Steve Hackman and The Art of the Classical Mashup

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 12:00 AM

Composer and conductor Steve Hackman (Courtesy photo from the artist)

A musical mashup is when two or more songs are smashed together — for example, taking the bass from one, the rhythm and melody from the other and, more or less, creating a new composite song. In the early years of YouTube, a mashup was considered as one the most ear-tickling experiences on the Internet. These combinations were mostly contained within mainstream music, one of the most famous being a Radiohead vs. Marvin Gaye mashup called “Sexual High,” a combination of Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Radiohead’s “High and Dry."

Now, enter Steve Hackman, a Curtis Institute of Music-trained conductor and composer, with perhaps the most literal expression of classical-crossover that has ever existed: Beethoven vs. Coldplay, Radiohead vs. Brahms, Copland vs. Bon Iver, and, most strangely, Björk vs. Bartók. What makes Hackman’s work special is that, in contrast to the YouTube videos of the mid 2000s, his mashups are performed live — with an orchestra!

In truth, the word mashup doesn’t fairly describe Hackman’s work. The pop and classical elements aren't merely juxtaposed, but are dexterously woven together. At times, one isn’t sure of where the classical music ends and the other begins.

This wholly original result isn’t just luck. Not only is Hackman an accomplished and decorated musician, fully capable of producing a compelling piece of music, but it's clear that he loves the classical and pop elements with equal force.

In the program notes for Copland vs. Bon Iver, Hackman writes, "I’ll never forget hearing Bon Iver for the first time. It was the song ‘Woods’, which opens strikingly with a single, unaccompanied and heavily auto-tuned voice. A reflective four-line phrase is sung and then repeated in full, but with the addition of a vocal harmony. This happens over and over, each time a harmony being added, almost like a trance-inducing incantation, until it is an immensely powerful chorus of this uncanny and supernatural voice. This was a voice to be listened to."

Hackman then describes his love for Copland: "The summer before I attended the Curtis Institute of Music, I picked up an LP of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring with Leonard Bernstein conducting. I fell in love with the piece that summer, listening over and over, with giddy anticipation that I was about to attend the same school as Bernstein. All through my years at Curtis I would listen to that record."

Video: Steve Hackman's Copland vs. Bon Iver

For Hackman, these projects are more than wouldn’t-it-be-cool projects, but more about genuine sharing of the sounds and voices that have decorated his life. "This music is more than just music to me, just like your favorites are to you. In combining them I bring two beloved friends together, to commingle, become familiar, explore what they have in common, and share stories," he writes.

Video: Steve Hackman's Björk vs. Bartók

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