CMF’s “Music Mash-up” series earns mixed review

Beethoven/Coldplay and other blurred lines at Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

Let’s get one thing out of the way: mashups are nothing new.

Today the term usually means the blending together of music by different pop artists, by overlaying tracks from separate recordings into a new piece. This concept is the basis of the “Music Mash-up” series at the Colorado Music Festival, which just finished its second year.

Steve Hackman, music director of CMF's "Music Mash=up" series

Steve Hackman, music director of CMF’s “Music Mash-up” series

But it is also just about as old as written music. Remixes and what were called “break-in” songs go back just about as far as recordings. The history of recorded mashups is complex and fascinating, from “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island” (a mashup of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the theme from the “Gilligan’s Island” TV show) to the world of hip-hop DJs and “turntablism.”

But composers were borrowing from each other long before recordings. In the 16th century the “parody mass” was music written for performance in the Catholic mass using music from secular songs and other sources, with new music interposed into the original song. This became so popular that in 1562 the church’s Council of Trent banned the use of secular music in services.

At the CMF the mashups have taken two forms. One is the creation of a new score by combining a classical piece with music by a contemporary popular group or artist. In 2013, it was Brahms’s First Symphony and Radiohead’s album “OK Computer” that were blended together in a score written and conducted by Steve Hackman. That performance featured the CMF orchestra performing Brahms and material written or arranged by Hackman, and three vocalists singing music and lyrics by Radiohead.

This year, it was Beethoven’s Third Symphony and music by the British rock band Coldplay that were blended, again in a score created and conducted by Hackman. The performance again featured the orchestra and the same three singers. (Hackman, a conservatory-trained musician with an equal love for popular and classical music, was named Music Director for the 2014 Mash-up series.)

These are genuine mashups, putting together music from two different sources. I will have more to say about them, but first I want to turn to the second form of event in CMF’s “Music Mash-up” series. Two performances on this year’s festival fall into this second category, and they are in fact little more than traditional pops concerts, featuring an orchestra and a guest artist from the popular music world—something Arthur Fielder was doing with the Boston Pops in the 1940s and ‘50s.

San Fermin

San Fermin

One of the two pops/mashups (as I will call these concerts to distinguish them from the Music Mash-up series as a whole) this year featured three female vocalists, singing their own material in arrangements for orchestra. The second featured the Brooklyn-based San Fermin—sometime called a Baroque-pop band—performing material from their self-titled first album and some newer pieces.

I only heard the second of these, with San Fermin, and on that concert the orchestra contributed very little. It was essentially a San Fermin concert with backup—something that makes sense for a popular concert series, but seems out of place in the Colorado Music Festival.

San Fermin itself is an interesting band with a unique sound. The songs from their original album were a little too much alike, but the new material was inventive and intriguing. I remain unconvinced by the claim that the band is focused on “life’s top-shelf issues,” which are enumerated in the program notes as “youth, nostalgia, anxiety, unrequited love.” These are not really life’s top-shelf issues—but maybe that’s just the over-30 (admittedly way over 30) curmudgeon in me.

It’s clear to anyone who attended this summer’s Music Mash-up concerts that while Beethoven/Coldplay had a sold-out and enthusiastic audience, the house was much smaller for the two pops/mashup events. There were some fans in the audience—San Fermin got some loud cheers from the back of the house—but not enough of them to meet what I assume were the expectations. Perhaps San Fermin is not well known in Boulder; perhaps other, better known artists would have attracted an equally enthusiastic and larger audience.

In any case, I question whether pops concerts of this type are the best use of the CMF’s resources. This year the three Music Mash-up concerts took all three Tuesday nights that previously had been devoted to the World Music series. That series featured some of the most creative and intriguing performances of the festival, and had the potential to energize new audiences. (Need I mention that the inclusion of various ethnicities in the World Music categories could reach portions of Colorado’s population that are conspicuously absent most nights at Chautauqua?)

Brahms/Radiohead at the 2013 Colorado Music Festival

Brahms/Radiohead at the 2013 Colorado Music Festival

Turning to the concerts that I consider to be genuine mashups, the perspective is more positive. The 2013 Brahms/Radiohead combo was very successful. Hackman said specifically that he chose those two sources because of stylistic compatibility, and the score flows seamlessly in and out of the Brahms symphony. It is not entirely to my taste—I prefer Brahms neat, thank you—but I still consider it a worthy and successful mashup of two creative and interesting artists. With the increasingly eclectic tastes of younger listeners (and not so young, for that matter), this is a project worthy of the festival.

That said, I found this year’s mashup to be less successful. Hackman says he chose Coldplay to go with Beethoven not for its musical or stylistic similarity, but because of “a feeling and a universality that they have in common, because of the simplicity of their music and yet the beauty of it, and the themes that are prevalent in the music.”

He is talking about the way that Beethoven tackles, even without words, major humanistic issues through his music. That is part of the profundity we feel in Beethoven’s music, which Hackman aligns with Coldplay lyrics such as “nobody said it was easy” and “when you try so hard but you don’t succeed.”

“How Beethoven are those lines?” Hackman asks.

To answer him honestly, not very. Simplicity and universality are not the same as profundity.

Comparing those quotes to what Beethoven is expressing is like comparing greeting card sentiments to Shakespeare. And as Hackman suggested, the stylistic combination was awkward at best, so the mashup of Beethoven with Coldplay was not nearly as seamless or successful as Brahms/Radiohead. In short, while I admire Hackman’s ambition and his work as an arranger, the two mashup scores are not equally successful.

Another point is worth mentioning. In fascination over the pop-music part of his arrangements, it is easy to overlook the fact that Hackman is conducting a symphony orchestra in major portions of symphonies by Brahms and Beethoven. His conducting is clear and efficient, and the performances of Brahms and Beethoven that he elicited from CMF’s excellent orchestra were eloquent.

On the basis of two years of Music Mash-up concerts at the Colorado Music Festival, I think the genuine mashups are worth pursuing. Hackman’s arrangements are never less than skillful and intriguing. He should search out new and more far-ranging sources and combinations. I look forward to his next mashup score.

On the other hand, something better than pops concerts are needed to fill out a series. And none of this is worth giving up the World Music concerts from past years. CMF has to go forward, and it needs to do so with insight into both audience building and first-rate musical values.