Seven Questions with Steve Hackman

Brittany Moseley
Steve Hackman

Copland and Bon Iver. Stravinsky and Kendrick Lamar. Tchaikovsky and Drake. In the skillful hands of composer Steve Hackman, these wildly different pairings become cohesive orchestral experiences. Hackman will once again bring his fusion of classical and modern to town on Saturday, Nov. 9, when he conducts the Columbus Symphony in Brahms v. Radiohead: Brahms “Symphony No. 1” and Radiohead’s OK Computer and other hits including “Creep,” and “There, There.”

We spoke with Hackman—who also performs under his own musical project, Stereo Hideout—via email about his music background, artists he’d love to work with and why Thom Yorke and Johannes Brahms have more in common than you think.

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When and where did you get the idea to fuse classical and contemporary music?

Put simply, it is a reflection of who I am and have always been as a musician. As I was pursuing a career in classical music—studying piano, counterpoint, and conducting—I was doing the very same thing in parallel on the “popular” side: writing songs, learning production, playing in bands, creating tracks. These fusion pieces are a manifestation of that duality. I believe the ultimate pursuit of any creative artist is to find your own distinct voice, that combination of aesthetics and techniques unique to only you. These fusion pieces are an effort towards that.

How do you choose the artists whose work you want to combine?

I combine the music that I love and think is essential. It is a special opportunity, one that I cherish: the chance to introduce listeners on both sides to new music. What an honor it is to play a Brahms symphony for fans of Radiohead for the very first time and vice versa.

What was the first classical/contemporary fusion you did, and how many have you done to date?

On the orchestral scale, the first piece was Copland v. Bon Iver: Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” combined with the music of Bon Iver. There are 10 productions now, I think. The most recent is IGOR DAMN STRAVINSKY, a synthesis of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” with Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. This winter I will write The Resurrection Mixtape, a combination of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2” [Resurrection Symphony] and the music of Tupac and Biggie.

In regards to your upcoming performance with the Columbus Symphony, why Brahms and Radiohead? What is it about the two artists that make their music complementary?

OK Computer and Brahms’ first symphony are both full of anxiety, tension and a brooding pathos. The music is wound so tight that it’s ready to burst. Radiohead was expressing its misgivings and doubts over society at the advent of the internet age. As for Brahms, he was under extraordinary pressure to deliver a first symphony that would validate his being dubbed the “successor to Beethoven.” As a result, he took 20 years to write this piece, and his toil and efforts are woven into every note.

Can you tell me a bit about your own musical background, specifically the music you grew up listening to? Do you see a connection between the music of your youth and the work you are currently doing?

Absolutely there is a connection. As a kid I would dance around the house (when no one was home) listening to Tchaikovsky and Chopin; yet on the weekends I would tape the late-night sets by Chicago house DJs (who were themselves combining house, disco, TV theme songs, classical, hip hop) then listen to them on the bus all week. I would venture to say that there has not been a time since I was 8 years old that I wasn’t consumed by both classical and popular music in parallel. During my first year at Curtis [the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia], my on-campus job was to close and cover all the pianos at night. This was always my time to listen to pop in my headphones. I remember specifically Police and Huey Lewis and the News being big piano-lid-closing albums. 

Walk me through the process of creating Brahms v. Radiohead: How does it go from an idea in your head to what audiences hear and see on stage?

It starts with just having both pieces fully analyzed, broken down and engrained into my musical memory, so that I can access any passage at any time, in any key. In this particular case, that part was easy, because these are two of my favorite works ever, and ones that I had studied endlessly. There is usually some sort of gestation phase, where I let the music start to co-mingle in my head, listening to each over and over—on the subway, at the gym, in the shower, whenever. The length of that phase depends on the deadline; in the case of Brahms v. Radiohead, I only had a few weeks to write it, so this phase was skipped! But I start to get loose ideas during that gestation period of what the eventual formal organization might be, i.e. which song might fit with which classical section, and I make notes. Next is the writing phase at the piano. I open up the classical score and start playing, with the structural intentions in mind, and find opportunities to improvise and create transitions, overlays, synthesis, etc. This part is the most fun. The next phase is scoring and orchestrating it. And the final phase is of course putting together the performance, which I can’t wait to do with the fantastic musicians of the Columbus Symphony!

Who are two artists whose work you would love to combine?

I think it is time to start working with the artists themselves. I want to create from scratch an orchestral experience with the likes of Chance the Rapper, John Mayer, Kendrick Lamar, St. Vincent, Beck, Phish, Kanye West, James Blake, Björk; there are so many brilliant artists that have the imagination and talent to interface in an extraordinary way with an orchestra.