Kanye West has compared himself to many of the greats – Warhol, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Steve Jobs, Picasso, Walt Disney, and Jesus just to name a few. But Kanye might not realize the many similarities he has to another musical legend – Ludwig van Beethoven. Realizing the analogues between the two artists in both their art and personal lives, classical composers Yuga Kohler and Johan set on meshing classical with hip-hop. The result is Yeethoven, an hour long exploration of two musical icons, interweaving cuts like Kanye’s “Waves” with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8.” Ahead of their New York debut of Yeethoven at Lincoln Center, we sat down with Yuga and Yohan to discuss the origins of their ambitious project.
Can you start from the beginning – how did the two of you meet, and where did the idea to try and pursue something like Yeethoven arise? Had you ever pursued a project that was this much of an undertaking?
Yuga: Johan and I have known each other since middle school. We both grew up in the Greater Boston area and were involved in classical music – Johan studied composition, and I studied oboe.
The seeds of Yeethoven came in 2015 when I became the music director and conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Chamber Orchestra in Los Angeles. I knew I wanted to do a project involving Kanye West’s music, of which I was a big fan for several years. I knew that Johan was also into it so I got in touch with him to flesh out the idea.
For both of us, Yeethoven has been an incredibly rewarding – and challenging – endeavor. We’re hoping to work on more projects like this in the future.
The connection to the works of Beethoven and Kanye isn’t immediately apparent, even to trained listeners. Could you both describe the connection you see between these two artists, and talk about why you chose Beethoven as opposed to another classical composer? Can you talk about why you chose Kanye, as opposed to another hip-hop or pop artist?
Johan: One of the reasons we are so interested in Kanye’s music is that it is popular not just with the general population, but also amongst our friends in classical music. We wanted to examine what it was about his works, especially on his last few albums, that was so compelling to us as classical musicians.
Starting with Yeezus, Kanye’s music moved away from traditional song formats and towards more freely developed “pieces.” This allowed him to feature extreme juxtapositions between material of different characters, to a degree that felt very Beethovenian to us. For example, the blasting trombones and sudden dynamic changes found in Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves” struck us as reminiscent of the subito character changes in Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony.
Yuga: There’s also a cultural argument to be made. In his time, Beethoven was both highly influential and controversial. Despite the mythic status he now enjoys, when he was alive, Beethoven was an iconoclast – a lightning rod for criticism and derision. We think there’s something in that narrative that’s similar to Kanye.
Of course, we’re not saying that Kanye will necessarily be elevated to the same status as Beethoven. But there are very few artists who are self-consciously operating at the same birds-eye cultural level that Kanye is, and we think that is very Beethovenian.
What is the process deciding which pieces of Beethoven’s and which Kanye songs are decided? Once decided, what is the process for figuring out ways to combine and mashup the two songs? How collaborative is this process?
Johan: We began by finding Kanye songs that are formally innovative and conducive to symphonic transcription. Simultaneously, we looked for pieces by Beethoven that housed similar structural elements, and held long discussions about what common musical kernel defined both the Kanye song and the Beethoven piece.
I then transcribed the Kanye works and orchestrated them, finding specific instrumentations that would approximate the sound of the original songs. Once I had an orchestrated version of each Kanye excerpt, I developed them into full pieces, with a lot of editorial input from Yuga.
In some cases the pieces are standalone arrangements; in other cases, they transition between the Kanye and Beethoven works, usually introducing each work clearly for the listener and then increasingly blurring the lines between the two as the piece progresses. We really wanted that formal clarity helping us make our arguments at all times.
Can you explain a bit why songs are chosen primarily from Yeezus and The Life of Pablo? What about those records work more successful in this setting? Kanye’s played around with song-structure for quite awhile.
Johan: Although Kanye’s music has always been cutting-edge, it was with Yeezus that it systematically moved away from the verse-chorus format, towards more complex formal structures. Even in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, often hailed as the pinnacle of Kanye’s career, as well as a personal favorite of mine, the dominant structural unit is still basically a repetitive pop-song form. People often point out the use of orchestral instrumentation on it as being reminiscent of classical music, but truthfully those instruments are pretty common in pop music throughout history. What’s highly uncommon for an artist of this prominence are the formal innovations on Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, which aspire to a more intricate, evolving trajectory like that of a lot of classical music.
Do you see parallels between Beethoven’s progression as a composer to Kanye’s progression as an artist?
Yuga: Absolutely. Both artists have an early, middle, and late period. In the early period, they establish themselves as significant figures in their genres; in the middle period, they consolidate total command over their media; and in the late period, they redefine their genres by extending beyond the boundaries of the genres themselves. It’s this late period that Yeethoven II is about. Kanye’s redefinition of the album format through The Life of Pablo, for instance, is very similar to Beethoven’s innovation of the string quartet in his later works – op. 131 and 132 are the ones we focus on in Yeethoven II.
Do you each listen to a lot of pop or hip-hop music outside of listening to classical music? Are there are any other artists whose work you think would also work interpolated with a classical piece?
Yuga: I basically never listen to classical music, because I’m conducting it so often. I listen to a ton of hip-hop, but also electronic music, top 40, K-Pop, and jazz. I’m currently developing an orchestral project that examines the music of Flying Lotus in the context of Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. I think Flying Lotus is a consummately interesting artistic because he so seamlessly integrates elements of jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music into his work.
Johan: Listening to Kanye’s music is what actually got me interested in working in the pop and hip-hop worlds, when I was originally very centered in the classical community. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of writing, producing, and instrumental arranging with people like Vic Mensa, Mr. Hudson, Alessia Cara, No I.D. and even KSHMR, who I know is popular on Splice. My EP, Wilds, which I sang and co-produced, is out right now under my name Johan, and I have a lot more music coming. Ironically, classical music is probably what I find most refreshing now when I want a break from the nonstop pop writing/producing sessions.
Can you tell us a bit about how this collaboration with Lincoln Center came to be?
Yuga: Kathryn Peterson, who is the Manager of the Young Patrons of Lincoln Center program, was at Juilliard with me. Johan’s friend Ethan Karetsky was also consulting for them, and both had heard of the success of Yeethoven I after it was done in 2016. In 2017, Kathryn reached out to me with the possibility of putting it up at Lincoln Center. She’s been instrumental in getting this whole project together since then.
We were obviously blown away by this opportunity, and are super thankful to Lincoln Center. We also think it bodes well for classical music that institutions as prestigious and established as Lincoln Center are taking a risk like this, both for building new audiences and for advancing the art form of classical music.
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