Parallel geniuses? Composer mashes up Beethoven and Kanye

Yuga Cohler (left) and Johan get ready to on stage for Yeethoven II in Los Angeles, California, Dec 14, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - 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.


"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 hospitalised 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," said Johan, who has also worked with Japanese rocker Yoshiki.

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.


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 Jan 18 in New York at Lincoln Centre.

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, who witnessed 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.

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