By Don Thrasher
Sept 22, 2023
Even in his earliest days as a 24-year-old composer fresh out of conservatory, Steve Hackman was already thinking outside the box. His artistic vision continues today with programs like “Tchaikovsky X Drake,” the Los Angeles transplant’s mashup of classical music and hip-hop presented with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra at the Schuster Center in Dayton on Saturday, Sept. 23.
“I’ve been doing this for multiple decades if you take my career at large,” Hackman said, speaking by phone from Sun Valley, Idaho. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been developing this fusion concept with orchestras. I’ve been taking these productions around and refining them and writing more of them. Of course, I studied formally in the classical world. In tandem with that I was always discovering things on the popular side. I’ve always been interested in both in parallel and it has always been my goal to put them together.”
Hackman credits that mindset to his childhood in the northwest suburbs of Chicago where he grew up listening to not just classical music but also rock, rap and other forms of popular music.
“I’m lucky I grew up agnostically when it came to music,” he said. “I didn’t have anybody imparting any preconceived judgements on one genre or the other. I loved everything. As I rose up the ranks in classical music and got into the professional world, I saw the distance between classical music and the pop world kept increasing, which was more and more alarming to me. Over time it was compelling me more and more to do something different and find ways to bring them back together.”
Establishing an aesthetic
Hackman completed his undergraduate studies under Gustavo Romero at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received a degree in piano performance. In 2001, he was accepted into Otto-Werner Mueller’s conducting studio at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music, where he earned an advanced degree in conducting.
Hackman studied counterpoint, composition and improvisation under his mentor Dr. Ford Lallerstedt. He also received instruction on conducting from David Zinman at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen and Tony Award winner William Brohn, a noted Broadway orchestrator of such shows as “Ragtime,” “The Secret Garden” and “Wicked.”
“I felt like an outlier among my contemporaries when I was in school,” Hackman said. “I was listening to all these different types of music, and I was interested in putting them together. Most of my peers were more singularly laser focused on classical and that’s understandable because they wanted to become masters of those instruments and that repertoire. Without them I couldn’t play a lot of these pieces because that’s who make up a lot of these orchestras.
“Though the world has changed as time has gone on,” he continued. “Streaming and the Internet before that revolutionized the music world. Having so many different genres of music at our fingertips has really shifted things for composers and classical musicians coming out of the conservatory right now. They’ve experienced all these different genres so it’s all much more adjacent to them than it was in my day.”
Telling emotional stories
In the pop and rock realm, Hackman’s mashup programs include “Bartók X Björk” and “Brahms X Radiohead.” Like these contemporary artists and classical figures, it wasn’t difficult for him to find deep connections between 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Aubrey Drake Graham, a Grammy Award-winning contemporary rapper and singer from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“There’s something in the way they both tell these emotional stories to us,” Hackman said. “They’re overly sentimental and they’re rhapsodic and so eloquent in the way they convey emotion. When I hear the music of Tchaikovsky and the music of Drake I feel like, ‘Gosh, that’s what it sounds like to get your heart broken for the first time.’ They convey how it feels to fall in love for the first time or to be depressed and to be uncertain where your life is going. They’re very profound in the way they communicate those emotions to us and that’s why their music is so successful.”
The DPO and Hackman, who conducts and plays piano, will be joined by a backing band with a bass player, drummer, three vocalists and a rapper. With these shows, it’s not just somebody rapping over a classical composition. Hackman actually reworks the pieces, writing different parts and creating new arrangements.
“It’s definitely a thorough reimagination of both,” he said. “Then they weave into a new coherent whole that is at once derivative, because it’s using Tchaikovsky and Drake, but is also an original. Every kind of adaptation, re-composition and permutation is explored here. It’s a thrill and a challenge to see how we can bend one to fit with the other.
“You have to be such a zealous consumer, appreciator and student of that music to take such a hard stance and I am one of those people,” Hackman continued. “I couldn’t do this if I didn’t love these originals. They’re absolutely perfect to me, but I also love progressing and evolving this artform. We’re introducing the symphony orchestra to new people and introducing the classical world to these techniques of remixes and mashups that have been present in the popular world for decades.”
“Tchaikovsky X Drake” isn’t Hackman’s only fusion of classical and hip-hop. “Resurrection Mix Tape” combines Gustav Mahler with the music of late rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace. “Igor Damn Stravinsky” recontextualizes the composer’s “Petrushka” and rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn.”
“I wear a lot of hats with these pieces,” Hackman said. “I’m the creator and the composer of them. Then, I conduct them, but it starts with me being the curator of them. Just like the programmer of a rock ‘n’ roll venue, the artistic director of an orchestra or a curator in a museum, you have a responsibility to present things to the audience you think are worth their attention and worth their thoughts. These are the artists I think are essential.
“These days anything can be combined but should it be?” Hackman added. “What’s the reason behind it? What’s the compelling narrative we’re trying to impart here? What are the similarities we’re trying to highlight? It’s important to me to showcase this music and the brilliance and the creativity. It’s music I’m really excited to introduce people to and maybe we’ll reveal something new about it.”