MWA Quarterly: Notes on a 21st Century Virtuoso, Yuga Cohler

MWA Quarterly
By Karine Monié


Music has always been part of Yuga Cohler’s life, but it took him a few years to feel passion for it. “Both of my parents are musicians, so I started at a very early age— piano at 3 and violin at 5,” he says. “However, I didn’t really start enjoying music until I was 12, when I went to my first music camp.” Since then, Cohler has never put aside creative discipline, which today is an important part of his life.

At only 28 years old, Cohler is already an internationally-known orchestral conductor, while also working as a senior software engineer and manager at Google, having graduated summa cum laude in computer science from Harvard University. “My grandfather is a computer scientist and he taught me QBasic when I was 6,” he says. “It aroused my interest in math, logic and puzzles. I think that an understanding of the systemic facets of technology that my work cultivates—an appreciation for design, an apprehension of large-scale systems, a belief in process—is essential to anybody looking to engage in 21st-century culture.”

As if it isn’t enough to be a science expert, Cohler is also a musical genius. These seemingly disparate fields are complementary for Cohler. “My junior year of college, I interned at Goldman Sachs as a strategist in the investment banking division,” he confesses. “I worked 11- to 12- hour days and listened to Kanye West all day long at my desk. Through that experience, I came to understand that the structures underlying Kanye’s music are no different from those that underlie classical music, and thought it would be interesting to put on concerts that explicitly point out similarities like these.”

Appointed music director of the Young Musicians Foundation (YMF) Debut Chamber Orchestra in Los Angeles in 2015, Cohler explored this idea of combining popular and classical music through “The Great Music Series,” starting with “Yeethoven,” a concert that boldly compared the works of Kanye West and Beethoven. “Many of the best cultural innovations are born from combinations of distinct traditions,” explains Cohler, referencing modern cuisine as an example. “Popular music owes much of its theoretical backbone to the tradition of Western classical music, and I think the values inherent in classical music can help popular music evolve in interesting ways. At the same time, classical music can learn from the iron-clad ties to modern-day culture by which popular music is defined.”

Listening to hip-hop, electronic music, Korean and Japanese pop, among many other genres, Cohler’s open mind and impressive path are a testament to both his talent for and love of innovation that he showcases all over the planet. Having a close relationship with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Cohler appeared several times in concert on Japanese national television and recently did an international tour with the orchestra and musician Yoshiki. Frequently invited to Europe and different places in the United States, and currently a director of the Asia/America New Music Institute, Cohler is successful in everything he does. Although Cohler is unconvinced that music is essential, “...I think it’s inevitable,” he offers. “You don’t need music to survive, but if you’re surviving, you’re probably either consuming or producing music. For me, music is a platform through which you can reach anybody, because it’s not tied to any predetermined meaning. That lack of intrinsic significance makes music an ideal medium for a type of universal communication.”

Reaching all types of communities through the vitality of an orchestra, transcending categories while inventing another, more global vision is definitely among Cohler’s most impressive skills. With his creativity and ambition exceeding music, Cohler describes his dream project: “A start-up/media company that produces content designed to make its audience think more deeply and deliberately. It would promote and provoke thought by integrating the expected with the unexpected, the commonplace with the extraordinary, the popular with the sophisticated.” Some people are born with many talents and they know how to make the most of them. Whether through music or technology, Cohler always finds a way to create something unique from a variety of influences.