Steve Hackman

1. What is your goal with these classical/rock mashups?

No one creative artist (or in this case composer) has had the exact same set of musical circumstances and exposures that gave way to technique and preferences. That infinite variety is a precious asset, and in my opinion every composer is simply trying to represent their personal variety in a way that is authentic and original. I think of something Michael Tilson Thomas, mentor and Music Director of San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony, said to me about Mahler: he was trying to represent with the orchestra the sound world that he inhabited in his daily life [with reference to his interpolation of folk songs and his implementation of odd and avant-garde effects].

Pardon the shameful comparison to Mahler, but this is exactly what I am attempting to do with mash-ups. I am representing two musical worlds that I have always been immersed in, both through listening but more importantly in practice, concurrently: classical and popular. Brahms and Radiohead. The arranging and composing techniques used to create the combination were developed over years of work in both arenas, from my very first barbershop arrangements when I was a teenager to advanced counterpoint studies at Curtis. And the use of three singers is indicative of my background in choral and a Capella music.

2. How would you describe this performance to someone unfamiliar with it?

That all depends on who the someone is that I am describing it to. If that person is under the age of forty, and therefore most certainly familiar with what a ‘mash-up’ is, I would say that it is a mash-up of the Brahms 1st Symphony and Radiohead’s OK Computer, using the original symphonic orchestration of Brahms and adding in three singers for the Radiohead melodies.
For someone unfamiliar with mash-ups, I would say it is a synthesis of the two works- interweaving and juxtaposing one with the other to create a new work that is at once Brahms and Radiohead. I’d probably add that the majority of the Brahms symphony is played in its entirety, untampered with- especially if I’ve received a scornful look.

3. Why mix Brahms with Radiohead?

This was the first large-scale mash-up I wrote, and I always wanted to start with Radiohead. Their music is dense, complicated, thoughtful, and of all the ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ stuff out there, probably the most familiar to classical musicians. Radiohead’s harmonic language is also quite chromatic, and the ratio of tension and release leans HEAVILY towards tension. These qualities they share with Brahms, along with a certain dramatic, brooding feeling.

Honestly the whole thing occurred to me when I was listening to ‘No Surprises’ one day. The chord progression of that song is a major I chord followed by a minor iv chord with an added 6th. This is a particularly evocative chord and classical composers from about the time of Wagner onward make use of it (as judiciously as possible, since some would label it ‘cheesy’). Brahms uses that very sonority in the beautiful penultimate bar of the second movement. That is when I first thought that the pairing could work. Then with the song ‘Paranoid Android’ being in C minor (the key of the Brahms symphony), and having a rich and chromatic chord progression, I had enough to be sold.

4. What is the most challenging aspect of creating a cross-genre work like this?

I thoroughly enjoy the writing process, and love the challenge. It is such an adventure. I’m currently writing Bartók vs. Björk for the July 7 Music Mash-Up concert, and every single day is both terrifying and exhilarating. It is like exploring an alien planet that I have the unbelievable privilege of co-creating as I go along.

The most challenging aspect is the performance element. Orchestras have been playing these masterworks for hundreds of years, and the notes have never changed. Now the notes are changed, and more notes have been inserted, and it twists and turns and comes back around, and all of a sudden it is WHAT?? WHO IS RADIOHEAD?? and it is enough to be very confusing, disorienting, and possibly insulting to the players. This is quite a hurdle. So it is my duty to guide the musicians through this, to engage in a dialogue about the intent and design, and to show them that this has been done with skill and ultimately with respect to ALL- to them, to Brahms, and to Radiohead- and that an endeavor of the kind has value. If that conversation is successful, and if we can then actually start to shape the nuances of this REIMAGINED work- incredible things are possible.

Join Steve Hackman and the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra for THE 2015 MUSIC MASH-UP SERIES. Single tickets and series subscriptions are on sale now.

Watch full performances of past Music Mash-Up concerts: