Steve Hackman, a classically-trained conductor and pop music enthusiast based out of Los Angeles, has been trying to answer this question since the early 2010's. He has written and conducted a number of live "mash-up" pieces that fuse modern pop hits with classical masterpieces - Bartók v. Björk, Beethoven v. Coldplay, Copland v. Bon Iver, and Tchaikovski v. Drake.
In January 2018, Hackman comes to Portland to join the Oregon Symphony in bringing his most successful of these mash-ups - Brahms v Radiohead - to life in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Metro News recently spoke with Hackman about his inspiration and purpose for the project, what the music of Radiohead and Brahms reveal about each other, and the role of classical music in the modern world. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did this work come together? What was the original inspiration or thought behind doing these pop/classical mash-ups?
Brahms v. Radiohead
Steve Hackman with the Oregon Symphony
Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
I was trained classically as a pianist/composer/conductor and I went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is a very serious, prestigious school for classical music. But the whole while, I was writing songs, producing, playing in bands, playing as a singer/songwriter. And I was sort of hiding that tandem pop career and my pop interests while I was studying this very serious classical music and being trained to be a music director of American orchestra. I was in the closet - so to speak - as a pop musician, as far as my classical colleagues were concerned.
After I graduated from Curtis, I started to conduct orchestras and I started down the straight classical path, and it didn't take long for me to realize that I needed something much more creatively fulfilling. I felt like conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was wonderful, it was beautiful and I loved it, but it was only utilizing 20% of who I am as a musician.
I began to think about how to combine my classical techniques and skills with my pop aesthetic and my pop abilities. And that was the beginning of this road that I've been traveling down, and the Brahms v. Radiohead was one of the first full-scale mash-up pieces for orchestra that I composed. Prior to that, I had written a lot of smaller 5-minute works, like single songs. But this is the first time I said "Okay lets take a complete work by a classical composer and a complete album, and lets see if we can put them together."
You've said that part of the purpose of this work is to introduce pop music fans to the world of classical music, and vice versa. Would you say that the primary focus of the arrangements is educational in this sense?
First off, as a classical musician you train to be an informed, intelligent performer and to advocate for your music. It's just the world we live in, you have to learn how to advocate for that art because classical music is, unfortunately, on the decline. It just does not have the engagement that it used to have, and it does not have the relevance that it had even 20 or 30 years ago. To be trained at a conservatory these days, there has to be some advocacy in tandem with that training, otherwise it's just not being realistic.
Secondly, any artist that finds relevance, or that finds some sort of success with their music - whether it's Beethoven or it's Brahms or it's Radiohead - I think there's always a thought of the audience and the experience of the piece. Is it the first thought? No. I think the art comes first - you know, realizing your own voice.
But I think that in classical music at the turn of the century, composers started to disregard their public in favor of just impressing their friends and impressing elitists and the people with all the money. And that's where things took kind of a nasty turn and that's sort of how we got to where we are today, in my opinion. Advocating and educating people is intrinsic in performing classical music. They go hand in hand.
As somebody who didn't grow up in a classical family, I wasn't trained at conservatories since I was a kid, I didn't grow up into that, so I was always having to teach my friends about this music so that they would come hang out at these concerts. I try to always think about the audience engagement and experience of any art that I'm creating.
In this arrangement in particular, what do you think each piece reveals about the other? What does Brahms bring out of Radiohead, and what does Radiohead reveal about Brahms?
Let me start with what Brahms reveals about Radiohead. Brahms is one of the master contrapuntists of all time in the classical repertoire - or in any repertoire. He was virtuosic and almost unsurpassed in this department. If you listen to a Brahms symphony after listening to Radiohead, you start to realize "my gosh, there are many contrapuntal strands in Radiohead's music."
I think the Brahms would tune your ear to counterpoint. Then you would go back to "Paranoid Android" - the relationship between the melody and the bass line is this example of incredible counterpoint. I think the Brahms helps illuminate the complexity of Radiohead's compositions - and in particular the counterpoint therein. I think there are many more examples of that, too.
What Radiohead reveals about Brahms? I would say that it helps focus this brooding, angsty kind of pathos of the Brahms symphony. This music is intense, and that's what's so interesting about Radiohead too. If someone is describing Radiohead's music they'll say "okay this is really intense, this is really serious, this is dark." Those are the kinds of words you'll hear. This is not "fun" music.
With Brahms' First Symphony, he took a decade to write that piece because he felt the shadow of Beethoven before him. He was probably thinking to himself "Beethoven has written nine symphonies, each one more perfect than the last," culminating with the Ninth Symphony which is unsurpassed in classical music. Brahms himself felt that pressure, and its easy to hear the state of his mind in the opening of [his First Symphony]. Throughout the entire piece, there is so much tension and so much angst and so much brooding. Again, the Radiohead would allow that come into focus even more.
Given the prevalence and ubiquity of pop music, what do you think is the role of classical music in the larger cultural landscape? Why should anyone care about listening to and remembering Brahms, Beethoven, or Bartók in 2017?
The way I look at it, classical and pop music are on the same continuum. You might as well ask "why pay attention to what Genesis did before Invisible Touch?" or "why pay attention to anything by the Beatles after 1964?" To me, if you are passionate about music - which the world is, luckily - then why wouldn't people be passionate about the greatest music ever written? Some of the most incredible pieces to ever be played on this earth. Is the access more difficult? Of course it is. But is it worth it? Yes. In my eyes they're not different; I'm trying to prove how similar they are.