Yuga Cohler and Johan take the stage during a performance of “Yeethoven”
The worlds of classical music and hip-hop may seem too far apart to ever come together in any meaningful way. However, two artists (and a youth orchestra) are looking to remix the way we think about these two different art forms: composer/arranger Johan and conductor Yuga Cohler, the music director of the Young Musicians Debut Chamber Orchestra.
Together, Cohler and Johan have put together a concert of mash-ups of the music of composer Ludwig van Beethoven and hip-hop artist Kanye West. The project is called Yeethoven and premiered last year. Now, they’re back for Yeethoven II, taking place on December 14 at the Belasco Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.
For more information about the project, I interviewed Johan and Cohler.
BL: Where did this idea for combining the music of Beethoven and Kanye West come from?
J & YC: We both have been interested in Kanye’s music for years, and so have many of our friends in the classical world. We wanted to examine what it was about his music, especially on his last few albums, that was so compelling to us as classical musicians. The idea of putting Kanye West side-by-side on a concert with a similar iconoclast from the classical world, such as Beethoven, seemed like a really cool way to illustrate it for people.
BL: From a musical/structural standpoint, what sorts of similarities are there between Beethoven’s and Kanye’s music?
J & YC: Starting with his album 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 sudden dynamic contrasts found in Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves” struck us as similar to the subito character changes in the famous Fifth Symphony. Our concert focuses on six of these parameters for comparison, with a pair of pieces illustrating each one.
BL: How did you assemble the scores? What led you to make the musical decisions that you made?
J & YC: We began by finding Kanye songs that felt most conducive to these types of comparisons, while also being likely to translate well to the orchestral format. Simultaneously, we looked for pieces by Beethoven that housed similarly innovative structural elements and held long discussions about what common musical kernel defined both the Kanye song and the Beethoven piece. Johan then transcribed the Kanye works and orchestrated them, finding specific instrumentations that would approximate the sound of the original songs. Once he had an orchestrated version of each Kanye excerpt, he developed them into full pieces.
BL: How big, do you think, is the Venn diagram intersection area of classical music lovers and hip-hop lovers? Do you think there are more classical fans who enjoy hip-hop or more hip-hop fans who enjoy classical?
J & YC: That’s a great question. Many young classical musicians have very wide-ranging taste, and many also have what feels like a newish desire to reach outside of the classical music community. Hip-hop is probably the most adventurous genre of popular music right now so it makes sense that it would receive a lot of attention from curious young musicians. Going the other direction, it’s harder to say. Fans of adventurous pop music seem to respect classical music a lot without necessarily consuming that much of it. We’re both very interested in changing this.
BL: How have audiences responded to Yeethoven?
J & YC: More enthusiastically and attentively than we ever could’ve dreamed, honestly. We talk briefly throughout the concert about the formal elements in each piece, and last year we witnessed the audience erupting into spontaneous applause when the exact techniques we referred to appeared later in the actual music. That level of perception from an audience mostly unused to classical concerts was something we never anticipated.
BL: It feels like genre is becoming less and less important to music consumers. I get the sense that most people categorize music into two groups: “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like.” Are you seeing that also?
J & YC: That definitely seems accurate. The way streaming platforms organize music allows people to move much more fluidly between genres. There are still boundaries, but they seem to have more to do with the context in which people want to experience music. Someone might have a wide variety of genre-spanning works which are unified only by the fact that they like to study to them, and a separate, equally wide range of music they like to experience at a party or on the dance floor. In our view, classical music at its best is a spectacular emotional and sensory experience, and can most effectively cater to people seeking that type of immersion.
BL: Anything else you’d like to add?
J & YC: We’re just really grateful to YMF for taking a risk on this event with us. It matters more now than ever that organizations like that are open to experimenting with the way classical music fits into the public consciousness.
The Young Musicians Foundation Debut Chamber Chamber Orchestra performs Yeethoven II on December 14 at the Belasco Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. Johan is the composer/arranger of the show. Yuga Cohler, music director of the YMFDCO, will conduct.