They respectfully produced some of the best music of their generation. They studied under their respective pioneers: Mozart and Jay-Z. One lost his hearing in the prime of his career. The other’s mouth was wired-shut following a nearly fatal car crash. Both found inspiration following these life-altering incidents to produce their best works. Consistently, they broke down and challenged form in a genre that has not been done before. They have been called stubborn, egotistical, and self-righteous
Over 200 years separate the careers of the artists mentioned above. Since then, many artists have come and gone, but what is the mark of a great artist? It seems to be more than the music. It is the type of person whose innovative prowess impacts the culture.
Yes, the artist mentioned in the same sentence as Mozart is Kanye West. We are familiar with Kanye and accept him for, well, “being Kanye.” He rose to prominence as a producer, rapper, cultural activist, and fashion designer. He once said, “The Bible had 20, 30, 40, 50 characters in it. You don’t think that I would be one of the characters of today’s modern Bible?” While some might dismiss this comment as blasphemous, I cannot formulate a counter-argument. After all, Kanye wrote “Jesus Walks,” and long before Mr. West was willing to forgo radio spins to make up for his sins, this sanctimoniousness behavior pre-dates Kanye. It existed in mid-18th century Germany.
Born in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was a composer and a pianist that became the apotheosis of the classical tradition. Similar to Kanye, Beethoven was well aware of his impact on the culture. Once during a dispute with a member of the royal court, Beethoven responded, “Prince, what you are, you are by the accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Ironically, he was the third Ludwig van Beethoven in his family. His grandfather and older brother shared the same name, but this was the type of cockiness Beethoven exuded. After moving to Vienna, Beethoven studied the Classical Era under Mozart. It was there he developed his own sound, which eventually became known as The Romantic Era. The Romantic Era was founded on expanding previously constructed eras. Music from this era targeted the emotions of its audience.
Similarly, Kanye identifies sounds and enhances them to create his own unique sound. Almost every track on his debut album, The College Dropout (2004), features a loop of sped-up vocals by artists that defined the 70’s R&B and Soul. The Grammy winning album samples from the catalogues of Marvin Gaye “Spaceship,” Curtis Mayfield “Jesus Walks,” Luther Vandross “Slow Jamz,” Aretha Franklin “School Spirit,” and Chaka Khan “Through the Wire.” This expansion upon genres led to his most experimental albums. The electro-pop inspired 808’s and Heartbreak (2008) and the highly criticized Yeezus (2013).
Kanye’s music is characteristically reactive. His albums are a product of his mood, mercurial or otherwise. From his mood sparks his creativity, which results in a forever lasting diamond. Beethoven once said, “What I have in my heart and soul-must find a way out. That’s the reason for music.” In the years leading up to Yeezus, Kanye’s creative ability was being challenged. The fashion industry was blocking his vision. He communicated his frustration on a platform where he could not be silenced. Inspired by European electronic producers, Yeezus is riddled with harsh electronic riffs and daunting tones. Kanye fans underwent a reflective pause, hesitating how to digest this album.
During that pause, classically trained musicians, Yuga Cohler and Johan, identified the aforementioned similarities between Kanye and Beethoven. They were inspired to create an experimental project of their own appropriately titled, Yeethoven.
After earning a degree in computer science from Harvard, Cohler became the youngest graduate of Juilliard School’s Conducting Master’s program. Aside from conducting the Yeethoven orchestra, he is the active music director of Young Musicians Foundation (YMF) a program that provides exceptional music education to help strengthen communities. In addition to these activities, Cohler works as a senior software engineer for Google.
Johan, born Stephen Feigenbaum, a graduate from Yale’s Classical Music Composition, is a singer, producer, and composer working across many genres. His most recent EP, Wilds released this past, features a verse from Vic Mensa Johan arranges orchestral instruments for classical, pop, and hip-hop artists. “I did all the strings on Vic Mensa’s last album- I’ve worked quite a bit with No I.D. and Alessia Cara on the pop side,” Johan explained. “Mr. Hudson, who if you’re a Kanye fan, you’ll definitely know- I’ve played piano for him and produced for him a bunch,” Johan said.
Last April, Yeethoven was performed for the first time at the Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The show garnered the attention of many classical music and Kanye fans. Due to capacity, thousands of people were turned away at the door. Using a 50-person live orchestra, selected tracks from Yeezus and scores from Beethoven were mashed together. Each song they chose highlighted the structural elements that Kanye and Beethoven share in a compositional sense. Their ability to juxtapose the two genres captured a unique sound, evoked a feeling unlike any other and left the audience wanting more from this unusual partnership between Beethoven and Kanye.
In February, shortly before Yeethoven was performed, Kanye released The Life of Pablo (2016). Inspired yet again, Cohler and Johan began writing music for Yeethoven II. This past December they performed Yeethoven II to a sold-out crowd in LA, this time adding songs from The Life of Pablo and additional scores from Beethoven. Yeethoven II will be their first performance in New York City. The show, hosted by Lincoln Center, will be performed at the Alice Tully Hall.
What did you see, or hear that made Kanye and Beethoven an appropriate fit?
Cohler: “It came down to a lot of formal innovation. The way the songs are constructed particularly in Kanye’s last two albums, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, he pushes the envelope in a lot of ways that Beethoven did in his music.”
Johan: “We both, coming from the classical world, were thinking about why do we like Kanye so much, especially the recent stuff-especially with Yeezus…someone this big is putting out an album this weird and out there. We wanted to do this concert to take a look at what makes it so different and show how it shares some things in common with classical.”
How did you develop songs from Beethoven to match with tracks from Kanye?
Cohler: “We would look, for instance, at the track list of Yeezus and think about for each song what makes it so innovative? If you really reduce those down to the musical kernel-the fundamental musical idea those are the same ideas that Beethoven was building upon. The way you expand the structure of a song or piece. The way various parts fit together, dynamic contrast is another big theme. A lot of Beethoven pieces exhibit those same radical innovations.”
Johan: “Something really loud and angry aggressive, right next to something that is beautiful and soft and kind of sad. “Blood on the Leaves” is a song we look a lot that has those trombones that are beating the hell out of the instrument-then the drums and the 808s, and then it goes into the Nina Simone sample- it is very jarring and Beethoven does the same stuff.”
How do you fit instruments to match the sound of Kanye’s music?
Johan: “Everything kind of falls into one of two categories, either it’s stuff that the trombone or piano where its clearly a real instrument- and there is a lot of stuff that is synths or 808s where there is no live instrument that necessarily sounds exactly like it. You end up finding these interesting combinations of sounds. A certain distorted synth ends up being a combination of clarinets and bass clarinets, violas playing tremolo very fast-whatever has to happen to get the sound.”
Explain how Kanye’s albums are less pop and more classical in their sound?
Cohler: “In TLOP aside from the fact that it’s a perpetually unfinished album, he keeps changing it and changing it, which is actually something a lot of composers do. They keep editing their pieces up until the day they die- In pop music we often find this verse, chorus, verse, hook, bridge, chorus structure which sort of defines a song. If you look at the songs in TLOP almost none of them do that. Think of “Wolves” or “Highlights” they are formally off the wall- it is very much not of the pop universe.”
Johan: “In Yeezus they are not pop or hip-hop songs anymore. They are pieces of music, they just kind of go where he wants. Each one is a journey. Some stuff continues into the next track-it’s just very wide open formal rules.”
Typically how long does it take to identify two songs, put them on paper, give the orchestra their notes and perform?
Johan: “We kind of did it all at once-The first time around we spent a few weeks going through music-we limited the Kanye stuff to these two albums…it was relatively easy to find the songs we thought would work in this context. Then it was about going through Beethoven and finding the stuff that would really amplify that.”
How did you pool the talent for this orchestra?
Cohler: “For this orchestra we are lucky enough to partner with Lincoln Center, which is this amazing institution that is always looking to push the boundaries of art. They have an incredible network of a young diverse crowd of musicians who are not just pumped to play in orchestra at Lincoln Center, but are pumped to play Kanye.”
You have had an age range of 15-80 at your shows. How does it feel to have such a broad audience?
Cohler: “I think it is an amazing thing. I personally feel like all too often people get segmented into these sub-genres and genres. If you identify as one thing you can’t be another thing…I recently posted in a Kanye Facebook group ‘Hot take- you can like both Kanye West and Taylor Swift at the same time’ and I got so much hate for that. At concerts like this it gives me joy to see a truly diverse range of people being able to appreciate art for what it is. Great art I don’t think should have barriers to entry based on age or race.”
Johan: “We are both interested more broadly in projects that bridge these type of boundaries- I think this is the beginning for both of us-even just getting kids into the symphony. I think in one of the orchestras did a survey about how many people who came had been to an orchestra concert before and it was less than fifty-percent…seeing that this is an entertaining and a moving experience that can reach anybody.”
Last year you did a sold-out show in Los Angeles, how does it feel to sell-out your first New York show?
Johan: “It’s pretty cool definitely. We have done stuff with that part of the world before, but neither of us has presented our own concert in Alice Tully, which is the giant hall there- I think even 10 years ago it would have been unlikely for that to happen and I think it is gratifying to see there is a slight shift among the attitudes of the classical world. A more openness to different stuff.”
Cohler: “We have both encountered in certain pockets certain communities unfriendliness towards the idea. Usually it is that we are selling-out Beethoven and how dare you compare Beethoven, which is crazy because Beethoven was probably more of an egomaniac than Kanye was-he was off the wall.”
What other criticisms have you heard?
Johan: “I feel like Kanye fans are pretty receptive to it, which is cool. I think it is always interesting to watch the audience during the concert because there are some stretches where we are just playing Beethoven for seven or eight minutes to see if people kind of zone out and that’s not really what happens- Beethoven’s “5th symphony” starts and people just erupt into applause.”
Cohler: “A lot of the criticism from our perspective is knee jerk reaction. We’re kind of encroaching on this holy space with this brash artist- it is a lot to stomach. There have been certain criticisms, you know very detailed. I remember there was a Pitchfork article that came out that was like, ‘oh you didn’t compare Kanye to Stravinsky, therefore it was a bad concert-which was absurd.”
What does it feel like to have the crowd recite the lyrics to the songs?
Johan: “It is definitely a visceral experience and it’s cool people feel that in the context of an orchestra concert that they get that excited about something.”
Cohler: “People want to be challenged. People want to be presented with new intellectual stimulating experiences. We are trying to ride both of those things.”
Was it a “no-brainer” after the success of Yeezus to do The Life of Pablo?
Johan: “We weren’t necessarily going to keep doing it. We did Yeethoven previously in 2016 and it was just Yeezus. Pablo came out and we initially, like everybody, were like what? Because it wasn’t really finished- I think it challenged us and that fact alone made us want to explore it. When Lincoln Center came along and said they wanted to do it, it was the perfect opportunity.”
Would you open this up to other artists’ as well?
Cohler: “Kanye is definitely a rich enough artist that you could keep doing it-both of us have interests in kind of bridging these gaps and bringing together combinations you might not expect both within American music, but also outside of American music. There are a couple things we are talking about like K-pop we are pretty interested in…I’m a big fan of Flying Lotus. I am working on an orchestral project of his music. We were talking about doing stuff with food.”
Johan: “We have this friend who is a really cool chef. Just weird experiences with combining.”
Anyone in hip-hop?
Johan: “Not necessarily hip-hop, one that comes to mind for me a lot is Daft Punk. I think you could definitely do a concert like this with Daft Punk.”
Cohler: “Kendrick-I feel like DAMN. wouldn’t necessarily work, but you go back to pimp and you could make that work. I think Tyler The Creator’s latest album, Flower Boy. That lends itself to a lot of treatment.”
Johan: “I think with Kanye he is also the producer-ultimately he is making the musical call about the production of these songs, which to us is more similar to what Beethoven did. It is like being a composer. There are great hip-hop artists like Kendrick that have made incredible music, but aren’t on the producing side. It is one-degree removed.”
What is your favorite Kanye album?
Johan: “For me it will always be Dark Twisted Fantasy. That is kind of what got me into this. I was coming from classical, I was actually not immersed at all in hip-hop music- for me personally that will always be an emotional connection.”
Cohler: “For me it is probably a tie between Yeezus and 808s. I feel like people still haven’t quite caught up, which is crazy because to me the influence that had on the entire industry is so manifest now. It is so obviously clear and yet people are still coming to terms with the fact that the entire album is auto-tuned.”
Johan: “I think if you were asking what is objectively the most important Kanye album in terms of all of culture I think that is it (808s and Heartbreak).”