Music is limitless, infinite, a universal language that doesn’t always need words to express emotion or the meaning behind what the composer is trying to share. For centuries traditional classical music has been a sacred domain where most may have been too afraid to journey beyond the normal boundaries. Further, generational divisions in musical tastes have long been the norm without much change. Those that are fans of popular whether past artists such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Police or more current artists like Radiohead, Twenty One Pilots, Tame Impala and Kendrick Lamar are most likely not familiar with the works of Amadeus, Beethoven or Chopin. Then the question comes about – How do we bridge the gap between classical and popular to engage young and old and create music that is fresh and appealing to a wider audience? Well, that answer may lie in a new generation of classical composers, artists, producers and conductors that are intent in redefining the genre and changing the game for the future. One such creative lad is Steve Hackman, a multi-gifted artist who wears many musical hats and is equally adept in both classical and popular music forms. Be it composer, conductor, producer, arranger, DJ, songwriter, singer, pianist and even rapper, he uses all of these talents as well as his love for many different styles of music, to create innovative genre blending compositions and the result has been strong work that is both influential and original. Some of his best work includes fusing Bartok with Bjork, Tchaikovsky with Drake and Brahms with Radiohead turning them into epic soundscapes, hip hop rhythms and beautiful orchestral poems that completely transforms traditional music and propels it into a new current age and that appeals to the masses.

Hackman’s live performances have also been taking off with fans of all genres flocking to sold-out shows to partake in his musical journey. His latest live project has been a longtime dream to assemble an orchestra of like-minded musicians to bring his vision to life and he’s realized that dream in his current endeavor – Brahms V. Radiohead which, he will also showcase alongside the SF Symphony July 11. The industry elite has since taken notice as Grammy.com wrote, “Hackman re-composed and compiled something so creative and special, yet so natural and real.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak to this virtuoso about life, music and his upcoming concert at Davies Symphony Hall. 

Steve Hackman-Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. 1/15/2015.

Sason Bishope Parry:  How is life treating you?

Steve Hackman:  Life is treating me well. Which means the next big curveball is coming.

SBP:  Where did you grow up and was music part of your childhood?  

SH: I am from the Midwest; born in Cincinnati, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Neither of my parents were professional musicians but my dad had a record and tape collection that I discovered when I was very young. I would put on Tchaikovsky and Chopin and dance around the house. When I was seven, they bought a piano so that my older sister could take lessons. I began playing it by ear, and that was that. To this day my sister continues to introduce me to amazing music!

SBP:  When did you realize that music was your calling and how did that change your life at the time?

SH: Early in high school. My sophomore year, when I was fourteen, there was a tragic and horrible bus accident. Suddenly, fifteen hundred teenagers were confronted with traumatic loss, and needed coping mechanisms. Mine was music. I remember just being in the practice room for hours, improvising at the piano. Then a year later, when I was fifteen, I participated in the All-State Choir. Coming together with that many musicians of different backgrounds and origins but unified by passion and talent, under the direction of a phenomenal conductor, was something I’ll never forget. I knew at that point I wanted to conduct and lead musicians.

SBP:  You have had a wide range of musical talents from composer, conductor, producer, DJ, arranger, songwriter, singer, pianist and even rapper. Do you have a favorite and which has garnished you the most success?

SH:  I don’t consider those talents. Those are all musical techniques that I have developed and refined to serve a singular over-arching purpose: to be a musical creator. I have an inexhaustible love for music, of all kinds. I am constantly listening, discovering, sharing. Those techniques you listed- they are all results of falling in love with certain genres then wanting to create those kinds of music. I fell in love with the symphony orchestra and its repertoire, so I decided to study conducting and composing. I fell in love with the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, so I started writing songs. I fell in love with Kanye and Biggie and Jay-Z and A Tribe Called Quest, so I started producing beats and rapping. To me, that is such a natural desire. What does any kid that picks up the guitar want to do after they’ve learned the chords to “Wonderwall” or the fingerpicking to “Blackbird”? Write their own song! That is what I am trying to do. My pursuit is to combine all those disparate techniques into a singularly new type of music that is my own, that is original, and that speaks to people. If I can do that, I would consider myself successful. 

Steve Hackman conducts the Stereo Hideout Orchestra in Brahms vs. Radiohead at Kings Theatre, 5/19/18. Photo by Chris Lee

SBP:  What have been some of your musical inspirations and who are your musical heroes?

SH: My musical hero is my counterpoint and musical studies teacher from Curtis, Dr. Ford Lallerstedt. He is the most responsible for the musician I am today. Beyond him: Leonard Bernstein. Quincy Jones, George Martin, Stevie Wonder, David Byrne, Donald Fagan, Brian Eno. Radiohead. Chopin, Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Palestrina, Bach, Mozart. Björk. MTT and Robert Spano. Karajan, Fürtwangler, Mengelberg. James Blake, Bon Iver, David Longstreth, St. Vincent, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak. I also am greatly inspired by filmmaking auteurs Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Christopher Nolan. We’ll save literature for another conversation.

SBP:  How did you get into classical music and what gave you the courage to start blending traditional music with popular music?

SH:  I mentioned before finding my father’s LPs and cassettes of classical music. A few years after that, my mom would buy these ‘Listeners Choice’ CD’s of classical composers for me at the grocery store. I wore those discs out. However I was never exposed to real classical training until my undergrad years, at the University of Illinois, when I was very lucky and studied with an incredible piano teacher named Gustavo Romero. He opened up my eyes to the real classical music world. I went to the Aspen Music Festival those summers to study piano, and it was there that I fell in love with the orchestra. I began hanging around and auditing the conducting classes, and watching the student conductors. I was most impressed with the ones that went to Juilliard and Curtis (which shared the same conducting teacher), and I made it my singular goal to get into one of those schools.

I’m not sure I would call it ‘courage’ to blend classical and popular music. It is who I am. I’ve always loved and pursued them in parallel. I honestly don’t think I have a choice. If I didn’t find this path for myself, I probably would have burnt out in the traditional classical world- or I would be horribly unhappy. In fact I left the classical world once, when I was about 25, because I just didn’t see a career that would allow me to be creative enough. After a few years of being away from it though, an opportunity came up with the Indianapolis Symphony that allowed for me to begin experimenting with these hybrid forms, and allowed for me to be me. That was the beginning of all this, and it has led me here.

SBP:  Radiohead is such an iconic and legendary band. Tell us the inspiration for your upcoming concert Brahms V. Radiohead and how would you describe the soundscape?

SH: I fell in love with OK Computer and the Brahms First Symphony around the same time- when I was preparing for my graduate school auditions at Curtis and Juilliard. So they have always occupied the same compartment in my memory. Combining them was a joy.

In Brahms V. Radiohead, the music of the latter is channeled through the language of the former. I ‘filter’ Radiohead’s music through Brahms’ harmonies, melodies, counterpoint, and dense scoring. I use only the orchestra that Brahms used for his First Symphony, with the addition of one percussionist, and of course the three singers. The music alternates between the original Brahms and arrangements of Radiohead that, to the orchestral musicians, truly feel like Brahms. On the page, it is hard to tell the difference. But when you add the singers in, it becomes a hybrid.

SBP:  The SF Symphony is known for amazing musical collaborations that have included Seal, Common and the upcoming Metallica concert. What can fans expect from the Brahms V. Radiohead show and what are you most excited about?

SH: This concert is not a symphony orchestra providing backup to covers of Radiohead tunes. It is much more thorough and substantial. This is Radiohead re-imagined and filtered through Brahms. We hear almost the entirety of the Brahms First Symphony. Woven throughout are ten songs from OK Computer. Radiohead fans will be satisfied, because they will hear their beloved songs from the album- but the songs are re-imagined. The aggregate of such incredible source material, plus one of the world’s great orchestras, plus our three phenomenal guest vocalists, should make for a truly transcendent experience!

SBP:  Your musical plate seems pretty full, how do you find time for yourself and what are some of your favorite pastimes?

SH:  Well luckily making music is a favorite pastime! I am working on my own album right now (my band is called Stereo Hideout). I love going to the gym, hiking, bodysurfing, sports and competition of any kind.

SBP:  What’s one secret about you that no-one knows?

SH: You’re going to have to work harder to get an answer to that.

SBP:  What’s next for Steve Hackman?

SH: Finishing this new Stereo Hideout album! Actually- you’ll hear one of the songs, ‘Rocket’, on July 11th!

Steve Hackman and the SF Symphony will be performing Brahms V. Radiohead live at Davies Symphony Hall – Thursday July 11 at 8pm

For tickets and more information go to: www.sfsymphony.org