by Maggie Stapleton

Here at Second Inversion, our catchphrase is “Rethink Classical.”  The multi-talented Aaron Grad (Composer, Guitarist, Artistic Consultant, Program Note Author, Lecturer, the list goes on) has done some serious rethinking of his own.  Let’s go a step or two back in time and call it “Rethink Renaissance.”

In 2012, Aaron built a one-of-a-kind electric theorbo.  You read that correctly.  Here’s a sample of the instrument’s sound in an excerpt from Aaron’s composition, Old-Fashioned Love Songs.theorbo_body


I had the pleasure of chatting with Aaron about the concept and design of the instrument as well as his upcoming performance featuring Aaron on electric theorbo and Gus Mercante, countertenor on Saturday, June 21, 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.  Aaron recently returned to Seattle after an East Coast tour with performances in NYC, Delaware, and Maryland (which got a great review in the Washington Post).

Listen if you’d like, or keep reading if that’s your preference!

Q. Could you tell us a little bit about this instrument you’ve created, the electric theorbo?

A. It’s based on an old instrument, the theorbo, which is a 16th century Italian lute with long bass strings plus a fretted fret board like a lute would have.  I fell in love with this instrument – it’s audacious, bold, has a deep bass sound, is beautiful for accompanying vocal music.  I had the idea to create a version that would work for me, because I’m not a period practiced lute player, like there are so many wonderful people who do that, especially here in Seattle, so I had to find my version.   I had this idea to hybridize the theorbo, with its many strings and deep bass notes and combine that with an electric guitar, with is my instrument.   So I came up with a design that brought those two worlds together and it uses some old ideas and old stringing and tuning but also very modern techniques of carbon fibers and other new materials.

Q. Did you actually build the instrument yourself?

I did.  It took me many months to design it and probably 8 months in a wood shop putting it together.  I had to try a bunch of things, engineer new techniques and bits and pieces that just don’t exist.  There aren’t a lot of precedents for this so I had to come up with a way to make a new bridge and find the right kind of tuners and even the pickups – every single component I had to rethink, source from somewhere, and ultimately assemble and put it all together.

Q.  What did you have in mind as far as the music to be performed on this instrument ?  Old?  New?

A. The overall message I had in mind was “the timelessness of love songs,” so it ended up being a new-old hybrid, but in a way my goal was not to show not how different those worlds are, but how similar they are.  Any time I’m involved in that new-old territory (which I find I’m doing a lot of), it’s usually to find common threads and connections back to something that I think is immortal in a musical statement or even a human, personal statement.  I ended up using love songs as far back as the 16th century and up to the 21st century and then I wrote a bunch of my own new songs.   The idea was just to show a common thread, that music has always been used to express love.  The simplest version is one person singing and the sound of something being strummed or plucked (and that goes back even farther than the theorbo) and as long as people have been singing or plucking strings, they’ve been expressing love.

Q. Is that the impetus for the concert you have coming up on June 21st?

A.  The two sides of it came together – one was building the instrument and just having the idea for that as a sound that I was drawn to.  The other was this idea about love and its timelessness and universality.  And so those came together in Old-Fashioned Love Songs – an evening length song cycle and the whole thing is one big love letter to my wife.  It’s my way of putting out in a very public, exposed, and somewhat vulnerable way- very true and personal feelings.  That’s what I’m interested in doing as a composer – I’m trying to push myself to be as “out there” as I can be with what I feel deeply.  I used to allow musical activities to just be on the surface… write a piece that sounded nice.  I’m sure I’ll do that again, but right now I’m interested in going really deep into what is most true and personal for me at that point in my life and figuring a way to put it to music.

Q.  Can you give us a sense of the range of songs we can expect to hear?

A.  The first thing on the program is a Toccata by an Italian theorbo composer written in a 1604.  The earliest song on the program is by John Dowland, great master of English love songs – beautiful, heartsick love songs (the agony of love!).  I also touch some Henry Purcell, which is also from that era when the theorbo was an active instrument.  Then I move somewhat chronologically… some Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill.  Then we get into some later 20th century pop music by Cyndi Lauper and Norah Jones.  Interspersed between all of those are some of my own songs which were written in the last year or two.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the collaboration with the vocalist.

A. The singer is a countertenor, a wonderful singer from Delaware named Gus Mercante who I worked with for the first time over a decade ago.  It’s been so nice to work with that voice type which also has these old resonances.  It’s a voice associated with centuries past.  There’s something so pure and angelic about a countertenor voice that helps to deliver that message that floats just beyond one moment.  He’s just been a wonderful musician and partner to work with.  We’ve been working very closely together and touring together and it really helps that I think our friendship shows up on stage and from the last performances we just did on the east coast, I saw how important that was as a part of what we’re doing because it is such personal music and especially because I’m not the one singing it, he’s really a mouthpiece for my ideas and I just felt like we were really close and connected and able to move together and phrase together in ways that spoke to our friendship and connection just as two people.

Old-Fashioned Love Songs will be a great way to cozy up with a loved one and take a journey through time, all the while experiencing the electric theorbo in the intimate setting of the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.

Visit our Streaming Albums On-Demand page to hear more of Aaron Grad’s compositions and recordings!