Kanye West meets Beethoven at Aspen Ideas Festival
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Yeethoven: How Kanye West and Beethoven Collide
Where: Aspen Ideas Festival, Hotel Jerome Ballroom
When: Wednesday, June 27, 8:30 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
You might expect Kanye West to compare Kanye West to Beethoven. He’s boasted bigger. But you would not necessarily assume composers and conductors in the classical music community would do so.
Yet that’s what Yuga Cohler and Johan have done with Yeethoven, an innovative symphonic adaptation of West’s work that places the rapper/producer’s instrumental creations beside Beethoven’s and draws sonic parallels between these two iconoclastic geniuses.
The pair is bringing Yeethoven to Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday, with an 11-piece chamber orchestra performing in the Hotel Jerome Ballroom.
“It’s really just about high-quality music that is adventurous and creative and interesting,” explained Johan, a composer and arranger who works under one name. “I feel like that’s all classical music is about. It shouldn’t be this rarefied thing.”
Specifically, Yeethoven focuses on the wild turn that West’s instrumental productions took on his albums “Yeezus” and “The Life of Pablo.” Cohler was in Aspen, studying under Robert Spano at the American Academy of Conducting, in the summer of 2013 when West’s “Yeezus” was released. The revolutionary sounds on the divisive record planted the seed for what would become Yeethoven.
“Starting with ‘Yeezus’ and on ‘Life of Pablo’ the production side of the tracks took a hard left turn away from a pop-leaning format,” Johan said. “It takes on a much freer format. The production of some sections of these songs are nothing you would ever expect in pop.”
The records have alienated some Kanye fans (a phenomenon West himself mocked in his inspired “I Love Kanye” rap rant on “Life of Pablo,” opening “I miss the old Kanye!”). But for Cohler and Johan, the new Kanye ranked alongside Beethoven.
“The freedom and curation of sound with that kind of formal liberty reminded us a lot more of classical music than it did of other hip-hop music,” Johan said. “So we started from there.”
West’s creative swerve, they noted, was not unlike Beethoven’s revolutionary middle period, when the composer began alienating audiences — and changing the course of music history — with a new direction and grand works like his Fifth Symphony.
The first compositions they paired were West’s “Blood on the Leaves,” with its harsh beat drop and trombone sample following a minute of auto-tuned crooning, and Beethoven’s Fifth, with its brash and iconic four-note motif opening.
“It’s a jarring song, which we liked, and the dynamic comparison was really easy to make with Beethoven,” Johan explained.
The Ideas Fest presentation will include performances of West’s “New Slaves,” “Blood on the Leaves,” “Ultra Lightbeam,” “Waves” and “On Sight” bracketed by Beethoven pieces. Aspen Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher will discuss the project with Cohler and Johan.
After two years, the project has gained international attention and sold out a Lincoln Center performance. Cohler and Johan have gotten largely positive feedback, though some in the classical community are reluctant to embrace West.
“There’s a substantial contingent of classical music fans who are very offended, or can’t understand, or think it’s ridiculous that we’re doing this,” Cohler said. “But there’s also a progressive, supportive classical community who are happy to see innovation like this.”
With august institutions like Lincoln Center and industry leaders like Fletcher embracing Yeethoven, Cohler and Johan believe the classical community is coming around.
“The fact that they’re behind this signals that there is a lively and forward-looking classical community,” Cohler said.