The Art of the Mashup: Brahms v. Radiohead

Modern music is frequently dishonest, or at least coy about its origins. “Here’s something you have never heard before”, it says. “Here’s something completely new.” Most songs south of top 40 desperately try to convince us they are on the cutting-edge, resulting in such oxymoronic names for radio stations and Spotify playlists as “Alternative Hits” and “Indie Pop”*. Yet even if we admit that music doesn’t exist in a vacuum and is always an amalgamation of influences, rarely does a composition completely shed the pretense of originality.

The exception, of course, is the “Mashup.”

The Mashup is somehow both a uniquely forthright artform, and a remarkably creative one. How is it creative? Well, they are usually absurd, for starters, and quickly devolve into farcicality. Only an abundance of taste and restraint can prevent this. Recognizing the similarities and complementary qualities of multiple distinct compositions and combining them cohesively takes talent – something composer/conductor Steve Hackman demonstrated in abundance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland this past January.

All photos by M. Pomerleau

Brahms v. Radiohead is unique among mashups for being a combination of the old and the new. The Classical and the Modern. Hackman performed and conducted this mind-bending mashup alongside the Oregon Symphony, beautifully combining his classical knowledge and training with his obvious love for modern rock. The choice to meld the music of Johannes Brahms, a formidable late 19th-century orchestral composer, and Radiohead, a bastion of the accessibly avant-garde, is inspired on many levels. Both artists innovated with their sophisticated usage of triplets. Both unique among their peers for their masterful sense of rhythm. And both, while exhibiting a particular prowess for the complex and grandiose, are mostly known for their lighter, more digestible compositions.

While Brahms, more obviously, could be considered the “traditional” music in this context, Radiohead itself is ingrained in modern music and has inspired and influenced enough artists to itself be considered among the classics. Hackman’s selection of works from these two artists was impeccable. His first piece of the evening was a note-for-note performance of “Hungarian Dance No. 5”, by Brahms. Hackman pointed out that the piece was meant to be a modern (for its time) take on traditional Hungarian folksongs. Like this concert itself, it is the hybridized “Pop” version of more established fare.

Hackman then performed two Radiohead songs he personally arranged for the Oregon Symphony: “Creep“, perhaps for its almost legendary status in music culture, then “There There” for it’s Brahms-esque rhythmic complexity.

Vocalist Kéren Tayar

The focal point of the evening, Hackman’s own Brahms v. Radiohead, masterfully combined some of Brahms’s moodier works with selections from Radiohead’s monumental album, OK Computer With the assistance of some adept vocal accompaniment, the Oregon Symphony created a complex and unnerving collision of musical history. At times it felt like pure Brahms, with Radiohead lyrics sung over the top. At other times it felt like orchestral Radiohead, with a Brahms-like flute or violin dancing in the background. And at every point it cleverly recognizes points in Brahms’s work where Radiohead motifs and lyrics can be layered in seamlessly. Like only the best mashups, this performance of Brahms v. Radiohead felt complete and whole, rather than some chopped-up, cut-and-paste kind of monster one might expect from someone without Hackman’s talent.

It is almost defiant, the way Brahms v. Radiohead tackles the concept of originality in modern music. It never pretends to be new, or claims to be underived. It embraces the richness of its source material and comes across as a refreshingly authentic homage to musical history. In addition to composing and conducting, Hackman also DJs, produces, and writes his own music as Stereo Hideout, often sampling classical composers.

* both of which exist and are actually great driving music