Early Music Seattle and the Electric Theorbo: Aaron Grad’s Strange Seasons

by Micaela Pearson

Music and atmospheric phenomena intertwine in Aaron Grad’s new concerto for electric theorbo, Strange Seasons, which receives its world premiere this Saturday in a performance by theorbist John Lenti with Early Music Seattle.

Inspired in part by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the concerto is a four-movement celebration of weird Seattle weather featuring melodic musings about meteorology and accompanying sonnets for each season (narrated this weekend by former KING 5 meteorologist Jeff Renner).

Grad not only composed the music and the poetry, but also conceptualized and built the electric theorbo that will take center stage at Saturday’s concert. Much like the double-necked nature of the electric theorbo, new music and early music harmonize on the program with Grad’s composition celebrating the similarities shared between new and old, jazz and baroque.

I’m lucky to begin my research for Strange Seasons during a snowy spell in late autumn, living something like the damp, cold Pineapple Express as heralded by movement one of his composition. Already, we have had tastes of the Gray, Gray, Gray Emerald Blues looming on the horizon in the endless blanket of clouds.  And on this particularly clear and cold morning, I fondly recall the once warm, summery Paradise with Rainier illuminated in gold, and the scattered, hopeful Sun Breaks of springtime feel an eternity away.

Grad is a friend of Second Inversion and a champion of new music in the community.  Second Inversion co-founder Maggie Stapleton interviewed Grad in 2014 about his electric theorbo and the composition he wrote to debut it, Old-Fashioned Love Songs, which is an epic, evening-long love letter to the composer’s wife, showcasing the electric theorbo’s ancestral role as the ultimate accompaniment.  Grad’s electrified innovation gives a common thread of bass and strumming capabilities, mellow tone, and nuanced attitude to an evening of dreamy, pining lyrics that span the centuries.  

In this new composition, which is again dedicated to his wifebut now with the addition of their newborn childGrad gives the electric theorbo its day in the sun. Brought forward from the ranks of background music, Strange Seasons puts the range of the electric theorbo front and center, expressing the melancholic and vibrant variety of Pacific Northwest weather patterns.

In contrast to how Old-Fashioned Love Songs pays tribute to the historic use of the instrument, Grad uses Strange Seasons “to defy the theorbo’s traditional role, taking full advantage of the electromagnetic pickups routed through tone-altering effects pedals and punchy amplification.”

The diversity of color and texture available on the electric theorbo lends itself well to the constant shifting of Seattle weather, allowing the instrument to explore a wide breadth of sound. The winter movement, for instance, gives a taste of jazzy blues swirling with baroque ornamentation.

To bring the Seattle seasons to life, Grad enlisted the help of a friend. He explains in his program notes: “It struck me that I should write a concerto—the ultimate showcase for star power—and I realized that I could make the spotlight even brighter by handing off my instrument to a world-class virtuoso: Seattle’s own John Lenti, my friend and theorbo idol.”

In fact, Grad first met Lenti when he was working to on designing his new instrument—up until then, he had never actually played a real theorbo. Lenti, a theorbist specializing in Renaissance and Baroque music, was able to give him some guidance.

“Consulting with him really helped me clarify my design,” Grad said. “Even though we come from different musical backgrounds, I feel a lot of kinship in how much we both value heartfelt expression and total commitment to the music at hand.”

Lenti is also the first musician other than Grad to perform with the electric theorbo, and given Lenti’s virtuosity on the instrument, the sky is the limit for this concerto.

“John makes certain techniques look and sound easy that I could never manage in my wildest dreams, and I wasn’t shy about showcasing his virtuosity,” Grad said.  “Any hesitancy I had about handing over my ‘baby’ vanished once I heard what he could do with the piece and the instrument. Besides, I have a real baby now who is only three weeks old, so it worked out very well that the electric theorbo is in John’s hands now and little Felix is in mine!”

Seattle Baroque Orchestra and Early Music Seattle perform Forces of Nature on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7:30pm at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. The concert includes the premiere of Strange Seasons by Aaron Grad in addition to other weather-inspired works by baroque favorites Jean-Féry Rebel and Jean-Baptiste Lully.  For tickets and information, click here.


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!