Time: How a Live Orchestra Is Mashing Up Kanye West and Beethoven

Time Magazine
By Raisa Bruner

Rap icon Kanye West and classical legend Ludwig van Beethoven are, at first glance, polar musical opposites. But one project, dubbed Yeethoven, is bringing their music together in a bi-coastal mash-up concert that cuts through the distance of centuries and styles.

But why Kanye and Beethoven? It comes down to their shared status as iconoclasts of their eras. “[Beethoven] was emblematic of making really dynamic and meaningful changes in his art form, just as Kanye does in his,” explains Yuga Cohler, one of the project’s creators. “You might think Kanye’s one thing and only certain types of people listen to it, and ditto Beethoven. But that’s actually not the case.” Instead, project masterminds Cohler and Johan — who goes by a single name — argue that there’s a “common musical and cultural backbone” that runs straight from classical to contemporary hip-hop. Bringing the two genres together in live symphony, they hope, can help listeners discover a new way to appreciate music, no matter their age or musical taste.

Taking place in L.A. on Dec. 14 and in New York City on Jan. 18 with support from the Young Musicians Foundation (YMF) and Lincoln Center, Yeethoven II is now in its second year, after a sold-out 2016 concert. Cohler regularly conducts the YMF Debut Chamber Orchestra, while Johan is an independent artist and producer and arranger for hip-hop and pop acts like rapper Vic Mensa and singer Alessia Cara.

TIME spoke to the duo about their process of piecing together the perfect orchestral mash-up, how a “risky project” like this one can help popularize classical music and why Kanye makes a great case study as an artist with unexpectedly broad appeal.

TIME: Why did you select these two artists to bring into dialogue? What makes them good parallels?

Yuga Cohler: I had always been a big fan of Kanye’s music, and I knew other musicians were as well. I was really interested in doing a project with the [YMF] Orchestra involving him. So the first person I called was Johan, who was studying composition at Yale at the time. We talked about comparing [Kanye] to Stravinsky and a bunch of other classical composers, but we settled on Beethoven.

Johan: We were trying to figure out why classical musicians find Kanye so compelling, especially on his last two albums [2013’s Yeezus and 2016’s The Life of Pablo]. We were trying to find a classical musician who had a similar impact on their time.

Why is Kanye particularly interesting to classical composers?

Johan: He’s a risk taker, really innovative. He gets away with things musically that are pretty radical for someone who gets that attention: the fact that millions of people listen to his albums; the fact that Yeezus was borderline unlistenable as pop music, but really interesting as more of an art project, as well as The Life of Pablo. I was around a lot of composers and found they were interested in the fact that this guy was doing such crazy stuff. When I was in grad school at Yale, I studied with David Lang, a Pulitzer-prize winning composer. He was like, “Oh, Yeezus is really good.” This dude is like 55, and he’s talking to us about how Yeezus was really cool!

Cohler: Johan and I thought about this a lot. In those two albums, he willfully deviates from the traditional verse-chorus format, which is obviously a hallmark of pop music. The decision to do that, and then the decision to branch out into other, new formal language, was really reminiscent to us of what classical composers constantly try to do.

How do you create music that’s a true dialogue between the two artists? What’s your process like to figure out how to mash it up in a way that makes sense?

Cohler: We’ll go through the track listings of Yeezus and The Life of Pablo and we’ll talk about which songs are most interesting or have elements that are most reminiscent of Beethoven or classical composition. Then we ask, what are compositions by Beethoven that do the same thing? Is there sonic similarity, is there cultural similarity, is there compositional similarity? From there, Johan arranges and orchestrates them.

Johan: It always starts with the Kanye. That has to be turned into an orchestral thing, no matter what. It’s not like we’re running through the whole song; we’re grabbing the iconic material from a song of his. We’ll get the 16 bars or something that are really iconic, figure out how to make that sound unbelievable with an orchestra, and then figure out a way to add the Beethoven and develop them to interact. It’s important that the pieces communicate what we’re talking about. If they’re both there, we want people to recognize each piece of material separately before they start to hear them intertwined, so people can really get what’s going on. That’s a big part of the whole concert for us: making it clear.

Was there a particular Kanye song that was especially successful — or challenging — to adapt?

Cohler: For me it’s the arrangement of “Waves.” It’s hard to describe; the melody is in bass, but the accompaniment is in treble, which is this sort of unique thing. We compare that to Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, which is an unlikely candidate. But when you bring the two together, you can actually hear how the voicings are very similar.

Johan: It’s the second movement of the 8th Symphony, right?

Cohler: Yeah.

Johan: They were pretty tricky. We also did one with “Ultralight Beam” and a quartet —

Cohler: It’s the string quartet of Op. 132 — the slow movement from that.

Johan: That was about trying to show these really spare elements. They’re both really slow and spread out, so finding a way to keep the momentum going while illustrating how much space there was in both of these was tricky to keep it as a compelling piece of music. But I think it came out well.

You’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Kanye-Beethoven mashup. Are there any other pairings you’re interested in?

Johan: Personally, I think something with Daft Punk would be cool.

Cohler: It has to be a really organic connection. I don’t think it works to make this into a trope — one classic composer and one pop artist — that cheapens the art. Kanye is very special, I think everyone would agree.

Johan: There’s few people who are simultaneously doing stuff as weird as he is and on as such gigantic a scale in terms of reach.

Have you ever reached out to him? Do his people know you’re doing this?

Johan: I think he knows, but we don’t know for sure. I do string arrangements for the hip-hop world, so… We’ll see what happens.

What do you hope audiences take away from listening to this?

Cohler: One of the really positive aspects of the show in 2016 was that so many different types of people came. It was definitely not your typical hip-hop or pop concert; it skewed a little bit older. It was absolutely not at all your typical classical concert; it was much younger than that. You have people of all different backgrounds, bound by either this interest in Kanye or the concept. There’s this common musical and cultural backbone to both of them, and we can all appreciate it in a single group. That’s the message of the whole thing.

Johan: People are smart and discerning listeners of music. Those same people who were applauding at Kanye were also applauding at the Beethoven stuff; they were just excited about good music.