In April of 2016, Kanye West met Beethoven in an epic orchestra concert format: Yeethoven. Fans lined up around the block for their chance to catch the show and one thousand people had to be turned away. Fast forward to the end of 2017 and conductor Yuga Cohler and composer-arranger Johan are bringing Yeethoven back to life—in both Los Angeles (on December 14) and New York City (January 18, 2018). More info and tickets here.
The new show will feature fresh material drawn from Kanye’s most recent album, The Life of Pablo, and according to Johan, it will be focused on delivering and connecting the work of both artists in the purest form possible.
After last year’s incredible fan reception, the duo were approached by the Lincoln Center, a huge artistic honor and major orchestral co-sign, to bring their show to New York City. Cohler describes this moment as “empowering,” expressing his excitement over being able to push forward the definition of classical music: “Now we’re seeing folks who’ve never listened to hip-hop or Kanye coming to see it, and vice versa.”
We caught up with Johan and Yuga Cohler to discuss the reception to last year’s show, bringing in new material from The Life of Pablo, and the classical arc of Kanye West’s music. See a rehearsal clip featuring "Ultralight Beam" below and continue for the interview.
For the unfamiliar, can you tell us a little bit about the Yeethoven concept and how it came together?
Yuga: I was the music director of an orchestra in 2015. I was really fascinated by and excited by Kanye’s music, and wanted to do a project on his music. Johan and I have known each other since we were kids, and we worked together previously, so I hit him up. After talking about it for a while, we realized that Beethoven would be the perfect comparison for this project given the two artists’ similarities. Then the first show went up in April of 2016.
What was the reception like after last year’s show?
Johan: It was super crazy! There was a ton of coverage before it even happened. Part of that says that people are interested in stuff if it’s related to Kanye, but I think it also spoke for the event itself. At the event, we turned away almost a thousand people. It was a free event, but there were only nine hundred or so seats in the venue. There was this ridiculous line all around the block of people trying to get in.
The hype was crazy, and a lot of people posted footage after the fact. It was gratifying for us to see people in the audience—really young and really diverse, sitting to watch an orchestra concert. There wasn’t any rapping, Kanye wasn't there, but people were really excited. People were cheering halfway through pieces of music that they recognized. It was gratifying to see people appreciate a classical music concert in a way we’d never seen before.
Was that the reception you were expecting?
Johan: This was beyond… this was everything we hoped for and more.
We’re taking people who have a certain vision of classical music, stuck in their ways for lack of a better term, and then showing them that there are actually a lot of similarities to the music of today.
Aside from fan response, what else made you both want to continue and do another show?
Yuga: Given the show’s response, we were approached by several different groups, one of them being Lincoln Center. First of all, it was a huge honor to be performing at an artistic organization like that. For both of us, it’s empowering for us to be able to take classical music in this new direction. Now we’re seeing folks who’ve never listened to hip-hop or Kanye coming to see it, and vice versa. We’re taking people who have a certain vision of classical music, stuck in their ways for lack of a better term, and then showing them that there are actually a lot of similarities to the music of today.
Johan: You’re in New York, so you know Lincoln Center. It’s crazy for us to be doing anything there, at all. It’s an institution that stands for that side of the culture, and what classical music is about. For them to say that they believe in this, it furthers our argument that this type of music is worthy of that type of space. Once we knew we were doing New York, we knew we had to do LA again. Then it was just a matter of coordinating.
Biggest lesson from last year’s show that you’re carrying into your next two shows?
Johan: One thing I can say, it’s tricky writing these things. As I’m on the composer side of it, and putting together the Kanye and the Beethoven, there were moments… Right, the idea is to let the music speak for itself, but when you’re putting together a five minute piece, you’re going to write some music to transition between the two. I felt like it wasn’t as purely about Beethoven and Kanye. It’s really important to me that this time around, we’re really just stripping it down. It takes more thought to make a coherent piece of music that just uses both artists. I’m editing a couple of pieces and talking about making some changes.
We’re also adding a couple new pieces for [The Life of] Pablo. Pablo came out right around the time we did the last show, so there wasn’t time to suddenly throw that in there. Our whole argument is that starting with Yeezus, that’s when [Kanye’s] music starts resembling classical music more so than it does hip-hop. That’s even more true of Pablo. So we cut a couple of the old ones, brought in more of Pablo, and it’s tighter overall.
Yuga: We both realized from last year’s concerts that if the musical argument you’re making is very rigorous, if it’s very tight, if it’s bulletproof—no matter the perspective—you want to make sure that the argument you’re offering is authentic and a real artistic product. Once you have that premise, everything else follows. Not just in terms of how you compose the music, but how you message it and how you talk about it. Coming from a really genuine and authentic place is really important to both of us.
You guys have really trained ears, but for the average listener, what is it about The Life of Pablo that gives it that classical feel?
Johan: Formally, it’s the same stuff that’s true of Yeezus. There’ll be these minute long stretches that are phrases of a synth with tons of space between it and no vocal. It’s just stuff you’d never see in a normal song, and it just gets more extreme. “Ultralight Beam,” for example, just has ridiculous amounts of space and total silence. It goes on for five minutes and it’s sprawling in a way. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has sprawling songs that go on forever that keep evolving, but there’s always at least a beat playing. “Ultralight Beam” has a synth chord, then a drum melody, and they’re treated like motifs in a classical piece that just repeat at their own pace.
The comparison can be made to Beethoven where his early works were considered very traditional, classic works. Then his middle period where he reaches his highest point of that form. Then his late stuff where he goes crazy
Yuga: There are lots of examples of this, but I was listening to both parts of “Father Stretch My Hands.” The verse-chorus pop format has been totally eradicated. There’s no sense of ‘Okay, we’re in the bridge right now and the verse is coming.’ There’s no sense of that at all. Not only that, with those two songs, there are lots of musical connections. He uses the same lyrics “I just wanna feel liberated,” and then in the beginning of “Part 2,” he uses the same musical material of “Part 1,” but in a minor key.
Johan: It wouldn’t even be possible in a pop song, because things need to fit into a clear format to be a pop song. Somewhere around Yeezus he starts being like ‘Well, I don’t really care I’m just gonna do this for two minutes.’ It’s a lot more free.
Yuga: It’s free in a very sophisticated way, I think.
Johan: I also recognize that it’s not Kanye himself making all of these choices. It’s him and the producers that he works with on these projects. He makes these very long term musical connections and I think he feels free to explore them.
Assuming Kanye keeps releasing music, where do you see the show going five years from now?
Johan: It’ll definitely depend on where he goes. I hear he’s working on new music, but we’ll see where it goes. We didn’t know we were gonna do this, but there was the demand. We’re not trying to do it just for the sake of doing it. But we love this [album], and we were presented with the opportunity and then we improved upon the Yeezus stuff. As long as we can improve, we’ll keep doing it.
Would you guys ever go back in his catalogue? The Late Orchestration feature comes to mind.
Johan: I love that music. It’s not quite the same thing to me, but they’re definitely more in a traditional hip-hop and pop mold. The comparison isn’t as dramatic for us.
Yuga: The comparison can be made to Beethoven where his early works were considered very traditional, classic works. Then his middle period where he reaches his highest point of that form. Then his late stuff where he goes crazy. It’s very experimental and hard to categorize. With Kanye, I think you see a similar sort of arc.
Johan: I’m just excited for when they both go crazy [Laughs].