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The Rehearsal

There’s a ProScrub automatic floor cleaner and an orange, Igloo cooler shoved into a back corner of what began its life as a Catholic Church. Sandwiched between them, sitting on a lone, black vinyl stool is composer Steve Hackman. Above him dangles a glittering disco ball, windows that long ago lost their stained glass, and half a dozen wood paneled doors hanging from a forty-degree angle high on the walls, reincarnated to absorb acoustics.

Most of the padded, white folding chairs occupying what used to be the sanctuary are empty because everyone is on stage. Staggered on risers, five or maybe six rows deep; a hipster in a snood, somebody’s grandmother, and a business man in a suit and tie, all glowing under house lights that glow red, then blue. “I like what you’re doing to set the mood,” someone calls out from the back.

After a few minutes, Steve gets up, takes a seat in one of the chairs, and opens a bound book of sheet music across his lap. As the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh continues vocalizing, his baton slowly begins to move, conducting from four rows back.

Come gather around people Wherever you roam…

The choir’s been prepping for... maybe a month. Sopranos and tenors and baritones infusing the lyrics of Bob Dylan: the village voice, electric Judas, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Three or four minutes,” someone says crisply, passing by. It’s the other Bob. Steve’s manager. Intermittently glancing over cheaters while tending to business unfolding urgently in the palm of his hand. Three or four more minutes until tonight’s dress rehearsal continues. In less than 24 hours, it will segue into four days of sold out performances at Mr. Small’s Theater in Millvale for the world premiere of Hackman’s The Times They Are A-Changin’: The Words and Music of Bob Dylan. Up until yesterday, he hadn’t heard the choir singing his piece in person. When he finally did, it was intense.

This is the same brain that listened to Tchaikovsky + Drake, Brahms + Radiohead, Beethoven + Coldplay and thought, Yeah, that works, composing mashups that would inspire crowds that stretched halfway around the block and purist critics to cry foul and murder him in their reviews. Which, was… yeah. Whatever. His brain doesn’t look at two masters separated by a couple centuries and think, What the fuck? “After, the fact; yeah, I will think that. But not in the moment. That’s more like, ‘holy shit.’” He wants to do something with Kanye next.

The idea to mash choral + folk was his manager's idea. You wanna write this?

"I never really had a Dylan phase, but I knew I would eventually. I mean, how can you not go there? It’s like not knowing the Beatles or Beethoven,” Steve says.

But Blood on the Tracks was literally the only album he could stomach. So, he’d sit there. Listening. Trying to find an access point to Dylan. Three weeks and… nothing. He really wasn’t liking what he was hearing. Until he watched Martin Scorsese’s documentary, No Direction Home. That’s what flipped the switch. That's when he fell in love with Dylan.

Around 8:03 p.m., he steps in front of the podium without a word. Jeans half tucked into black combat boots, hair in a bun, rogue strands untamed, right hand holding the baton as his left raises gently into the air to cue the pianist sitting at a glossy black Hailun.

Come gather around people Wherever you roam…

And admit that the waters Around you have grown…

And accept it that soon You'll be drenched to the bone…

And if your breath to you is worth saving Then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone…

For the times… they are a-changing.

“Where I am, the reverb is a little much,” he stops, turning around. Definitely too much, someone agrees. “Okay, we can just go on to Like a Rolling Stone,” he continues, facing the choir again. “How ‘bout the last few bars?

Now you don't talk so loud Now you don't seem so proud About having to be scrounging your next meal

How does it feel...

How does it feel? To be without a home Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

His hands are at once fluid and abrupt. Encouraging ("Yeah, good. Wonderful. Lovely, people") and frank ("The words felt uncertain there. Don’t over-enunciate. Nice and easy") as he hones them in, one bar at a time. When the baton falls back to his side, all eyes remain on him; smiling, yawning, stretching, awe struck, unconvinced.

“Can I get a b flat at 72?” he asks the pianist.

The voices rise. Tangled Up in Blue, All Along the Watchtower, Subterranean Homesick Blues; the one his father wondered how in the hell he’d pull off. Which he does. A brooding, building, rapid fire release of the first line that teases, makes you wait for it.

Johnny's in the basement…

Johnny's in the basement…

Johnny's in the basement…

“My brain is always dissecting music,” he says. “I am always breaking it down.”


The "Our Stories" series is an ongoing writing project by Kate Benz.

Capturing a moment in time in our everyday lives.

Raw. Real. Honest.

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