Aaron Grad joins Britt for an illuminating conversation about creating truly integrated arts experiences for people from all walks of life, why it’s critical for us as white people to surface issues of race while we find ways we can help equalize power, and why traditional arts organizations must summon the courage to fundamentally rethink their programming and business models if they want to survive and thrive. He also walks us through the genesis of his upcoming work, “Many Messiahs,” in which he reframes Handel’s masterpiece as a collective call for justice.
Join us on this wild ride, as we delve into the tough stuff and plumb the depths of our souls. You won’t want to miss it!
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Jonathan [00:00:02] Welcome to “Not Going Quietly,” the podcast where we inspire growth, beat down biases and get into all sorts of good trouble with co-hosts Jonathan Beale and Brett East.
Britt [00:00:11] No topic is off limits as we explore ways to help everyone leap into life with a greater sense of clarity, passion, purpose and joy.
Jonathan [00:00:19] So get ready to join us for some courageous conversation because not going quietly starts right now.
Britt [00:00:30] Welcome to “Not Going Quietly,” the podcast for outraged optimists and heartbroken healers all over the world where we talk about everything that maybe you're afraid to, but you've always wanted to hear. I'm Britt East and I'm NOT with my co-host Jonathan Beale today. He's out sick. So our featured guest, Aaron Grad, is just stuck with me. We'll get to Aaron in a second. We have such a really exciting topic today. I'm so thrilled to be able to introduce Aaron to all of you and talk about his work. And most importantly, we're going to have some, you know, maybe some vulnerable conversation around antiracism among white guys. But first, let me tell you a little bit about Aaron Grad. He's an amazing guy. He merges his rock and jazz roots with his classical training to create music that The Washington Post has described as inventive and notably attractive. (It's a little bit like me.) Recent commissions include "Honey Sweet, We Sing For You," a chamber cantata for Burning River Baroque that updates the myth of the sirens, (which sounds really cool by the way, and I need to figure out where I can hear that), as well as "Strange Seasons," a concerto for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra that pays tribute to Aaron's adopted home city of Seattle (which is where I also live). His recent string quartet for young audiences, "How Notes Become Music" uses music, poetry and animation to offer life lessons about human connection (Which is really brilliant. I also really want to hear that piece as well!) As a performer, his greatest joy is playing the electric theorbo that he designed and built himself. Aaron is also the artistic director of "Many Messiahs," a contemporary reframing of Handel's "Messiah," around themes of activism and racial justice (We're going to really dive into that one today) in collaboration with a diverse group of genre bending artists. Aaron is co-writing and arranging the songs that will appear in this holiday program, a chorus and orchestra starting in 2023. In 2021, Indie Flicks produced "Envisioning Many Messiahs," a mini documentary on the first steps of the project (and we're going to make sure you have the link to that today.) When not creating music, Aaron channels his enthusiasm for communicating with audiences into the program notes he writes for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the New World Symphony, the 90 Second Street Y, the Seattle Symphony, and many other clients. (And if you're not an orchestra geek like me, these are like the world's preeminent orchestras. I mean, this is we're so lucky to have Aaron on the show.) He serves as the host and resident musicologist for the Commissioning Club Salons presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and he has launched his own lecture series "In the Key of Connection," which explores the intersection of chamber music and social and emotional development. Aaron, I'm so thrilled that you're here. How the hell are you today?
Aaron [00:03:33] I'm great. It's great to be here with you, Britt. Thanks for having me.
Britt [00:03:37] Yeah, Aaron and I met through our association with Early Music Seattle, a local early music organization, and I've gotten to know Aaron on some other projects as well. And I'm just thrilled to get the chance to talk about this project, "Many Messiahs," and use that today as a vehicle for a conversation about race, which is so important among white guys. So first, Aaron, let's get started with actually just talking about "Many Messiahs." What is it and what is Handel's Messiah? Because a lot of our listeners, I mean, they may not know that they know it. It's so, you know, it's saturated the culture. At this point, it's transcended art music. And so what is Handel's "Messiah?" How did that evolve into "Many Messiahs?" Just take us through the whole process.
Aaron [00:04:27] Yeah, I'd be glad to. Handel's "Messiah" is maybe the single most performed piece of classical music, and is almost 300 years old now. Even if you think you don't know "Messiah," I'm sure you know the Hallelujah chorus and the greatest hits. But there's about two and a half hours of other music that's just about as good. Handel, as a German composer living in England and writing in English in this style of composition called an oratorio music for singers, solo singers, chorus and orchestra to be performed on a concert stage. And this was a really particularly strange piece. The words the libretto, instead of telling a story like most oratorios do. There are a lot of biblical stories. Story of Samson or whatever else this one was. This hodgepodge of scripture, Old Testament and New Testament scripture that took stories from Jesus, but also prophecies that predated Jesus Old Testament prophecies and really just told this. Story in a non-linear way about someone who is coming to make the world a better place and the pain and oppression suffered by that person and the hopes and dreams of the new world are all trying to get to. And so there's a very specific Christian lens that people can enjoy the “Messiah” through about this one supposed messiah Jesus who showed up and is going to show up again to bring us into that version of a promised land. I grew up Jewish. That's not a story that particularly resonates for me, but the music sure does. Even as a Jewish kid, I grew up. I remember really vivid memory of going with my family to a messiah sing-along tradition that's all over the world and sitting next to my bubbe, my grandmother, you know me and my unbroken boy singing the alto part with her. And so, you know, this is music that's been in my bones for a long time. Messiah is performed everywhere in every city, in the English speaking world and beyond. Every holiday season, it's become a Christmas season tradition, even though it actually started around Easter season, but so be it. So Messiah is the the universal, ubiquitous presence of classical music in the holiday season. It's a really great point of entry for anything that's trying to open the door for people because it's a door that already has people pretty curious and accepting and open to walking through as a tradition to tell the story of many misfires. I have to go to the summer of 2020 when I'm like everyone else in the world. I was just aghast and heartbroken to witness the murder of George Floyd and to pile that on top of, you know, I think we just hit the 10 year anniversary of Trayvon Martin. I feel like that was the first time I really became aware of the extent of continuing the physical danger of being a black person in this country and, you know, vigilante violence and state violence and just the sanctioned murder of people of color in this country. And I saw enough of those and then some I always managed to tune it back out and move on. Like, like us, white guys have the privilege of doing. And then for whatever reason, something snapped in me around the murder of George Floyd. And I mean, I think it did for everyone in my circle. Everyone was paying a lot of attention at that period of time. And, you know, whatever it might be marching, protesting, making BLM signs in their front yard. And for me, it just didn't let go. And I don't I don't know how to explain that. I just I felt it really deeply and wanted to do something. I know, as you said in my bio, I've got a lot of different hats that I wear in music. I write music and my day job is writing about music for a lot of major orchestras and other presenters. So I have a really good sense of what's out in the marketplace and how organizations are doing what they're doing, including every single classical music organization that is has a stated intent to improve their diversity, equity and inclusion. I watched all of these organizations put up their, you know, their their message of support for Black Lives Matter on their Facebook page, and for a lot of groups, that's as far as it ever went. And then a lot of others have done what they can. They're trying something, and I commend that. But I became, How do I say this? I am a musician with a lot of different backgrounds. I have a jazz background. I was a jazz guitar major and my first musical love was music, theater show tunes, Great American Songbook kind of stuff. George Gershwin, Cole Porter. I feel like the music that got in my ear before anything else was watching Fred Astaire movies. And I've always had a sense of appreciating good music, good tunes wherever they show up in my life and my parents or Baby Boomers, Children of the Sixties, a lot of singer songwriter, folk music in our house, a lot of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez. I love all of it. I love. I love a good tune wherever it finds me, and I saw how classical music was trying to do anti-racism, and it just became so disturbing to me how reticent the power holders are and continue to be to actually change the narrative, to actually give up power. And what it became is this I feel. The movement became we're going to do anti-racist work as long as you do it our way in our lane, according to our rules, under our financial prerogatives and everything else. And. And so what that ended up looking like was a rush to program black composers on existing concert series and mostly dead black composers William Grant, still Florence Price. And fortunately, some really great living black composers. Jesse Montgomery. You know, I'm probably the most popular program composer today and well deserving because she's amazing. But it became really so limited, and I just felt grossed out to see the hypocrisy within a field that I really love and value and feel like surrounded by. I'm surrounded by progressive people in the arts who all feel like we want to do a good job and be good allies. And this was this was good, strong, well-financed organizations doing their very best, you know, with consultants helping them, whatever else I wanted to do better have the vision that came to me, and I could probably find the date because I remember I had a sleepless night and I woke up the next morning and wrote some stuff down and have that file saved of. This is probably about a month after George Floyd's murder. The epiphany that came to me on a sleepless night was to use Messiah Handel's Messiah as an entry point to tell a story about oppression, about state violence, about what happens when an activist dares to speak truth to power. An activist from the wrong class with the wrong color, skin and the wrong accent. Whatever it is, you know Jesus from the poor Jewish underclass of Roman occupied Palestine. The story of that activist and what happened to him. I felt very modern and very current and applicable to what I was seeing in my world. That martyrdom and the epiphany was what if there would be some way to create music in dialog with someone else who is coming from a different musical world, a musical world that's resonant today and especially resonant in black culture? And it just seemed really clear. All of a sudden I need to I need to collaborate with the hip hop artists. I don't. I'm not. I'm the last person to know anything about hip hop. It's not really my world. I mean, I like what I hear, but it's just not. It's not the music that I've gotten that deep into. And but I have this vision of a piece of music that would somehow weave between the classical tradition of Handel's Messiah and contemporary music by hip hop artists that would, in in dialog with each other, tell a modern story of activism and justice. And I went on a hunt to find the right collaborator and did a lot of deep diving into the intersection of hip hop and social justice, and sort of stumbled onto a scene that I didn't even know was there. It was kind of a whole hip theater scene. People who are already making art that is geared toward this sort of storytelling and broader activism and messaging. And I found a guy who just blew me away. A Hip-Hop artist named Darian Deshon, based at the time in New York, has since relocated to L.A. and I was especially blown away because one of the projects that he'd been doing was a trio ban him a classical violinist and a bass player, incredible band called the mighty Third Rail. And I just loved how they were already finding inroads into that intersection between classical and hip hop, and I could tell that Darian was very thoughtful and smart. Musician, writer, poet, beatboxer, everything else. And I was really excited and tracked him down and just sent an email. And we talked and we talked again, and it was kind of a feeling each other out and we realized we were going to try something and work very slowly and patiently toward shaping what this collaboration might be. Yeah, I got about six months into it, and we're finally starting to try to write some music and realized we couldn't agree on the vision. It was a really good moment of reckoning with my privilege and racial perspective that even in this project that was meant to be elevating and partnering with a person and BIPOC artist, I still didn't want to let go and I still want to do it my way. I had really strong ideas, and luckily, Darian also has really strong ideas because he's just a monster of a musician and artist that he was not. He would not go quietly and thank goodness for that. And so we were we really had a crossroads where it became apparent to me that no one I needed to. To back off, and if I really wanted to be an ally, I had to learn how to make space and create the space and create a platform and a venue, and then get myself out of the way to let the work happen. Did not need me. The parts that did not need me. I needed to get out of the way. And you know, if I'm going to trust a musician who I believe in and I got to let him do his thing, it also became clear to us that trying to tell this story, this modern messiah, it is not a singular story, and there is no one experience of oppression. Even within the black community. There's no one experience of oppression. And it also became clear that there are so many interweaving threads of oppression. I mean, as we're trying to to create this piece, we're also you know that my news feed fills with, OK, now we've got anti-Asian violence happening in relationship to the pandemic, and now we've got, you know, migrants being shot at at the border. And now we've got all these anti-Muslim racism is back as it always is. And then anti-Semitism is flaring up and the threads of hatred and oppression are interconnected. They are intersecting. They are all one of the same. And we, Darian and I just had the sense that we couldn't tell one's story and it wasn't about us trying to tell one story. We were trying to tell something way bigger than just ourselves. And so we basically agreed the epiphany. The next epiphany. I remember, I mean, a really, really good, hard, challenging conversation with my wife as I was trying to unpack this really tough conversation I had with dairy, and that almost just pulled the plug on the whole thing. And through a couple of hours of talking it out, the vision came to me of many messages. First of all, it's a good title. I really had a nice ring to it, and it says it says it all. We're not waiting for one dude to show up and make the world a better place that's not going to fix anything. And it became sort of a double meaning that we needed a cohort, a collective of musicians to tell all of these stories. And so in one sense, they are the many masses. But really, what we're trying to create is an experience that helps people awaken to the understanding that we are all the many missiles that anyone who shows up and stands up and adds their voice for justice and is willing to take that chance that that that makes you one of the many masses and that's who we're waiting for. And so that's a long, winding road to get to the point of what we're trying to build now. We've got a collective of musicians from all over the country, from all different walks of life, musical styles, ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, everything else. We are writing songs. I really I'd say they are writing songs, and I am supporting and assisting and arranging and orchestrating these songs. All share source material from Handel's “Messiah.” Like I said in that two and a half hours, there's a lot of good music to choose from. And so each new song takes something that is recognizable and relevant and then builds on it to tell a modern story. And ultimately, these songs and all these different, very different artists will be strung together into an evening of holiday entertainment, and it's going to be a concert with chorus and orchestra on stage, plus these incredible artists, these soloists backed up by our own house band that can straddle these different genres. And we're going to get people on their feet and singing and dancing, and there's going to be, you know, sing alongs and there's going to be hip hop and there's going to be salsa and there's going to be all of it. That is so many missiles is going to be a concern. It also is more than that because we're not going to change anyone's minds and hearts with one night. And if we think that that's going to do it, that's just perpetuating the same elitist classical music mindset. OK, we just have to put the right content in the concert hall and maybe put some more people of color on stage. And that's going to fix it. That's going to do it, and that's going to make the concert hall a welcoming space. Well, I just I've seen enough times. It doesn't happen. We would we could do this show for the same white people that already come to concert halls and then maybe they'd walk out the door a little bit more open minded. That'd be cool. But I really would like to make the concert hall a space that is truly representative of our world and our society. And that is, I mean, I know I'm not a religious person and I don't I don't go to Temple. I don't go to church. I wish we had that sense of a communal temple, a cathedral of common culture of common cause. And what other place but a concert hall? I mean, these beautiful. They are the most beautiful venues with, you know, thousands of seats and gilded, you know, archways and velvet seat cushions and everything else. I mean, what? What a palace. And just the thought of bringing a whole world of people into that space to share, to share these messages and to share our voices and so many messages is a concert, but it's also a community outreach platform. It is an education vehicle. There will be curriculum for young people, high school, middle school students. It is a conduit to create circles, community circles in local communities, and eventually it will be a recording and publish sheet music that any, you know, amateur choir, orchestra, a high school theater group, whatever can do their way in their own community. That's part of the long range plan for it. So it's not just a concert, it's really a movement that's about changing what happens in a concert hall and what the future of this this art form could be in partnership with people of color. That's as many missiles.
Britt [00:21:41] Well, that is, Aaron, I'm just I'm almost speechless that it's so incredible on so many levels. We are recording this podcast virtually. And if I could find a way to hand you my wallet, I would. And I suspect that many people listening are just going to be so let up by the story you told that they're going to want to know how they can be a part of this, and we're going to tell them and we're going to put links in the show notes as we go forward. So the audience just hang with us as we go through this. But I want to pan out a little bit because what I think you've done and maybe this was on purpose, or maybe it was inadvertently is that you have you are a disruptor in the arts and you have created an anti-racist business model because when at least when it comes to the fine arts, I mean, lots of the arts is doing fine, is doing well, is doing great. But when it comes to the what we call the fine arts, which is, you know, racist colonialist term, but the business models broke. And so you've created this new business model to to completely disrupt provide an alternative path to not a race, but to provide an alternative path to to complement the existing business model to give all sorts of people from all sorts of walks of life access to our shared transnational cultural histories, our international arts that's part of all of our heritage. It doesn't belong to any one country or any one race or ethnic group to to provide multiple venues, literally and figuratively from the concert halls that you referenced, but also kind of staging shows in a variety of venues and even educational institutions and organizations in a way that is self-sustaining. And I'm just blown away because I've been an orchestra geek my whole life. I've worked in various arts organizations and a number of levels, and people have been trying to figure this out for a long time. And I and I feel really excited that you may at least in part, are are kind of cracking that code and charting a new course forward.
Aaron [00:24:00] I hope so. I mean, I I speak passionately about this project and I've, you know, I've practiced my my pets enough times and I've had a lot of conversations about it that I can almost make it sound like I know what I'm doing. It's something that is really and I got some really good input, some mentorship early in the process that that the intentions and the process of how this happens will be as important as the final product. And I've learned a lot and come to see a lot of my whiteness in ways I hadn't understood. So like my my obsession with the final product is a very white way of seeing this world. And it's easy for me to get spun up on what do I have to do to get to that concert? What are we going to? What's it going to take to get us there? And sometimes that's good. Is that going to be a driving force? And I can use that. I can channel that, you know, that opportunistic part of me of, you know, what's this going to get me? What's been on this podcast? What's this going to get me? You know, that's a very white way of approaching the work. And and so yes, I am intentionally trying to create a disruptive model. I would say co-create because I'm the business guy in this project, but I am not the artistic force behind it, the the cohort or the collective of artists. They are the drivers of the message and the music. And you know what the credit I'll give myself is that I have found amazing collaborators and that was my my job was to go on these deep dives into different corners of the musical world and work really hard to find the right candidates and then meet with them. And then it came down to writing songs with them. That's how the entry process to many misfires was to write a song and plenty. There were plenty that didn't happen, that we tried and just didn't get there. And the artists that it, it really worked. And and so yes, we're trying to create something disruptive, and I am amazed that we keep well, we just keep putting the next foot in front of the other. And you know, we got as far as we made this mini documentary in time for the holiday season and we raised somehow raised the money to do that and keep just catching up with, you know, the next bills do manage to get, you know, in the midst of a pandemic and right at the height of the Delta Surge got that group of musicians in a room together in Brooklyn for one day for four hours and recorded the first three songs. And this is not even the full group because we didn't have an orchestra or chorus yet, but we had. We did a small version of the string quartet and and we did it. And now we're trying to figure out the next step and get a pilot project together and figure out how to do the community work and the education work and how to pay for all of it and how to put on these concerts and do it right and do right by the music and by the communities who are trying to engage with. And hopefully, at the end of all that, we will have a package that we can sell to orchestras, major orchestras around the country and beyond who could benefit from this sort of all this work that we're doing and all the all the legwork to do it right, then we can just show up and drop it into a community and and say, you know, here, here's many messages, and here's yeah, and here's how we're going to train your local teaching artists to do community work and education work. And and maybe it will be a business model that can can sustain the art form. I mean, that's I want I want. That's that's the weird thing about this project. I mean, the anti-racist intentions are the heart of it, and I want more justice in the concert hall. That's primary. I also want concert halls to exist for more than another generation or so. I want music made on beautiful acoustic instruments and with voices in naturally resonant acoustic environments. I want that tradition to continue and to sustain itself, and the course it is on is not sustainable. I mean, that's what you pointed to. Music propped up by an aging white donor base is just it's just not happening. And so it's this weird thing where I feel like I'm pushing again. So much resistance in this community and in this art form. And I'm really I'm sort of trying to save it. I mean, I feel like I'm trying to throw a lifeline to an art form that really needs it. But there is a lot of ingrained and habitual, you know, there is overt racism, there is subtle racism, there is white supremacy that is baked into the entire notion of the art form. There is a lot of resistance, and, you know, it's like really the system is working exactly as it's intended to. It is very effectively kept those walls in place. And so in that perspective, you know, for people who want that, maybe there's no problem until the day that it all comes down around them. And so that is a disruptive business model and it's about justice, but it's also about it's also about art, it's about making music and making music that lasts. And so it's both.
Britt [00:29:32] Yeah, absolutely, I mean, that's what is so cool about you is that, you know, when I first heard about this project, I was like, OK, Aaron, how's this going to work? Because part of being a white anti-racist ally and accomplice in the positive sense of the word is that we don't center ourselves to the work that we center the struggle and the fight for justice. And here you are out on the forefront of this business model, speaking so passionately about it. But you're so smart and aware and curious and empathetic that you have found a way like you corrected me to co-create and collaborate and center the artists in a really beautiful way. So you are. Look, we all stand. Every single one of us stands at the intersection of multiple identities, which involves all sorts of this complex mixture of adversity and privilege. And all any of us can do is take those areas of unearned advantage in our lives and leverage them to lift up others. We can't set down that privilege as soon as we do. It's conferred on us by society instantaneously. Again, we can't reject or repudiate our whiteness or white privilege that we reap from that. All we can do is leverage that, and that's what I've been. So one of the things I've been so moved about your journey and in this process is that is that to me, that seems like what you're doing so masterfully in the service of this, this work and this art. And I'm just struck and I would love to hear a little bit, maybe more of your story. You told some of the inception of how this project came to you. But you know, in all honesty, and I suspect this might be your experience as well. It's really hard to grab, capture and sustain the interest of moderate and liberal white America when it comes to this work. Let's set aside the segment of society that is inherently racist and likes it and is actively working to preserve that status quo. For the sake of this conversation, let's step to the side and address the people who are either inadvertently participating in this racist society because it's the default and they just haven't thought about it. Doing this work is a privilege itself. Some people, you know, have are wrestling with such issues just to keep food on the table. They don't even have time to engage in this work. Yet somehow you came to this catharsis and you did something about it and you built something or are building it and you put one foot, you're putting one foot in front of the other to build this really wonderful experience and testimony. This disruptive business model, potentially. I mean, have you always been like this? This is, to me, pretty rare. A lot of people might have the empathy, might have the care and concern, but that dwindles over time, as you alluded to, where other crises intervene. What what about you or your upbringing has has brought you to the space where you have the capacity, the attunement to invest all of this time and energy and passion into this project?
Aaron [00:32:38] Yeah, I think so, it's a good question. It makes me uncomfortable. And when you said mastery, I don't I can't I can't pretend to have any mastery over this. I mean, I think that humility. I hope I carry humility with me every step of the way and I continue to. I mean, I continue to participate in white supremacy and stumble over my own privilege and racism. I'm just getting a lot of practice looking at it and working on it because this is such a big part of my life now. So I guess I just have to say that, I mean, even being here, as you know, speaking at some sort of expert, I mean, I feel as my impostor syndrome is way up because I'm not an expert in anything anti-racist action. I'm just a musician trying to make something with people who I really care about. I would not say I have a lifelong predisposition toward justice. I think I've had a lifelong predisposition toward, you know, getting what's mine as a white dude that's come easily to me, a lifetime of privilege of financial privilege and educational privilege and. Easy access to just an expectation that I will get what I want, and I think my sense of of activism was really first awakened around the MeToo movement that was really easy to access and close to home, as you know, a heterosexual, cisgender man, I could really I could. It just it was uncomfortable to see how. You know, behaviors that I would have, you know, normalized and tolerated in my younger years, I'm lucky that I've been with the same woman since I was 21 years old. We've been together well for a good long while now and, you know, got married along the way and had one kid and her soon to have another kid and. And so I got to grow up with her and and through her help. And you know, I look back on who I was as a teenager and my college years and and the way I treated women and could really see the hurt that I had perpetuated directly. And it was hard to look at and as a, you know, as a husband, as a son, as a brother to two sisters just to think about the the the hurt that women absorb. Just by walking out the door and the risks that they incur. It was really easy for me to just to awaken to that and painful, but close close to home. And that was the first time I really brought activism into my musical life was the piece you mentioned Honey Sweet. We sing for you. That retelling of the siren Smith. The sirens have been so misunderstood. You know the story? Homer's story? The story from the Odyssey is that there are these temptress that sit on a rock and that their whole M.O. is to lure sailors to their death with their beautiful siren song because they get a kick out of it or whatever. Whatever, I suppose, to be an end to that, and I believed it. You know, I read Odyssey of the Odyssey when I was in high school, and I believe that, you know, I think we all have that kind of notion of the siren song and the kind of mythical and devious creatures. And it just, yeah, I think in the MeToo movement, as suddenly this question became all right. So there's one way of telling the story what's her story? I want to know what was her story of the sirens, and I found a collaborator, a poet. It was also in the past I've it's been hard for me to collaborate. I like to do things myself. I like to have a lot of control and I get involved in things that are way too hard and take way too long, but I'll see it through. But my life, you know, my my band with changed having a child and I just I became drawn to this idea of maybe collaboration. Is it a way to access and amplify what I'm trying to do? I found it a little bit north of here in Bellingham, Washington, beautiful poet who I discovered her in a volume that was published not long after Trump's inauguration, a volume called Nasty Women Poets. She was featured in there and it's great. She and she does a lot of work with mythological retellings. And so we wrote this. She wrote the words. I wrote the music that that unpacks what are the sirens actually trying to say and why are they on that rock singing this beautiful song? And she actually went into the original mythology and figured out that they were they were actually the handmaidens of Perceptually, who was abducted by Hades, and they were searching for her. And that's why they have wings. They went fly and until they ran out of gas and ended up marooned on this island and they were calling. They weren't calling the sailors. They were calling their sister. They were calling for Stephanie and and the sailors just happened to overhear it. And I felt like, what a perfect example of, you know, it's like the victor test right there. I mean, actually, they were talking to their sisters, but men inherited a certain way and it became all about, you know, their sexual dreams. Anyway, so I wrote that piece and it was a really gratifying experience. It was performed in Cleveland a number of times by Burning River broke, a group led by a good friend of mine. And that's actually the piece was also commissioned by Early Music Seattle. And then the pandemic happened, and so it never got played when it was supposed to in 2019. But it's coming. It's coming this June in Seattle as part of a really amazing program called for all our sisters. And it's we've woven a whole evening of mythological references and retellings together. Baroque music, my music, it's going to be really special. So that was the first time I really got involved in the idea of merging my creativity and my activism. You know, and you ask, what is it? How do I how would I have what equipped me to do it? I think what I have had is I'm an obsessive person and I get my teeth sunk into an idea and then I will see it through. I mean, it's ridiculous. It's kind of my creative life cycle, and I've never made a living making art. I for the last time, I what is it, six years or so? I've supported myself writing these program notes. It's my day job. It's a good one. It gives me a lot of flexibility. And so then when I make music, I have this tendency to do huge things that tend to take me about three to five years at a time. You know, like you mentioned, the electric, the audio, I had this this is another it always starts with the sleepless nights. I had this vision of this instrument that I wanted. I love the theater, but it's a baroque lute with 14 strings. It's a monster. It's beautiful. I wanted one, but I wanted it my way and I'm a I come from playing jazz guitar and electric guitar rock guitar. And so I had this idea that I wanted to write a piece of music that would be love songs that kind of could span the ages from early music to contemporary music and in my own songs woven in there. And the perfect instrument to play it on would be an electric guitar. So first I had to build an electric the audio and I set up a woodshop in my garage and I took about a year to build an electric, the audio in about a year to write the songs in about a year to learn how to play the electric guitar because I didn't know how to play it. And at the end of all that, I put on a concert, you know, for 80 people, and that's the end of it. So I have an obsessive personality that allows me to sink my teeth into something and keep going. And so in this case, I got hooked on this idea of many misfires, and it was clear from the feedback I was getting and my own interest in it. It's a good idea. It's working something good can come of it, and I just didn't want to let it go and. And then as it became collaborative, and once I found these partners, a lot of it for me, that was I just I want to do right by them. I mean, they are they deserve to be heard. Their music is so powerful and meaningful. And I mean, I feel like this is my life's work now. I'm wow. Part of my goal is to figure out how to actually turn this into my job in the next three to five years, where there's a, you know, an empire to be run and I can can dedicate my all of my time to it instead of just, you know, at the time. But I can squeeze in around my paid work that pays the mortgage. I really believe in the music. I believe in the cause. I think what we're making is is extraordinary and it just I don't know if we had to try it and if we'd tried writing some songs and tried playing them and they just stunk, I'd move on. But it feels like the music I've spent my whole life trying to find my way toward. I mean, I just so I am. I'm not picky about genres. I don't care about stylistic, you know, I'm not a classical musician or jazz musician. I just I love good music that that resonates with people and has deep feeling behind it and solid musicianship. And and I just I there's no concert. I want to hear more in my lifetime than many misfires. And so I just have to keep going until I can do that.
Britt [00:42:00] That's really cool. It's going to be so gratifying. That's that's really amazing. You know, I'm struck by the fact that obviously, as I let off the episode with that hearing, our two white guys talking about race and there's just not enough of this. And and it's like, I'm hoping that we can start today, like modeling and then start doing that. All of us start doing this more in our lives where those of us who have the privilege to to have these sorts of conversations have the time and space for these types of reflections can start to be willing to extend our hearts to the places that scare us, where we are explicitly confronting and acknowledging our own privilege, whatever it may be. You know, I was, I was. I recently had the good fortune to be in New York City a couple of weeks ago, and I went to see the David Byrne musical American Utopia. And he concludes that show by doing a cover of the Janelle Monae song Janelle Monae as a brilliant black singer, actress, artist. I mean, she's friggin brilliant and and I think at the Women's March, she debuted a song called Say Her Name Where where she, among other things. Shouts and invokes the audience to shout the names of black women who were killed over the previous years in particularly by the police. And so David Byrne wrote her and got permission to do the song and kind of updated it and made it even more timely because there's been so many more murders since Chanel even wrote the song. And I was so moved by the fact that here was a white guy with so much privileged, more money than it could ever spend in his lifetime. No reason to sing the song. You know, this isn't a Broadway show where if you're really cynical and want to claim that is just performative value in an absolutely meaningless. I think that's pretty weak, and I was so moved by the fact that here is somebody doing it, it just feels so few and far between. So my question to you, Aaron, is how can we as white people, first of all, have these conversations when people of color are not even in the room and stop requiring them to teach us and to shepherd us through this work and to to hall monitor our conversations about this topic. But also, how can we take care of one another as allies and accomplices because it can be lonely and it can be draining? I mean, it's not like we can turn to people of color for support because they're busy living their lives, and it's not their job to console us through this work. And there are so few of us kind of out there doing it. How can how can we, you know, we talked about the business model, but in terms of the personal model of sustainable replenishment and ongoing work over the course of a lifetime, how can we continue and advance this work and sustain one another as we do it?
Aaron [00:45:23] Yeah, that's a good question that I have an answer for myself, but I don't know if it's the same for anyone else. It's something that's hard that I've seen is just I know I'm in contact with a lot of people who had a lot of intensity about wanting to examine their racial privilege until they didn't anymore. So I think that's part of it about. Yeah, there's a part about taking care of yourself. I guess I see more of a need for what does it take to keep to keep the lens open? And then it's both because it hurts. It's painful. And so I think that sometimes what happens is that, you know, we open it up, look at was there and it feels awful. It feels awful to be in touch with how you know, the legacy of slavery permeates every aspect of our capitalist society, and it's just it's everywhere. And so there is an aspect of self-soothing that's required and self care because it hurts to feel that and to process that. And you know, I think that like any other her, I mean, whatever you would do for any other hurt, I'm I'm in a men's group. I mean, it's been on Zoom for much of the last two years. But you know, every Thursday night I meet with a circle of men who are some of my closest confidants and friends, and we talk about this stuff. And to that, I mean, that's part of where I get it. For me, this and this question of, I don't know, I don't. Someone said something to me the other day that made me chuckle. It's just, you know, what we don't need is just a bunch of white guys doing “woke” book club with each other. Yeah, that doesn't do anything. Very true. And so part of what what became, you know, where I decided to really keep the focus is that I want to make sure what I want to make sure I'm doing something. And for me, because I'm a musician, I'm an artist. Making music in collaboration with people of color is is part of what keeps that fuel alive for me, because we have to in the course of our collaborations, stuff comes up. I mean, we deal with it. I mean, I know a really great example. The thing that with Dana Wassily, the Puerto Rican singer songwriter and Afro-Caribbean musician, is involved in this cohort. And we did one of her songs at our demo recording session in Brooklyn, and we had to do it small and lean, and it was dealing with, you know, COVID stuff and and budgetary constraints. And so we had arranged the full orchestral version of her song and and then I made a stripped down arrangement that could be done on this reading and in the stripped-down arrangement. I did not include the part for congas, the percussion part, because, you know, white guy me, that's not essential to me. What's essential when we need the voice and we need the harmonies, we need the notes because it's all about the notes for it, for us white guys. And that's the lexicon of our musical understanding. And so I I put this whole reading session together as this recording session, and we had a string quartet and guitar and bass and trumpet, and she was singing lead night and I had backup vocalists lined up for her and she just she just hadn't caught that in the arena. And the arrangement and the plans we made there was no percussion until the day before, and she was really gracious and understanding about it, but basically said, like, there can never be another time in this project that this music happens without percussion because this is music of the African diaspora and the backbone of this music is the percussion. And you know, for her, she probably could have done her song with just her and a conga player. That's that was a requirement for sure. I mean, there's there's a lot more to it than that. But so that was for me. And then to really look into that and to think about what does that mean and what are those drums and OK, so those are, you know, the conga is a Cuban drum skin, you know, a high end stretched across a wooden frame. And this is this is an adaptation of an African drum and and those drumming patterns, those interlocking multi poly rhythm, you know, those patterns, Cuban patterns come from Africa and and. And so then we have to look at, well, how how did they come from Africa and when and where and who? And then I'm in it, you know? And so to me and I felt like shit, I felt like crap. I don't I'm not sure if I should. I should probably bleep myself here. I felt guilty that I had stumbled into my white privilege and made a decision that impacted her and and under undercut her musical identity. And you know, the good news is, is one step of millions of steps to go and we worked through it. And there are no hard feelings. But I had to learn from that, and that's the humility. And so I guess for me doing this work in, I can't ask people of color to heal me and guide me and teach me, that's not fair. But if I'm work, if. Will hold if a walking shoulder to shoulder on a path, and I'm I'm showing up of service and as an ally and I and there's learning to happen within that, that feels like it's not taking something, it feels like it's growing together. And you know, these these friendships are amazing to me that I've formed with these artists. I mean, I'm so grateful that they've come into my life and they're some of my favorite people, all of them, you know.
Britt [00:50:58] Thank you for being vulnerable to to share that story. I want to share one of my own super quickly. We are recording this episode at the very beginning of March 22, while Russia Russia's busy busily invading Ukraine. And so it's a really dire situation and like a lot of people, have been captivated by that and the plight of the Ukrainian people. And I realized the other day, this is so embarrassing, Erin. It's like I can barely bring myself to say this, but I'm going to I realize the other day through the miracle of television that I realize like, Oh, I didn't actually know that people of other races lived in Ukraine. I'd actually just never thought about it. Then there was issues with people, black people in particular at the border and trying to get across to Poland. And there were some issues for a while. Hopefully that's been rectified. But, you know, every day I'm just uncovering new presumptions, assumptions, prejudices, even inadvertent. You know, there was no malice behind that. It was just my capacity to hold the nuances of everyone's story is finite, and so I continually find myself stepping in cow pies. And part of being humble and having a sense of humor, as you know, we move through the world is just kind of acknowledging it. Laughing at ourselves, making amends and apologizing when necessary and doing better in the long run. To be sure, of course, working to actively dismantle systems of oppression. But you know, these little day to day issues where we just marvel at yourself like, Oh, I just was real happy to think that everybody in Ukraine was white. I just never even considered it. And now it's like, I'm seeing encourage people of all sorts of races dealing with all sorts of levels of privilege and adversity in the scope of this horrible situation. So, you know, your story resonates with me, and I think any white person who's being rigorously honest with themselves would have some sort of story like this on an ongoing basis. And so where I want to get to with this is kind of a provocative, challenging question, and maybe this is something you're addressing or have strong opinions on. And I would love to hear them. And the question that I wrestle with a lot is this especially given my current work with various arts organizations in the area is is it actually possible to have truly integrated arts experiences, you know, whether it's racial, integrated or integrated across other parameters of diversity, you know, sexual orientation or gender or neurocognitive or physical ability? Like is it truly possible to have, like a lot of arts organizations, will put on the nonwhite show on their season, as you alluded to, and sometimes they have, oh, white audiences. Some adventurous arts organizations will even take that show, quote unquote on the road out of the traditional concert hall, in the proscenium to term venues that have traditionally nonwhite audiences. And then they'll get some nonwhite audience, but then the white people won't show up. And so it's like, how do we start to actually integrate the arts?
Aaron [00:54:18] And I believe it's possible, but to some extent, that's what we're testing right now, and we're trying to test the different models for doing that. And I don't know exactly what all the steps will be on the ground of the community outreach and all that. But I know that it starts with the art itself. I mean, it is a hard needle to thread to find art that speaks universally, but it's out there. And I mean, I think today it's hip hop. That's the music that speaking to the most, the broadest swath of the American public, I would say, is hip hop. And I've really opened my ears to a lot of different kinds of music. And so I just I believe that we will get there by when the thing that's happening on stage speaks to people. And then even that that idea of happening on stage, that is a very white perspective, and it's all about what happens on stage. And part of what I've been learning is that if we want to create an event that speaks to all people, OK, part of it happened on stage, but part of it happens in the lobby and part of it happens in the community the day before. And part of it happens in the food that you serve on the, you know, on the sidewalk. And so to explode, all of those white centered. Predispositions about what even a concert is, I mean, the concert that you're describing the innocent, but that the old concert are not you because I know you got it. Yes. That old concert will never speak to everyone, but maybe there's another one that I know I've been, you know, I think I guess I wanted to sort of follow up in relationship to that too and kind of to what we were talking about before. I think part of the my responsibility I've come to see is that when and when uncomfortable stuff comes up for me, I cannot choose to ignore it. And I always have in the past, and I think part of doing the work, it's like there was a whole brouhaha happening. One of our collaborators on many, Mrs Curtis Stuart, is our music director of Violinist Incredible Artists. He was the first violinist in the string quartet and a video from our or our little demo. He got nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance Big Honor for a solo album he made it. It's incredible. It's called of power and it's it's it's incredible violin playing and spoken word and beats, and it's all a kind of a meditation on the pandemic and his dying mother. And it's one of the most just moving things I've heard in a long time. And there was this huge backlash going on right now about he doesn't belong in the classical category, and the blatant racism of it is just disgusting because, you know, and and it's all through dog whistles and no one's saying, you know, Oh, well, it has. It's not the right. It doesn't sound right to be classical music. Whatever this guy, he works, he works at Juilliard. He went to the polls because he I mean, he's a classical violinist, and it's it's yeah, it's it's cool. It's it's it's a contemporary spin on classical music the same way many missiles will be. But so and so what did I what could I do? I took my day yesterday instead of doing the work that was do I took my day to write a really detailed defense of why, why he belongs in that category? Because that's one of those. That's one of the things I could. I have that resource I can write. I write pretty well and and it deserved it was. It was a pain. It was disruptive to my day, to my emotional or metaphorical vulnerable parts. But it was just I could have just let it go. It's not my fight, but that to me, that's that's the essence of it right now. Just all right. Here's another one of these things coming up. I'm not going to let myself be a silent observer. I relinquish that privilege. I just have to figure out a way to do something. So that's, I guess, that's tied into it. And so how is there going to be music for everyone is going to be from people like Curtis. I'm not going to figure it out. Curtis Curtis, you know, the son of a black jazz tuba player and a white Greek violinist. I mean, he's he's figured out, I've got to let him. I got to help him do it. That's that's part of what I'm learning.
Britt [00:58:23] Yeah, it's an amazing story. I think also part of what you're doing is since you're not going to put your own horn is you've found this framework where you're leveraging let's just for the sake of argument, call it white music in Handel's Messiah and you are bringing it to everyone and then you're extending it beyond our monolithic religious traditions in the way that you said much more eloquently than I could to make it many messiah. And so you're meeting when I'm where I'm getting at is you're meeting white people where they are and people of color, where they are and being the nexus for all of those communities. And I think in a very shrewd way that is also incredibly artistically stimulating. And I think that while I know I'm really excited for the results, I love what I've seen and heard so far, and I just I feel like, you know, you're on this forefront along with your collaborators of this new. I mean, I hate to frame it in capitalist terms, but here we are of this new business model that can really help save portions of the arts world that are struggling to find their way.
Aaron [00:59:37] I can only hope that's the hope. Yeah, well, it's something to keep doing the work and we'll see.
Britt [00:59:45] Exactly, exactly. So we're going to give you the audience all sorts of different links in the show notes, so please make sure you check those out. Aaron has a website at Aaron Grad dot com. Many messiahs has a Facebook page facebook.com forward slash many missiles that's plural all one word. Those are the two of the easy URLs to give out. Some of them would be a little hard to get out over the air, so please check out the show notes and take a look specifically at the indie flicks documentary that'll really make it come together. You know, on a podcast, it's all kind of conceptual like, what are we talking about? What's the Messiah? And we'll put so many links in there. So hopefully it'll all kind of connect the dots and you can see exactly what's going on. And then there's various segments of these websites where you can contribute and figure out how you can be a part of Erin's vision and this amazing work. And and that's, you know, going to be seeing the light of day in all sorts of different ways over over the next few years. And so, yeah, please check that out. Aaron, I am so thrilled we have the chance to to talk with you today. I just I'm so moved by your relentless honesty and self-reflection and your empathy, compassion, care and concern. It's so easy to live on our white silos, especially if we're also cis men. We're just kind of at the top of the pecking order and in a lot of ways, and I'm really moved by how you are leveraging your privilege to to to be part of a healing conversation and for people everywhere. And I'm so thrilled that you joined us today.
Aaron [01:01:29] Well, thank you, Britt, and I say the same back to you. Here you are, putting yourself out there and trying to have hard conversations and be an ally. And so, you know, I'm glad to be in it with you and I appreciate you creating this forum and and for doing your work and to feel it and to move through it. So glad to be on and on the path with you.
Britt [01:01:50] Thanks, Aaron. Everybody, you've been listening to not going quietly the podcast for outraged optimists and heartbroken healers all over the world. My name is Britt East. Like I said earlier, our co-host Jonathan Beale is is AWOL. He is out sick, so we apologize for that. But I have just had a wonderful conversation with Aaron Grad today. I'm so thrilled that he joined us and hopefully you enjoyed our conversation too. Thank you so much for listening. Bye bye now. You've been listening to not going quietly with co-host Jonathan Beale and Britt East,
Britt [01:02:28] Thanks so much for joining us on this wild ride as we explore ways to help everyone leap into life with a greater sense of clarity, passion, purpose
Jonathan [01:02:34] and joy. Check out our show notes for links, additional information and episodes located on your favorite podcast platforms.
Artistic Director of "Many Messiahs"
Aaron Grad merges his rock and jazz roots with his classical training to create music that The Washington Post has described as “inventive and notably attractive.” He majored in jazz guitar at New York University, and for his master’s degree at the Peabody Conservatory he studied composition with Christopher Theofanidis. While a student, Aaron won awards from the ASCAP Foundation in both their classical and jazz competitions. Recent commissions include Honey-sweet we sing for you, a chamber cantata for Burning River Baroque that updates the myth of the Sirens, as well as Strange Seasons, a concerto for the Seattle Baroque Orchestra that pays tribute to Aaron’s adopted home city of Seattle. His recent string quartet for young audiences, How Notes Become Music, uses music, poetry and animation to offer life lessons about human connection. As a performer, his greatest joy is playing the electric theorbo that he designed and built himself, as heard in Old-Fashioned Love Songs, a song cycle with countertenor.
Aaron is also the Artistic Director of Many Messiahs, a contemporary reframing of Handel’s Messiah around themes of activism and racial justice. In collaboration with a diverse group of genre-bending artists, Aaron is co-writing and arranging the songs that will appear in this holiday program with chorus and orchestra starting in 2023. In 2021, iNDIEFLIX produced Envisioning Many Messiahs, a mini-documentary on the first steps of the project.
When not creating music, Aaron channels his enthusiasm for communicating with audiences into the program notes he writes for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, 92nd Street Y, Seattle Symphony and many other clients. He serves as the host and resident musicologist for the Commissioning Club Salons presented by the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and he has launched his own lecture series, In the Key of Connection, which explores the intersection of chamber music and social and emotional development.