Meet Yuga Cohler and Johan – the brains behind Yeethoven + Yeethoven II, a project that brings together the music of musical giants Ludwig van Beethoven and Kanye West.
The first instalment: Yeethoven, was performed in April 2016 with the support of the Young Musicians Foundation. It sold out, received critical acclaim and is back.
Yeethoven II ft. Yeezus (2013) and Life of Pablo (2016) premiered in The Belasco Theatre in Los Angeles on December 14th and it will be performed at the Lincoln Centre in New York on January 18th, 2018.
And before its NY premiere next week, Herbert was lucky enough to speak to the duo about the project.
Johan – Before we get stuck into Yeethoven, Herbert noticed you’ve just released a solo EP WILDS…
Johan: Yep! Very excited about this. Most of my focus right now is on this pop project, which is how I started using the pseudonym Johan. On this EP I sampled excerpts of chamber music pieces I wrote in high school but ultimately it’s really just an EP about sneaking around the suburbs and causing mayhem. And being afraid of growing up. The sound reflects that sneakiness I think, especially the menacing tuba sound in High in the Woods.
So, what was your entry point into and /or relationship or interest in classical music?
Johan: Both of us have been doing classical music most of our lives. Yuga and I met in high school through classical music programs at Tanglewood and New England Conservatory. Initially I guess it was probably seeing John Williams conduct his music at the Boston Pops that got me excited about classical music, and led me down the path towards becoming a classical composer. After I finished my master’s degree in composition I got interested in pop music, largely because of what Kanye West was doing at the time, and because of a desire to build a platform for myself from which I could do bigger projects related to classical music and musical theater.
Ok, now we can get stuck into Yeethoven, and I have to start at the beginning – Yuga how did this come about?
Yuga: 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.
…and I have to ask as a classically trained conductor – what was your entry point and / or relationship / or interest in R&B/ hip-hop?
Yuga: I got into hip-hop fairly early. In fourth grade, I got in trouble for printing out and bringing the lyrics to Eminem’s “My Name Is” to school. Around seventh grade I became a member of several online rap groups, where I would compete in text-based rap battles. By high school I was listening to both mainstream stuff – 2Pac, Nas, etc. – as well as underground artists like Cannibal Ox and Sage Francis.
My love for Kanye really took off when I was a summer intern at Goldman Sachs. I would work long hours, sit at my desk, and listen to the Kanye Pandora station all day.
When you were choosing tracks and arranging for Yeethoven, was it obvious to you just ‘from ear’ which you wanted to use or was there a more ‘scientific process’ to it?
Johan: It was mostly the latter, I’d say. We really just wanted to find Kanye music that we felt had that classical-music feel to it, whether structurally or gesturally, because that was the whole point of the concert. Then we’d try to analyze what he was doing that felt so unusual for that genre. Then we’d try to find Beethoven works that did similar things. But there were also just some works by both artists that we felt we wanted to include so sometimes we had to work backwards from that.
Do you think Beethoven had more freedom than Kanye for artistic expression?
Johan: That’s a great question. It’s hard to know but I’d say it’s pretty similar. That may be a key part to the comparison actually. They’re both operating in worlds that have pretty set rules, which is why their respective audiences had pretty strong reactions when they started to veer from that. I think they both used their mainstream appeal as a platform to advance highly innovative musical ideas.
Have you come across any personality similarities between Kanye and Beethoven?
Yuga: For me, they are both visionaries – they have a clear mental image of what they want to achieve, and their works are just a real-world crystallization of that mental image.
… do you think they would have got on?
Yuga: It’s hard to strip away all the context that would enter into that meeting, but our feeling is had they been born in the same era and sector of society, it’s possible they’d be doing similar type of work. Then again, maybe not.
West has sampled classical music in his tracks and the influences of the genre in his music have been commented on, but is there something that particularly stands out for you in his music that makes him a good musical pairing for this project?
Johan: We’re pretty specific about this argument in our concert, which is that starting with his album Yeezus, Kanye moves away from conventional song formats and starts treating musical material with the freedom and formal innovation that is more characteristic of classical music than pop music. We’re not actually saying that classical has a conscious influence on his music, just that he’s pushing the same types of musical boundaries as classical does.
Have you had any criticism for the project?
Yuga: There have been some people who question why we specifically chose Beethoven as the classical analogue to Kanye. In fact, we discussed a number of classical composers before we settled on Beethoven, and in fairness the concert probably would have worked pretty well with some of them.
But, Beethoven was the only composer we felt has the iconic status that Kanye symbolizes to people of our generation, and it felt like the most satisfying fit. Not surprisingly, we’ve received criticism from people on the classical side who reject the idea of putting Kanye on the same pedestal as Beethoven. But part of our goal in doing this concert is to use musical evidence to help strip away that whole notion, that certain figures “deserve” the elevated status that classical music confers so exclusively. As the silliness of this whole notion is exposed, the hope is that the world of classical music evolves accordingly.
‘Life of Pablo’ is one of Herbert’s favourite Kanye albums so I have to ask – What’s your favourite Life of Pablo track?
Johan: Real Friends is my favorite for sure. For production alone, FML is a favorite as well for its spareness, not to mention the fact that it was produced by a friend of mine.
Yuga: I think Ultralight Beam is probably the best song, but I listen more often to both Highlights and Facts. I think Highlights could have been crafted into a masterpiece if its form were polished just a bit further.
And finally…. Yeethoven III?
We really never planned on doing a Yeethoven II, but this amazing opportunity came up with Lincoln Center in NYC and the Young Musicians Foundation in LA, and since Pablo had ventured further in the musical direction we were interested in, not to mention that so many people had been unable to gain admission to Yeethoven I, we felt this was a great chance to do it again. If the stars align again, maybe…