Steve Hackman brings his Brahms v. Radiohead mashup to Boulder for Colorado Music Festival
Composer and conductor Steve Hackman isn't limited by time or culture when it comes to his musical taste. As a part of the Colorado Music Festival this weekend, Hackman has been invited to bring his mash-up of the Radiohead classic OK Computer and Johannes Brahms's first symphony to Boulder, linking together two pieces of music that on the surface seem to have little in common.
The two pieces transcend their gaps of history and technology when interwoven with each other, revealing a universal love of melody and expression that, Hackman believes, would lead Brahms to have a deep appreciation for Thom Yorke's expressive complexity.
Westword: So from the perspective of someone rooted in the genre, do you find a lot of classical styles and structures inside the album OK Computer?
That's a great question. Structurally, you can find common ground between almost any pop song and classical music, because ultimately, some of the most standard song forms have their roots in classical music. However, Radiohead uses some more advance song forms -- as you probably know. They also really push the envelope when it comes to harmony, melody and certainly production. So that commonality makes the music so ripe for classical treatment.
There's a specific chord that is used in "No Surprises" that Brahms uses as the penultimate chord in the second movement. So that's a great similarity right there -- it's a ripe, juicy chord that Radiohead uses a lot. And "Paranoid Android" -- which is, in my opinion, one of the centerpieces of the album -- is in C minor. And the Brahms symphony is in C Minor as well. And it's not that you can't change keys, it's just that C minor has a certain feel to it, so they already share that emotional and musical visceral feeling.
What was the impetus to mash up these two -- at least culturally -- different pieces of music?
The space between classical and pop music is where I've always landed. I've dealt with and pursued both sides my entire life. So I've always been interested in the common ground that they share, and attempted to combine the two to engage new listeners. So in the last four or five years, I've been taking on pop material with classical technique.
What was your background with Brahms and OK Computer going into this project?
Over the years of working with pop and classical music, I've developed my favorites, and these are two pieces that I've loved within their respective genres. We didn't have much time when debuting this project, and the symphony that I was working with, the Indianapolis Symphony, had just played the Brahms first symphony. So I knew it was in their fingers, and I'd always wanted to do a Radiohead arrangement for years. And of all the Radiohead albums, I thought this was the one that fit with Brahms the best.
After OK Computer, Radiohead certainly made a sea change with Kid A and everything that followed, preferring more chaotic, technology-based sounds. In doing that, did they abandon what makes the music so palatable for a classical treatment?
Well, I think that OK Computer was the quintessential experimentation rock album, and, yes, I agree with you that they pushed it even further. But I don't know.... They did abandon a lot of structural convention, and certainly the whole rock instrumentation went out the window, with a few exceptions. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to attempt those albums. I absolutely will do a Kid A piece at some time, and possibly an In Rainbows piece as well.
That would be interesting to hear. What classical pieces do you think would go well with those albums?
I haven't thought about it, but I think that I would like to use something that's more twentieth-century. Brahms and OK Computer work so well together because they were both artists in their time that were trying to crystallize a structure that already existed, but they wanted to push the envelope and show their own creativity. Brahms was showing what he could do, but he was influenced by Beethoven's nine symphonies, and Radiohead was doing what they knew as far as a rock album went, but were showing what they could do.
But like you said, they threw a lot of that rock structure out the window after that. So I think of composers like Dmitri Shostakovich or Stravinsky, as composers who started to abandon symphonic structure at times and were pushing the envelope as Radiohead with Kid A or In Rainbows. It's not necessarily at the front of my mind because I would like to try another artist next, but in the years to come, I plan to do a lot more Radiohead.
What do you think Brahms's take would be on Radiohead's OK Computer as a composer -- beyond, of course, the obvious mind-blow of experiencing modern technology?
Well, I feel like one of the most important things about music is the melody. And I think Brahms would listen to the melody of "Paranoid Android" of "No Surprises" and "Let Down" and I think he would like them. And then what's next is the treatment of the melody, what technique an artist has to support that melody in an interesting way.
Brahms was such a master of counterpoint; his music is so unbelievably dense. You can hear his prodigious composition skills. So I think he'd listen to something like the rain-down section of "Paranoid Android" and he'd hear those harmonies; he'd hear those counterpoint melodies, and that would appeal to him.