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Composer: 'If you know every word to a Tupac or Biggie song, I can get you into Mahler'

Some might not think Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, known as the Resurrection Symphony, and Tupac Shakur's hit "California Love" would go together. But Steve Hackman does.

He's a composer, conductor and producer and the creator of The Resurrection Mixtape, which will be performed Saturday-Sunday, May 18-19, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. It features music from Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. as well as Mahler.

Hackman has done other musical mashups as well, including Brahms vs. Radiohead and Tchaikovsky vs. Drake. He says he's created around 15 symphony fusion productions over the last decade or so.

Full conversation

STEVE HACKMAN: Well, it's representative of, of who I am as a musician and that's someone who has always been equally passionate about classical and popular music for my entire life. And when I entered the professional classical world, I saw the disconnect from that world and the popular music world at large. And I sort of had made it my mission to try to bring the two closer and to create a bridge between the two.

MARK BRODIE: How do you try to create that bridge? Like what are the, the common themes that allow you to do that?

HACKMAN: Yeah, it's a process of identifying those, those common themes. And it's really an effort to illustrate to audience members and listeners how there are unexpected similarities between classical and popular music. And actually, in the end, you know, it's all made of the same 12 notes. The processes that result in that music, though they might have different names, though they might have different culture and ritual associated with them, are really the same kind of processes. And the only reason I know that is because I've done them both and I've been in both rooms.

BRODIE: Yeah, I'm curious about sort of the, the content similarities as well between classical music and other genres. Like how, how much do you try to match those up as well as the musical similarities?

HACKMAN: The answer is certain pairings are explored for maybe musical reasons and sometimes it's, it's, it's emotional reasons, sometimes it's thematic reasons. You know, in the case of something like Brahms and Radiohead, you know, I was actually hearing a lot of musical theater similarities as well as some tonal. And I mean, tonal sort of in a more narrative sense or I guess, sort of literary sense than a musical sense.

In the case of this piece, The Resurrection Mixtape, it, it was less musical and of course, yes, again, more thematic, more, more emotional. And it's using the narrative of the Mahler symphony, you know, that the story that he's sort of telling and it's affixing, you know, Tupac and Biggie music to that narrative structure. But then within that, as well as we, as we well know, Tupac and Biggie, they were, I'm almost obsessed with the idea of death so that there's that, there's that connection as well. So it makes, I think for a powerful marriage.

BRODIE: What kind of response did you get when you first brought this to a symphony orchestra and said, hey, I'd like to mix a classical piece with Radiohead or with a, a particular rapper or hip-hop artist. Like what, what did, what did they say to you?

HACKMAN: Well, there were two simultaneous responses, I guess, I guess three. There was the response of the audience which was, incredibly favorable and first of all, they showed their favor by, by buying tickets and it's a darn good thing they did because none of this would exist without that. Because the second response is that of the orchestra musicians, which in the case of many of the musicians I think was, was horror. I mean, and understandably so, I mean, to be a symphony orchestra player, to be at that elite classical level, you know, you, you devote your entire life to it.

And I think there are a couple important ramifications. Firstly, you treasure that music. I mean that, that music is sacred to you. And secondly, because you've, you know, kind of been inculcated like into that world, you're not necessarily aware of other genres of music.

By the way, the third perspective I mentioned was that of the administration of the orchestra, you know, the people kind of making the decisions in the office of which I, I would say it was mixed. I think many, many saw the importance of this as, as you know, a potential evolution of the art form or a potential, you know, addition to their programming. But many of course, were probably horrified by it as well. But luckily over time, it's gotten better and better. The the work is received more and more favorably.

And I think the musicians of orchestras have just seen that it's being done with great care and, in the end, with ultimate respect for who they are and what they do and with the sort of fervent wish and, and desire to, to amplify who they are and what they do and to reach more people and share their gifts with more people.

BRODIE: Why do you think it's important for these different genres of music to be blended together?

HACKMAN: Well, the majority of the audience is in the class, is in the popular music world, right? You know, if you look at, let's just take The Resurrection Mixtape, Mahler versus Tupac and Biggie, you know, it's, it's like probably 99% to 1% as far as like your, your people out, your average person out there that will know Tupac and Biggie or will know Mahler.

Now that as a classical musician, as someone who loves this music and who is obsessed with this, this classical music advocacy for it has been, you know, just part and parcel with, you know, playing it. I mean, we have to be advocates, all of us know that and, you know, we have to bring it to a younger generation, we have to create new connections. And so that's where the audience is, but it's not just that it's an audience, it's a passionate audience. I mean, if you know every word to a Tupac or Biggie song, I can get you into Mahler.

So, yeah, that, that's why I think it's important. I think, I think they, so many of these audience members that don't know about classical music are actually perfect targets, you know, for, to, to be a, a lover of classical music and to be a subscriber to the Phoenix Symphony. It's just that they don't know about it yet.

When I started this, and then that's about, you know, about a decade ago, many orchestras, most orchestras were, were booting up some sort of a alternate concert series aimed at sort of millennials and new audiences that were more casual concerts, all of which are good efforts, all of which were attempts to meet these potential new audience members where they were from an experiential standpoint. The problem was the music was the very same. And, you know, if you're not a student of classical music, if you don't have context, if you haven't been, you know, if you're not guided through it, it it can be intimidating. So I've always said this is a content-driven approach to new audience development. This is saying yes to all those things. Let's let's readdress and reframe our experience for these new audience members, but we have to do it with the music as well.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.