Bartók + Björk - July 7
Copland + Bon Iver - July 21
By Brian F. Johnson
Mash-ups are not unlike playing with Legos. While the original kit of blocks might have been designed as a Millennium Falcon or a detailed rendering of the Eiffel Tower, a producer’s job is to deconstruct the sculptures, and to carefully stitch them back together in a way that utilizes the elements of the original models, but re-arranges them into an entirely new design.
While mash-ups are commonplace in modern music, classical music has seen very few, due to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of knowledge to tear into the classic orchestral pieces and that some of those who do have the skill set would find it to be a blasphemous endeavor.
But for composer Steven Hackman, mashing a classical piece with modern pop music is something that he has, in a sense, been training for his whole life. “I’ve always been immersed in both worlds,” said Hackman during a recent interview with The Marquee. “As a 10-year-old I was listening to Chopin during the day and practicing piano, and then at night I was taping house mixes on B96 in Chicago and falling in love with The Beatles. So, it’s always been these two tracks — the classical and the popular — in tandem.”
Hackman ended up immersing himself in the classical world, attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and The American Academy of Conducting in Aspen. His classical career was flourishing as he held posts with both the Reading and Indianapolis symphonies, but despite the success Hackman found himself in his early 20s feeling isolated from the pop world, and from music lovers his own age. “I just didn’t feel any cultural relevance, really,” he said. “If my friends weren’t coming to my show as a favor, they weren’t coming to the symphony, and I realized that I had to do something to address that problem and to encourage engagement with new audiences.”
As an assistant conductor he had worked on programs where orchestras would accompany pop artists through arrangements of their work, but he felt that those performances missed the chance to connect, and underminded many of the orchestral players virtuosity. So Hackman began tinkering and the result was his first large-scale mash-up combining the music of Copland and Bon Iver.
He’s now completed four full mash-ups and this month will perform two of them, Bartók + Björk and a newly re-arranged version of Copland + Bon Iver, with the Colorado Music Festival.
Initially the classical world, which is traditionally risk averse, furrowed their brow at Hackman’s work, but many also saw the connection it could make with non-traditional symphony audiences and have begun to accept and support the idea. “My teachers have done so much to maintain excellence and uphold this incredible classic cannon of music. So it’s understandable that when they first hear I’ve taken, for example, the Brahms first symphony and mashed it up with Radiohead, that their first reaction is borderline mortification. But most of the industry knows we need something new and that we need to evolve, and the solutions that most people think are reasonable don’t entail taking these museum pieces and dissecting them,” he said. “But as long as they’re willing to listen, they’ll see that this has been done with respect to the composer, ultimately, and not done as some blatant maligning of a piece just for a PR stunt.”
While the term mash-up implies that Hackman has reconstructed both the classical and contemporary pieces into entirely new pieces, Hackman said that he is, in fact, very respectful of the original classical pieces first and foremost. “It retains the original shape,” he said. “If you think about breaking each one down, the classical and the pop, they break down into the same kind of building blocks, the base composition and then the arrangement or production of that composition. If, say, Brahms is a huge castle and Radiohead is a tank, I stay in the form of the classical piece. I stay within the castle. But I’m layering the tank on top of that. The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra is five movements and my new piece retains that original form and it’s the Björk that is interspersed, but the whole thing retains that original Bartók shape.”
Hackman said that he now keeps a running list of artists and composers that fit together, and said that even sometimes when he’s in random places, ideas hit him. “I’ll be in the drug store and hear something and think, ‘This would go with Tchaikovsky,’” he said. But the trick is finding that connection, where the old music and new music meet. For Copland + Bon Iver it’s that both are evocative of nature, and for Bartók + Björk it’s the avant-garde themes that permeate both the artist’s and composer’s catalogs.
Ultimately for Hackman though, the entire concept comes back to connecting with a new audience, and the goal of bringing new people to the symphony. “This is some of the best music ever written and you’ve got people out there who are nuts about music and nuts about live music, but not being reached,” he said. “You can’t just give them drinks and play the same old stuff, and that’s the problem that these mash-ups are addressing.”
Colorado Music Festival Mash-Up
Bartók + Björk
Copland + Bon Iver
Go If You Dig:
- Girl Talk
- Pierre Schaeffer
- John Adams