Breaking Down Bowie with Sam Hyken
October 20, 2017
No matter how many times you see Nu Deco do their thing live, you can never really shake off the feeling of mind-blowing surprise to see just how far they can take the music at hand–and connect with listeners while they’re at it. Sam Hyken, Nu Deco Ensemble’s CEO and composer, acts like a surgeon, dissecting discographies and re-constructing the music into an entirely new piece to fit the 21st century orchestra. It may sound crazy (“an orchestra playing Jamiroquai?!“) but it totally makes sense.
For their season opener from October 26th – 28th, the orchestra is taking on a fellow genre-bending artist, the late great David Bowie. And while Bowie’s extensive career might already feel a little daunting to tackle, we took an inside look at how Hyken attacks and masters the music, only to bring out a shining gem on the other side.
Many of the musical legends that Hyken and Nu Deco have chosen to explore like LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead, and Massive Attack, were being explored for the first time on a classical stage. But it won’t be the first time an orchestra has chosen to transform the music of David Bowie, especially after his recent passing. So Hyken has the issues of novelty as well as the pressure of doing this gargantuan artist justice on his hands. To do this, Hyken has chosen to bring something unique to the table and not play the expected Bowie hits.
To prepare for the suite, Sam Hyken took a deep dive into his entire discography and read the definitive biography by David Buckley, Deep Fascination. One thing that immediately stood out to him as both a performer and a musician was Bowie’s ability to constantly transform himself and his music from album to album. Reinvention is something both Bowie and Nu Deco share in common. No Nu Deco show is like the other, and aside from a useful program on your seat, you never really know what you’re going to get. One weekend they can play Prince in all his funky glory and another they can be diving into the furthest reaches of outer space as they explore Kraftwerk.
Have no fear, Bowie fans. Hyken and Nu Deco will surely do the masterful genius justice. In the past, their musical explorations have proven to not only magnify what makes these artists so special, but also unearth new areas of the music that listeners might not have even noticed. When it came to Prince for example, they chose not to attack the music head on in order to avoid a cheesy product but instead Hyken and the ensemble broke down the chord progressions to lay the stage for an epic guitar solo by Aaron Lebos that became, according to Hyken, more of an elegy for the late artist but still a very wonderful rendition of “Purple Rain.”
But how does he actually sit down and decide to sectionalize these massive pieces of art? The process varies from artist to artist and song to song, but the end result is always the same: something you have to see to believe. His approach generally starts with the macro understanding of each artist, create the suite of songs, and then choose the sections of each work to then begin the arranging. Laying out each section of the songs before him, he then establishes the groove and builds from that. A melody might depend on vocal range and timbre, and instead of manifesting into a single instrument, usually is amplified in a combination of lines for a more expressive effect–blending a combination of original work and brand new content.
As you’d expect, Hyken has run into a few difficulties along the way, particularly when it comes to his voice. Without a vocalist, how do you capture that classic timbre? Authentically encapsulating his vocals, in terms of inflection and rhythmic style has proved challenging and Hyken has had to add minor adjustments in order to purely translate the voice to instrument. But all of this process yields a creative bond between fellow artists that can’t be invented, where one artist learns a deeper appreciation for another, from Bowie’s lyrical and baroque-pop early sound to his later experimental push.
What you can expect at the show next weekend other than a world-premier collaboration with R&B powerhouse, Emily King as well as modern interpretations of music by Henry Mancini, Judd Greenstein, and Daniel Wohl, is this highly-anticipated David Bowie Suite to add to his collection of already stellar musical explorations. You might not immediately know every song, but, like Bowie himself, you’ll appreciate the chance for new discovery. And like orchestras have done for Beethoven and Mozart for over 300 years, Nu Deco Ensemble will honor a fellow barrier-breaker for a show you won’t soon forget.