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From Brahms to Biggie: Steve Hackman bridges genres, communities with ISO

Steve Hackman talks with WRTV ahead of his fusion concert "Brahms V. Radiohead" about the ISO's impact on his creations, where the idea for these fusions came from, and what he's listening to right now.
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Posted at 3:15 PM, Jun 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-01 19:58:56-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Steve Hackman's appreciation for music has no boundaries, and I can tell you that firsthand.

For the last 10 years, the creative powerhouse has been bridging the gap between contemporary pop music fans and classical symphony lovers.

Hackman's fusions, otherwise considered mashups, consist of pop hits and classical standards coming together. Such as Hackman's creation of "Tchaikovsky V. Drake," which incorporates 15 of Drake's songs woven into Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Or, "Beethoven v. Coldplay," which merges Beethoven’s Eroica with the melodies and lyrics of Coldplay into the original Beethoven, based on content and context.

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Steve Hackman is the creative director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Uncharted Series.

Although Hackman just became the creative director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Uncharted Series (once known as the "Happy Hour Series") in the 2019-20 season, his time with the ISO started about 12 years ago.

It was the ISO that first gave the young Los Angeles native and Curtis Institute of Music graduate a chance to develop his creative fusion concepts.

Because Indy gave Hackman his first shot, almost all of Hackman's creations have premiered at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

"This is my longest-standing relationship with an orchestra," Hackman said. "I have learned and I've grown through my relationship with this orchestra. And I think they've seen the work grow and evolve. So they are, really, a collaborative partner. And so it's almost like coming home at this point, which is wonderful."

Take, for instance, Hackman's latest fusion, "The Resurrection Mixtape," a combination of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony and the music of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. The show's world debut was in Indianapolis this past March.

Intrigued and in attendance, I personally watched as every seat filled the downtown theatre to see how Hackman would bring together the stories of the late iconic rappers to Mahler (to preface, my traditional music knowledge extended only as far as Claude Debussy's Clair de lune).

The crowd was diverse in age, race, and style, while, all at once, moved and energetic. To be present at the Resurrection Mixtape concert was to watch the joining of two communities coming together through music and through narrative, ultimately, to awareness, and even understanding.

I left with an urge to learn more of what I didn't know. And I'm sure it was the same for the rest of the audience.

"The advocacy and mission-driven element is something I think that exists in all the work I do as a composer and conductor. And I think I share that with most classical musicians," Hackman said.

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Composer Steve Hackman leads the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2022, through "The Resurrection Mixtape," his musical fusion of Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

The power of Hackman's multi-hyphenate abilities is not only in leading the charge of redefining an entire genre but in genuinely bringing together two different worlds.

In an interview ahead of his "Brahms V. Radiohead" concert on Wednesday — which has been showing for nine years now — Hackman talks more deeply about the ISO's impact on his creations, where the idea for these fusions came from, and what he's listening to right now (hint: he's synthesized therapper's work in a previous fusion).

Read the interview, edited for length and clarity, below.

You have several titles and roles under your belt —composer, conductor, producer, DJ, arranger, songwriter, singer, and pianist — what would you say best describes your work as a whole?

If I could use one word, it'd probably be creator. At the risk of that sounding a bit biblical, composer would be just fine.

I was at your mashup of Tupac and Biggie in March and I have to say I was — for lack of a better word — shook. I was incredibly moved by the performance and it was extremely apparent the crowd, as a whole, was as well.

Thank you so much for coming. That was a really special evening. It was an incredible crowd.

Where did the overall idea for your fusions come from?

I would say these fusions are just a reflective of who I am as a musician, and who I've always been. That's somebody who just has an equal love and appreciation for classical repertoire, as much as modern, contemporary, alternative, rock, hip hop — whatever it is — repertoire. And I'm also somebody who has always been interested in sort of realizing my own creative voice. These pieces are derivative in nature, in that I'm, you know, taking the music of Radiohead and Brahms and combining it. It does kind of become a new cohesive whole, that I think is in equal parts of who I am and reflective of that aesthetic that I have.

Of course, there's a large advocacy and engagement mission here. I mean, I'm trying to introduce people to the symphony orchestra and to Brahms' music, or Mahler's music, that has never had that point of engagement before. The advocacy and mission-driven element is something I think that exists in all the work I do as a composer and conductor. And I think I share that with most classical musicians."

Why the joining of Brahms and Radiohead?

Brahms was quite a traditionalist composer. He was really looking behind him, and almost looking to perfect a tradition of decades past. As opposed to the modernist composers of that time, people like Wagner, Radiohead is very much a modern avant-garde artist. So, on paper, it might seem like an odd combination, or not the most apt combination, but the pieces that are combined here, Radiohead's, 'OK Computer' and Brahms' First Symphony, they share a very profound feeling of anxiety and tension and sort of a dark sort of pathos. It's that anxiety that they share that really, that feeling and that mood of the music, that makes them combinable.

Now, beyond that, there are many opportune musical similarities, I would say, that enabled this fusion to take place and that I was able to sort of take advantage of. Radiohead is popular and their music is quite rich, and their music is almost classical, if you would. I mean a lot of classical musicians like Radiohead because of that richness and the complexity of their music.

The "v." between the names in the titles of the shows: Does this indicate some sort of "versus" or should we read it as more of an "and?"

We talk about this a lot. We're actually in the process of changing them to an "x." It's how you would view a collaboration, or a brand collaboration, or something. So I think the "x" is more appropriate.

It was never supposed to be a "versus." It was always supposed to be kind of a fusion, a synthesis. Everyone always asks that, and that's why I think we're going to change around.

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Steve Hackman is the creative director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Uncharted Series."

You've performed in countless theaters across the world, and collaborated with the music industry's top artists like Kanye West and Doja Cat — can you tell me what your favorite part of leading the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is?

It's the relationship with that orchestra and that community. This is my longest-standing relationship with an orchestra. They were the first orchestra that ever gave these pieces and this concept a chance.

All the way back starting in 2010, they really extended the orchestra and their facilities as a laboratory to myself and my colleagues, who at that point in time, were in residence with the orchestra. And we started to develop all these concepts together. Many of the fusion pieces like the one you saw in March have had their premiere with the Indianapolis Symphony. I would say, almost all of them.

I have learned and I've grown through my relationship with this orchestra, and I think they've seen the work grow and evolve. They are really a collaborative partner, and so it's, it's almost like coming home at this point, which is wonderful.

What are you listening to right now?

The new Kendrick Lamar album. I'm overwhelmed by it.

I think the last four tracks are some of the most incredible stretches of music I've ever heard. He's so unbelievably vulnerable. And the message of those pieces is so powerful. I just think he is continuing to improve. With every incredible Grammy-eligible album, his mastery over his craft seems to only get more and more focused. I'm blown away.

Is there anything else you would like to add ahead of your return to Indy on Wednesday?

Of special note is the relationship with the vocalists that come in to perform this work. We've been playing this piece together for years now, and they're really the conduit through which the message of this music is delivered. I think the power of this music really comes from them and their incredible voices. I'm just so thankful to them and they always just do such an incredible job. The audience, I'm sure if it's anything like prior performances, is going to leave very curious about those three artists as well.

Brahms v. Radiohead shows Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Hilbert Circle. Tickets are $35. Hackman's Uncharted Series continues in October with Tchaikovsky V. Drake, Beethoven v. Coldplay in January 2023 and The Resurrection Mixtape returns for its seconding showing in April 2023.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.