Back in 2012, Kanye West uttered the following words at a concert in New Jersey: “I am flawed as a human being… but my music is perfect. You could go back to Beethoven and shit, but as far as in this lifetime, though, this is all you got.”
Fast forward to 2016, and the music of Beethoven and Kanye West is about to be combined into one concert: Yeethoven. As the show’s trailer explains, “Their willingness to ruthlessly upend tradition and their influence on the larger culture can’t be understated.”
We’re all aware of West’s love for classical music in the most general sense. He has used composers and conductors to create orchestral arrangements for some of his most iconic albums, and has performed alongside classically trained musicians such as Rose Danvers (who orchestrated the backing band for West’s one-time performance of 808s and Heartbreak last year).
But Yeethoven is something different. It’s an attempt to highlight “the fundamental musical similarities between the works of Beethoven and the works of Kanye,” as Yeethoven conductor Yuga Cohler explains.
Cohler and composer Stephen Feigenbaum are the creators of Yeethoven. Upon becoming the music director of the orchestra at the Young Musicians Foundation in 2015, Cohler reached out to Feigenbaum to collaborate on something that mixes genres and makes a statement in today’s culture.
“Yeezus appealed to both of us as something that transcended genre, and had more in common with some of our favorite classical music than it did with other hip-hop records,” Feigenbaum explained. “People that love classical music would love things about Yeezus but they won’t listen to it necessarily because it’s a different genre. So we wanted to say, ‘We don’t care, to us it’s the same thing in some ways,’ which is why we’re doing this concert.”
The orchestra has 70 musicians, and includes cello, clarinet, flute, percussion, trombone and violin. The music bounces between Beethoven and West, creating a fluid reinterpretation that brings together two musicians separated by centuries. Sometimes, that means tweaking the instruments themselves to fit the respective artists style.
“‘On Sight’ has some parts that are intentionally out of tune,” Feigenbaum said. “So we’ve been going back and forth on if we should have the strings play out of tune a little bit on those parts? Or if we should do some weird effects by muting the trombones so we get that buzziness that the song has.”
For all their interpretation, however, Cohler and Feigenbaum have been surprised at the discovery of similarities that both musicians share. “There’s a rhythm that Justin Vernon sings in ‘I’m In It,’ that’s identical to something from the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony,’” Feigenbaum said. “They literally go right with each other.”
Cohler added: “There’s an arpeggiated part from ‘Guilt Trip’ that we combined with one of Beethoven’s piano concertos, and it was scary how the two sound exactly the same.”
Although Cohler and Feigenbaum didn’t disclose the exact order of Yeethoven, they did reveal the finale, which will be pairing Beethoven’s “14 String Quartet” with West’s “On Sight.”
“There’s a Beethoven piece that has a similar ending to ‘New Slaves’—it’s all chaos for a while and then at the end it’s suddenly this completely elated finale,” Feigenbaum said. “And I think it’s going to be so epic hearing those two back to back.”
The guys hope to take Yeethoven across the country at some point, too. “People have already hit us up being like, ‘When’s it coming to New York, when’s it coming to Boston, when’s it coming to San Francisco,” Feigenbaum said. “Our answer is, as soon as we fucking can.”
But for now, Yeethoven serves as a testament to what can happen when two creative and young minds create something that not only celebrates the works of two influential artists from across history, but explores two different styles of music in such an engaging and refreshing way.
“There is a shift going on in the classical world where people are more open to this type of thing, and I think the younger generation—like us—definitely sees this as a comparison that makes sense,” Cohler said. “There’s always some backlash in some areas but that’s the point. We’re challenging what the boundaries are.”
Yeethoven will be performed tomorrow, April 16, in Los Angeles’ Aratani Theater. The concert is free to attend.