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Episode Transcript

Yuga Cohler: Classical music will do itself a disservice to the truly incredible riches it can offer if it doesn't figure out a way of harnessing it in a way that people can appreciate.

Kristy Geslain: While making artistic connections between past and present is not an entirely new concept, my guests today have given it a unique spin. Longtime collaborators Yuga Cohler and Johan grew up playing and studying classical music on the one hand, while being serious hip-hop fans on the other. That combination of sounds, styles, and attitudes has resulted in the project Yeethoven, which—you may have guessed—places compositions by Beethoven and Kanye West side by side, with original arrangements performed by a full orchestra.

Earlier this year, Yuga and Johan brought the latest iteration—Yeethoven II: Two Eras, One Radical Spirit—to a special fundraising event as part of the Lincoln Center Young Patrons 101 Series. I spoke to them backstage about the similarities they see between the two composers' musical risk taking, iconic status, and breaking down of "traditional" compositional rules.

This is Lincoln Center: Yeethoven.

KG: So we're backstage in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center getting ready for the Lincoln Center premiere of Yeethoven II. So tell me guys, how did Yeethoven I and then II come about? What's the genesis of this project?

YC: Yeah, so I became music director, this is Yuga Cohler, by the way. I became music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra in 2015, and I'd been interested in Kanye's music for a while. I've been a big fan of his music but also interested in it from a compositional perspective. And I knew that when I got this opportunity to lead an orchestra that I wanted to do a project involving his music. So I approached Johan, who I've known since I was a teenager. He's a composer, and we worked together back in the day. And I knew he was also into Kanye as well. So from there, we kind of went back and forth on e-mail and then from that was born Yeethoven.

Johan: He's right. This is Johan. The concert was conceived as a way to show what we thought was interesting about Kanye's music, particularly on his last two albums, starting with Yeezus. He really kind of went off the deep end creatively and started taking a lot of risks that are unusual for anybody of that stature, and especially in that genre. So it was really cool to come up with these different ways of comparing some of the musical risks that he's taken to similar things that Beethoven did in his music. And initially we weren't sure if we were going to do a whole concert of different classical composers or it was going to be just one with Kanye, and we sort of settled on Beethoven because they both have this really iconic place in the culture, in their respective cultures, and seemingly similar personalities and the music also seems to have a similar character to it, so we really liked that comparison. And also Yeethoven is a catchy title, so...

KG: And how has it evolved from Yeethoven I to Yeethoven II?

YC: The biggest thing is that right when Yeethoven I was performed, Kanye dropped The Life of Pablo, which we felt in a lot of ways went even further than Yeezus in breaking down the standards or traditional forms of popular music. I mean, in The Life of Pablo, he really changes the definition of what an album itself is, since he keeps updating it on Spotify and so forth. So yeah, that's the big difference. Also I think we've tightened it a little bit so that every single pair of pieces we compare, one by Beethoven, one by Kanye, focuses on a musical theme. And we think the way we've edited it a little bit more makes the argument very tight. We try to be rigorous in that process and we've cut out a lot of the unnecessary parts.

KG: So talk a little bit about what those comparisons are.

J: Sure. So there's six of them on the concert. Some of them, well, I'm just give an example of one. The "Egmont Overture" is a piece that we perform by Beethoven and it's paired with a song called "New Slaves" by Kanye, from the album Yeezus. And they both feature . . . well, okay, so we start with Kanye because that's how this really happened. "New Slaves" is basically this really tumultuous, intense, pretty angry song, and then after about four minutes or so, maybe a little less, it hits this random kind of pause, and there's this drum roll, then it just goes into this completely different tempo, different key, almost completely different song that's like super happy, and like celebratory in tone. It's sampled from this I think Hungarian band.

It's such a jarring switch. The whole album is filled with moments like that. I remember the first time I heard it, I was in the car with a friend of mine and we were both like, "What is going on?" It was crazy to hear someone like that making choices like that. And so it turns out, the Egmont Overture has this ending that's also very celebratory. It also comes after, not a drum roll, but a similar buildup in the strings right before it, and that is capping a piece that's largely a really dark and tumultuous piece. And I think to today's ears, I feel like, at least to me, the ending on the Beethoven feels almost ironic, it's too disjointed from the music before it to read, like "Oh, it's the happy ending." It's so ridiculously over the top compared to how dark the rest of the piece was. The Kanye thing absolutely has that effect. So it's just like a really a specific formal choice they both made. It's not super uncommon in Beethoven's time to have an overture end in that way. But this particular character is unique, and it's very unusual in the hip-hop world to make a choice like that, so it's interesting.

YC: Yeah, another example that we highlight is both artists' use of space and silence in their music. Certainly in popular music, rests or periods of total silence are completely unusual, because on radio, you can't have silence. But there's a lot of silence on Kanye's song, "Ultra Light Beam," which is very much a gospel track. It's a religious piece. And so this notion of the ineffable, I think, is what permeates the entire song. There are a lot of rests and spaces in between the notes which give you, the listener, time to reflect.

The same sort of notion is in Beethoven's Opus 132 string quartet, which is famous for its slow movement, the "Heiliger Dankgesang," because it's just long, long stretches of whole notes, very held out notes. Which evoke a very expansive holy place, it's sort of limitless, right? When notes don't change at a fast rate, it's like you're staying in the same place. So Beethoven evokes holiness and religious space in that way. I think both of these artists' allusion to some higher realm through that device is actually very telling that these principles kind of transcend time.

KG: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about your own training, both of you. Your musical training, your formal training, and then whatever music you were studying on the side, because I'm going to assume that you didn't study Kanye in formal classroom settings.

J: Not enough, anyway. We were both involved at programs at New England Conservatory in Boston on the weekends. That's actually where we met. Yuga was playing in a chamber group that played a piece of mine that I wrote at that time. So I was studying composition and you were focused on oboe. And then we also hung out in Tanglewood for a summer, I think.

I went to Yale undergrad, that's not a conservatory program. I was actually interested in doing a conservatory. I was pretty conflicted about it when I went to Yale, because it was much more of a standard college experience, but I also learned a lot there which was that even young folks who are culturally minded and interested in highbrow or intellectually stimulating art and stuff, tend to gravitate to different types of like indie music or whatever. It's pretty unusual for them to seek out classical music as a vehicle for that type of interest. So I think that was something that initially caught me off guard. I don't know, I guess I just expected it would be this idyllic cultural haven or whatever, when it was just in fact, I don't know, these were just some really smart kids that I got to be friends with, and they all generally listened to indie rock, or hip-hop, which is I guess where this all starts. So I think that was an interesting experience.

I did go on to go to Yale School of Music, which is the conservatory there for grad school, which was interesting too. But I think by that point, the bug has been placed in my ear or whatever that I really wanted to just make stuff that anyone can, anyone that's curious and interested in art can enjoy, or get something out of. And I think classical music has a lot of potential to do that. For the past few years, I've been living in L.A. and I work in the pop music industry, producing and writing songs. Johan is my stagename, and I'm interested in building a platform in pop music because I feel like essentially, and this concert is evidence of it, if someone in the position that Kanye's in could do . . . you know, if Kanye wrote an opera tomorrow, we would all be like, everyone, not just in the classical world, but everybody would be talking about opera at least for a minute. If it was really good, I think that could have a massive impact on just where classical music sits, and I think that type of thing requires having that type of position in popular culture. So that is why I'm doing popular music.

KG: Yuga, tell me about your training.

YC: Sure. So like Johan said, we met in high school, I was an oboist. I started conducting when I was about fifteen or so. I went to Harvard for undergraduate, primarily because they have a very strong tradition of student conductors, but I studied computer science there. After that, I graduated and then I went to Juilliard where I studied with Alan Gilbert in the conducting program. That was really formative for me because I got to, well, I had to go to New York Philharmonic rehearsals and concerts pretty much every week. And so I felt like I learned a lot about that world and how it operates during that period of time.

I got into Kanye's music pretty early. I was a hip-hop fan since like I was in the fourth grade or so, I got into like, pretty obscure stuff like, I was a rapper myself in the fourth grade with the stagename "Direct Truth." I would go on online message boards and battlerap people online and I listened to pretty undergrad stuff like Cannibal Ox and people on the Def Jux label. I got into Kanye's music really starting around 2009 when I was a summer intern at Goldman Sachs in the investment banking division. I was what's called a strategist . . . this isn't important . . . But the point of that is that I would work very long hours, probably about 12-hour days, I would get in around 9, leave around 9. So I would basically be at my desk the majority of that and have headphones in, and this was around that time when Pandora was like a real thing. And I was kind of listening around, and basically for a period of four, probably like six out of the twelve weeks I only listened to the Kanye Pandora station and became very intimately familiar with his discography.

J: Oh, I want to add, actually, yeah, because for me, that reminded me, the Kanye thing. It's kind of interesting because you actually were into hip-hop for a long time. I was completely under a rock, like just doing classical and a lot of Broadway type stuff too, until I was like twenty, and it was Kanye's fourth or fifth album was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was the first time that I ever listened actively or directly to his music at all, or really any music that was in the pop, current, in any way like that, other than classical. So a friend of mine put me on to that album, and I was just like "Whoa, that's crazy." I spent like, when I was in grad school, I felt like I was just living with just that album for a while. And eventually I got back into all the Kanye stuff and Yeezus came out right when I finished grad school. So that was like, "Oh, wow, he's taking it even further" and I think you can definitely see a direct line to the interest of why I got into pop music at all is a big part of also why this concert made sense coming from a classical musician brain, I feel like it just all kind of made sense.

KG: So being where you both are now, you sort of melding more into the pop world, you still being in the orchestral conducting world and both straddling both lines, what is the current state of classical music? I know that's a big question, but I ask because it seems like you both see a need to infuse more of maybe a hip-hop or pop sensibility here and there to maybe bring it to audiences who wouldn't necessarily be drawn to it? I don't want to put words in your mouth but . . . So start with where do you see classical music right now?

YC: So I do think for me the state of classical music right now is that it doesn't have a genuine connection to any population in the country, it feels like. Maybe a very small sliver who happened to have grown up with it, or whose parents are involved in it like mine happened to be. But I don't think it's doing the best job it could be in defending its existence.

J: I mean, it's funny. I have debates about this with people who sort of would argue that the idea of a classical music crisis is in itself a myth, which I think is an interesting perspective. There are some good arguments on the side. Like, one example is I think that numerically, it's more to listened to than it ever was, if you're just looking at just like streams or just random stuff like that. Because anybody anywhere in the world can hear this music in a way it was originally kind of concentrated in certain cities and so on. So I think in that sense, it just depends what you care about. For me, what I really care about is like, having an impact on the culture that we live in.

An example of a person today who has the type of impact that Beethoven had in his time is Kanye. Like that is what it looks like when somebody is a part of their culture, having a huge impact on it, very provocative, like widely known. I think like 35,000 people went to Beethoven's funeral or something. He was a celebrity, you know. It's not that the fame is the point, but the reach is the point, if you're trying to have an impact on the world around you. Just on the influence side, I think people really want this to be part of the culture. We both have ideas about how that could happen. I think Yeethoven is, in my opinion, that's not really the solution, it's just an example. We're just trying to make this point about what does it look like when someone has a lot of impact on a culture in their respective times. But I think we're both interested in a lot of different types of projects and ideas that could allow the things that are really universal about this type of music to be enjoyed.

YC: Yeah. I agree with Johan in that it is very important for an orchestra to define what the goal is. What is the goal? Is it simply to perpetuate tradition? Is it simply to survive? Is it simply to just do the same thing that orchestras have been doing for a hundred or so years in this country and call it a day? If that's okay, then fine. But in my view, like the value that orchestras and institutions of classical music provide is this gateway into this wonderful world of repertoire that's extremely diverse, extremely rich, very complicated, offers a lot of insight into artistic creation, methods and principles of making works of arts and performance. It's an incredibly rich world that's just not being utilized in a way that everyone can benefit from it.

I feel like institutions should be much more focused on "What are the ways we can get people interested in this material?" in an organic way, without kind of imposing tradition just for the sake of tradition. And so one of the reasons I think Yeethoven is successful is because, well, we know a lot of people like Kanye. People love Kanye. His fans are so diehard, right? People love his music. And one side to our argument is "Oh, you like Kanye? Well, okay, Beethoven does some similar things, therefore, you should like Beethoven." Right? If it's the same artistic principles that are going on in Kanye and Beethoven, and you like Kanye, then you're probably going to like Beethoven, right? And I think meeting people where they are is going to be critical for orchestras and institutions going forward. You can't start from wherever you are and expect them to come to you. That is, I think that's foolish. I think the richest, and this is the case in pretty much all aspects of art and culture I'd say, the richest creations come when worlds collide. Classical music will do itself a disservice to the truly incredible riches it can offer if it doesn't figure out a way of harnessing it in a way that people can appreciate.

KG: So how do you do that? Is it through collaborations and mashups and unexpected catchy titles that bring people in?

J: Personally, as I kind of said earlier, I don't feel like this is really . . . like I like doing stuff like this and I think we should do it but I don't think like this is the solution. I think it's an interesting . . . we're trying to make a point here. Hopefully, we've made that point. But I think we're both interested in broad, just bigger ideas.

I mean, I can speak for myself and say since I had that realization freshman year at Yale, like, I got really into the idea of making chamber music concerts feel slightly more like an immersive theatrical experience. So I was working with a lot of people in that world to try to basically provide like an emotional context to understand the music that's being performed. So this has been like a process. I think initially it was just sort of like let me just throw a bunch of crap in there, and like dazzle people with cool lighting and projections and maybe some beats and some dancers and make it sort of a variety show of things where classical music is at the center of it, and classical musicians are at the center of it playing what was mostly like my own kind of contemporary classical music.

Long term, I mean, that's like my, that's what I want to do with the rest of my life is make these immersive experiences and basically have like going to the symphony feel like going to like Cirque de Soleil, which is I think, basically what . . . I think that basically is what the symphony was like one hundred fifty, two hundred years ago. It was a spectacular experience. I often say that if you heard a symphony orchestra in like 1800 it was probably the loudest sound it was even possible for you to hear. There weren't like steam engines or anything like that yet. So it really was a sensory overload experience and I think that goes a long way towards explaining why this was so riveting to so many people, and I think that you could preserve the musical integrity but get back to that kind of feeling.

YC: I don't think we did Beethoven and Kanye and the next thing is Bieber and Brahms, right? That would be the facil, easiest possible thing and I don't think that's it. But I do think collaborations with people in other sectors of the music industry or art industry are critical, absolutely critical, and I think they can give rise . . . I mean, the type of interdisciplinary stuff that Johan is talking about is by its nature, very interdisciplinary. It's very theatrical, dance, it's everything. I think that's critical and I think that's a focus.

J: We think Kanye West's music is very interesting, from our like classical perspective and we just want to show that in a concert somehow. And I think people can tell, I think Kanye was a good artist for it, because he's known among his fans as being a musical innovator, and I think they already believe that about him. We've just kind of shone more of a spotlight on certain aspects of that, and it fits into a narrative that makes sense to people who really do, are thoughtful about music. It's not just like a clickbait concert, where it's just like, "Come to this show," like, you know, "famous name, famous name." There's actually a reason for it and I think people are invested in that. You know, I think if things are handled in an intellectually rigorous way, it's always going to work better in the long run.

KG: Well, I can't wait to see what you guys do next.

J: Yeah. Well, thank you!

YC: Thank you, Kristy, this was great.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, and Ian Goldstein.

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