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The world of "mashups" is upon us – overlaid match-ups of similar (or dis-similar) materials from assorted media, often (but not necessarily) electronic. They are used by DJs to make seamless transitions and marketers to associate grand music with their products and by cartoonists ever since Elmer Fudd hunted "wabbits" to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyeries."
Conductor-composer Steve Hackman led the North Carolina Symphony in a program titled: "Symphonic Mashup; the Music of RADIOHEAD meets BRAHMS." Composer Hackman utilizes eight songs drawn from the hit album OK Computer (1997) of Radiohead, a British alternative rock group formed in 1985. The songs were sung this evening in Meymandi Hall by three live vocalists, Will Post, Andrew Lipke, and Kristen Newborn.
The Radiohead songs are interspersed into a taut and brisk performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, a musical colossus. Naturally, the Brahms had to be modified occasionally to accommodate the Radiohead songs, and probably vice versa, although this writer is not as familiar with the rock works as with Brahms! In effect, I felt an episodic alternation of styles and character rather that an organic synthesis or fusion of the two works. The First Symphony of Brahms is definitely not episodic but rather a musical monolith, whose movements are even thematically related. Not having heard the entire OK Computer but only the excerpts available on-line, the same structural unity does not appear for the rock work.
Maestro Hackman is a musically gifted conductor and composer with impeccable credentials (Curtis Institute, et al.). He led the excellent NC Symphony with ease and authority and a very clear and elegant conducting technique. The orchestra responded with precision and passion, although the tempos of the considerable Brahms excerpts seemed brisk and brisker than this reviewer is used to. As far as actually bending and blending the two styles together, the fourth movement was by far the most successful, using Brahms' introduction, main theme and coda very dramatically interspersed with "Exit Music for a Film" and "Electioneering."
The three vocalists were amplified and sang well together, but were difficult to understand. Unfortunately the management of the NC Symphony didn't provide any more than a bare bones program, no titles, no movements, and no text. And more than one concert-goer was dismayed by the absence of any element of rock music.
An informal discussion with a member of the violin section before the concert confirmed the purpose of the unusual format of the concert – to explore new visions of music in order to attract a new and larger audience. And in this the management succeeded – a mixed age (mostly 30-somethings) audience sauntered in, beer, wine and espressos in hand, dressed down, shirt-tails hastily pulled out to fit the scene. They filled the orchestra level (balconies and boxes were closed off) and responded enthusiastically.
Maestro Hackman has had other forays into the world of mashups: Aaron Copland v. Bon Iver and Beethoven v. Coldplay. Indeed the whole form has antecedents – pastiche for over a century has combined the best, worst and funniest for popular entertainment. Musique Concrète, dating back to the 1940s also combined multiple sources, usually electronic or electronically recorded, to create audio works of sometimes incredible complexity.
In like style, and perhaps the best precedent to contemporary mashups, Luciano Berio composed his Sinfonia in the late 1960s for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic and included considerable excerpts of Mahler's Second Symphony, as well as quotations from works by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Berlioz, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bach, Alban Berg, Beethoven, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Not stopping at purely musical overlays, the work featured the 12-voice Swingle Singers, who quoted a vast array of writers, poets, philosophers and scientists commenting in dazzling and occasionally bewildering fashion on the work as it progressed.
The concert opened with a completely different act – Ari Picker and Emma Nadeau from the Carolina band Lost in the Trees sang five songs composed by Picker and an excellent string quartet composed of three musicians from the NC Symphony and one from the Charlotte symphony accompanied three of the songs and played a quartet version of "A Church That Fits Our Needs," also by Picker. Kudos to the management of the NC Symphony for championing local musicians! And Bravo! to the excellent singing and lovely off-beat songs of Ari Picker. My favorites were ?All Alone in an Empty House" and the rhythmic complexity of "Tall Ceiling" (5 against 3) enchanted me.