Steve Hackman Marries the Popular and the Traditional With "Brahms V. Radiohead"

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Composer Steven Hackman and the Phoenix Symphony will perform "Brahms V. Radiohead" on Saturday, March 5.
Phoenix Symphony
For much of his life, Steve Hackman has been torn between two worlds.

He attended school to study classical music, and out of his home base of Los Angeles works as a conductor as well as a composer, arranger and pianist. But he also had another, slightly "forbidden," love.

"I studied classical music, but then, in private and secret, I was pursuing popular music," he says during a recent call. He didn't have childhood friends who "listened to classical music — I was singing the Beatles with them, trading Phish bootlegs, and listening to N.W.A. on the basketball team. I became obsessed with Radiohead along with my friends."

And that love of Radiohead is where Hackman has been able to marry his diverse creative interests and artistry. In March 2013, he created "Brahms V. Radiohead," a so-called "fusion" of Radiohead's songs, mostly from the seminal OK Computer, and "Symphony No. 1" from famed German composer Johannes Brahms. (There have been other productions, including "Beethoven V. Coldplay.")

"The intention of this endeavor is to bring those two together, and to try to provide an access point for popular music lovers who maybe haven't found the right opportunity to attend a symphony orchestra concert," Hackman says. "I'm representing what my journey is and hopefully finding more people like that."

Because, as someone who has occupied both of these "worlds," Hackman believes there's still a disconnect between popular music and classical music fans.

"I do think it's a chasm ... and I think the disconnect is even more dramatic than people realize," he says, adding that popular music fans "were maybe put off by the experience or overwhelmed by [classical] music." Meanwhile, Hackman recognizes that most classical musicians didn't have the time or energy to "fall in love with Radiohead."

The original idea for the project emerged when Hackman was working for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to design new programming to appeal to a "younger audience."

"At first, I would just sort of juxtapose a short classical work with, let's say, a Coldplay arrangement or a John Mayer arrangement," Hackman says. "So what I was finding was both the orchestra would play a movement of Beethoven, but then they would switch off once we played the pop part. They would become disengaged, and then the audience would pick up on that disengagement."
Luckily, Hackman had a stroke of genius early on in the series.

"What if we never switch off a Beethoven?" he says. "What if I can find a way to fuse and synthesize Beethoven and some Coldplay, and the orchestra feels the entire time that they're playing a Beethoven symphony? The audience then gets the energy from the orchestra the entire time, but then they're also getting this familiar thing but in a reimagined way."

Hackman gravitated toward Radiohead because he said they could "hold their weight" against any classical music heavyweight. But why marry the two worlds of Radiohead and Brahms in such a specific way?

"Radiohead is, they're kind of futurists; they were so ahead of trends," he says. "The innovation and breakthrough nature of OK Computer and then Kid A, and so a composer like [Igor] Stravinsky or somebody that was ultra modern might be a more apt choice."

He adds, "Brahms was really traditional, and he was always looking behind him. So that in that way, it seems an odd pairing, but it actually makes it even more compelling to me. Because what I keyed in on was the tension of the music and the anxiety. ["Symphony No. 1"] is wrapped up so tight, structurally and musically, because of what was going on in [Brahms'] life. And OK Computer had that foreboding sense of where society was going and Radiohead expressing their concerns. So in that way, that tension is what really kind of marries the two together in an interesting way."

The results have been impressive, as Hackman has performed "Brahms V. Radiohead" across the country for the last decade, and will do it again with the Phoenix Symphony on Saturday, March 5, at ASU Gammage auditorium. But while he's gotten praise from lifelong fans who have undergone "transformative experiences," Hackman almost prefers the insights garnered over the years from critics.

"There's certainly those purists who want Radiohead music the way it is, with Thom Yorke's vocals and Jonny Greenwood's guitars," he says. "And then there's people who say Brahms' music is perfect for a symphony, and who are you to change it? I need to know this music so well to do that and to love this music so well just to spend months of my life doing this. So I get the purists' attitude for sure, and if they can't turn the corner, that's fine. Luckily, [this show] has not caused the originals to cease to exist."

Hackman has gone back and tinkered with the project a few times over the years. But mostly, it has become another example of music's occasionally immutable tendencies, and how these works often help us track our personal evolution.

"As conductors, we are going to conduct Beethoven's ["Symphony No. 5"] for our entire lives," Hackman says. "And so you better hope that every time every few years, you're going to hope that you find something new in it."
He adds, "As time goes on, I become more and more distant from the person I was when I wrote the piece. More and more questions come about as the years go on, and it causes me to reflect on both Radiohead and Brahms in different ways, which I enjoy. I can start to talk to audience members, not as somebody who just wrote this piece and really wants it to go well, but someone who wrote it 10 years ago and has done it 100 times."

Still, it's given Hackman something to build for himself instead of "conducting concerts of all Beethoven, because I don't want to." The project has become a way to show people the magic he sees in both classical and pop.

"It has a lot of high moments," he says. "From 'Paranoid Android' to 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' to 'Exit Music' to 'Lucky' to 'Let Down,' each one of those fusion moments has an amazing pinnacle. They always transport us in those moments. Talking about 'Exit Music,' it whirls into this incredibly dramatic climax and then following that very dramatic ending, we segue right into this beautiful choral from the symphony's fourth movement."

He adds, "That juxtaposition of this somber, gloomy Radiohead song that all of the sudden becomes this gorgeous string theme, that release is just incredible. The way the orchestra leans into it, and the way the audience responds, it's just a really magical moment."

Hackman will continue to perform "Brahms V. Radiohead" for some time, and will also "write [more] productions, but I don't know at what pace." Ultimately, though, he wants to tackle other projects, like composing for films and producing records. This project could then live on beyond Hackman as conductor, with more people hopefully finding the sublime in those spaces between ideas.

"What's kept me attached to the project ... it's almost as an advocate," he says. "It's been essential for me to be there to deliver the message and to talk about the process and educate and be an ambassador. Hopefully we can transition it. I definitely want to offer my music to people, and so I can write music that can change people's lives, just like Radiohead did."

Hackman and the Phoenix Symphony will perform "Brahms V. Radiohead" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5 at ASU Gammage auditorium, 1200 S. Forest Ave. in Tempe. Tickets range from $33 up to $93, and are available at Ticketmaster.