original improvisations recorded in 2001, but I have since recorded much more material, and I also expanded some of the sounds with electronic processing. The ten short movements form something of a life cycle; it is partly a reflection of my father, partly a self-portrait, and in its broadest sense a meditation on a universal arc. The Father Book takes its title from a book my mother co-wrote around the time I was born—an instruction manual for new fathers.

Concertino for Clarinet

[2005] – for clarinet and chamber ensemble – 17’

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Winner, ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award
Commissioned by the New York Chamber Ensemble, Alan R. Kay, Music Director.
World Premiere performance by Alan R. Kay and the New York Chamber Ensemble
June 14, 2005 at the Cape May Music Festival, Cape May, NJ.
Dedicated to Alan R. Kay

For solo clarinet with flute (doubling piccolo), bass clarinet, horn, trumpet (doubling flugelhorn), piano, violin, viola, cello and bass.

Jazz was my first musical love, but over time I became increasingly frustrated with its boundaries and preconceptions, especially during the period when I was completing a performance degree in jazz guitar at New York University. For a good five years, I excised jazz from my musical life, and I reoriented myself as a composer of music for concert instruments.

It was the clarinetist Alan R. Kay who encouraged me to re-examine my relationship to jazz in the Concertino that he commissioned for his concert series at the Cape May Music Festival. Within a three-movement structure that honors the classical concerto tradition, I explored distinct aspects of jazz that had inspired and informed my musical voice.

Certain elements of the first movement, Ring tone, were inspired by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, especially his Brazilian-themed album Native Dancer, one of the most lyrical and refreshing records I know. The “Ring tone” theme, introduced in the opening measures by the violin and viola, is an exact transcription of Alan’s cell phone ring, a sound I came to know well when we shared an office at the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The second movement, Ballad, is a reflection on the classic show tunes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. The last movement, Closer, revisits the brand of jazz I used to write and perform with my band.