Parallel geniuses? Composer mashes up Beethoven and Kanye

Sébastien VUAGNAT
Yuga Cohler leads the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Chamber Orchestra during a performance of the second edition of Yeethoven, a mashup of Beethoven and Kanye West

The orchestra charges into the furious opening notes from the last movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14. A drum-set kicks in, giving way to a new melody.

The violins are still in charge. But suddenly the theme isn't Beethoven but a symphonic take on "On Sight," the abrasive starting salvo of Kanye West's "Yeezus" album. The crowd, standing close-up, more like in a rock concert than a classical hall, nods in approval.

Welcome to "Yeethoven," a musical experiment that mashes up the works of artists two centuries apart who on the surface may appear to have little in common.

But creators of "Yeethoven," whose second edition recently took place in Los Angeles, see similarities between Ludwig van Beethoven and Kanye West.

Whether in orchestral music or hip-hop, both have been controversial figures in their day who challenged convention.

"A lot of classical musicians, and I'm one of them, have been interested in Kanye's music," said Yuga Cohler, conductor of the Debut Chamber Orchestra of the Young Musicians Foundation, which presents "Yeethoven."

"And that is because he uses a lot of similar devices and tools that classical composers use in making their music original and compelling," he said.

- Two figures of influence -

"In my mind, it was a pretty obvious comparison to use Kanye and some classical element, because they are so similar."

Beethoven is widely accepted as one of the most influential figures in musical history, helping create the modern symphony and Romanticism, inserting his personal voice like no composer before him.

West, one of the most accoladed rappers in history, has redefined what constitutes a song or album and offered fresh takes on hip-hop form, including with the dense electronic structure of "Yeezus."

The two might also be seen as facing some similar personal struggles. Beethoven was torn by depression, while West was hospitalized a year ago after a mental breakdown.

Johan, a composer who goes by one name and who arranged "Yeethoven," acknowledged that orchestra initially thought the idea was "a bit crazy."

"A lot of them told us this -- they were worried it was going to get a little bit simplified or cheesy maybe," Johan said.

But in the end, "They said, 'You guys really took it seriously. You made it into something that is really sort of profound,'" Johan said.

- Bringing new audiences -

Differences, of course, also abound between Beethoven and West.

Beethoven was known for his intense shyness and romantic failures. West, married to reality television star Kim Kardashian, is hardly known for his modesty and has likened himself, if not to Beethoven, to Michelangelo.

After premiering to an enthusiastic crowd in 2016, the second "Yeethoven" in Los Angeles expanded its scope to include music from West's last album "The Life of Pablo."

"Yeethoven," with which West is not directly involved, will also take place on January 18 in New York at Lincoln Center.

The creators of "Yeethoven" credit the mash-up with bringing an unusually diverse crowd to an orchestra performance -- a constant challenge in classical music in the United States, where audiences are overwhelmingly older and white.

Jack Taylor, one of some 1,500 people woh attended "Yeethoven" in Los Angeles, said he was "taken aback" but found the mixture of Beethoven and West "amazing."

"I didn't know what to expect when I got here and it just turned out to be a really, really transformative experience for me," he said.