Aaron Grad (born 1980) is a young American composer and guitarist whose music embraces both his roots in popular culture and his training in the Western tradition. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, he was a listless student of piano and violin from the age of 5. At ten he started fresh on guitar, and he was soon writing songs, forming bands, and playing his first jazz gigs. Grad moved to New York in 1998 to study jazz guitar at New York University, but the downtown new music scene soon seduced him. While completing his Bachelor of Music degree in three years, he performed with his own groups at The Knitting Factory and Cornelia St. Café and founded a concert series at Judson Memorial Church.
Notes from the Composer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
The Aeolian Harp
Performed by the Sherman Chamber Ensemble
Unlike all other stringed instruments, which make sound through some act of plucking, hammering or bowing, the Aeolian harp is activated by wind blowing across the strings, like a telephone wire humming in a stiff breeze. The instrument particularly captivated poets of the Romantic age, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). In The Aeolian Harp, the poet recalls lounging on a lazy afternoon and musing on the instrument’s “soft floating witchery of sound” coming from the window. His thoughts on the harp lead him to a powerful question:
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversly fram'd,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
I love this thought, that every living creature is an instrument converting a universal and unseen force into beautiful vibrations. It inspired me to write this piece—and to build an Aeolian harp for my own window.
My composition for flute, guitar and string trio follows the arc of Coleridge’s poem: the relaxed tranquility of watching the clouds (heard in this opening excerpt, accompanied quite appropriately by a chorus of crickets at the outdoor performance); the beguiling sound of the Aeolian harp; the formulation of the momentous question; and finally the humble, prayer-like conclusion. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Walter Reinhold, my undergraduate Music History professor, who taught me that all culture and creative endeavors are interconnected.
Concertino for Clarinet
Performed by the New York Chamber Ensemble with Alan R. Kay, clarinet.
After spending my high school and college years devoted to jazz, I figured out that I was drawn more to writing music down than improvising it, and my musical identity shifted from jazz guitarist to Composer. I took that big “C” very seriously at first, and tried to scrub all jazz inflections out of my music, lest I anger the gatekeepers of classical music, whom I imagined I was trying to impress.
I give large credit to clarinetist Alan Kay for helping me break free from this conundrum. Not only did he provide me with my first opportunity to write for a large ensemble of superb professional musicians, he encouraged me to let my jazz roots resurface in the piece. The three movements examine different aspects of my relationship to jazz: Ring tone marries my ideas about classical concerto writing to contemporary jazz; Ballad honors the jazz standards I fell in love with as a teenager; Closer picks up where I left off with my last downtown jazz group and uses material I first wrote in that context. In the excerpt from that movement heard here, the clarinet plays a fully notated “solo” accompanied by a bass vamp and clapping from the ensemble. Then that solo morphs into a game of call-and-response, in which the clarinet feeds each instrument its theme in turn, stacking layer upon layer of music until the texture bursts and returns to the closing statement of the melody.