The conversation around Kanye West lately has focused on politics, stunts, and the phrase scoopity-poop. It can be easy to forget that it was his musicianship, not provocations, that built up enough goodwill for him to go on a five-week spree of releasing one album a week (at least one of which, apparently, was put out in unfinished, soon-to-be-revised form).
Some of those albums—Nas’s Nasir and Teyana Taylor’s KTSE, both produced by West—feature string arrangements and vocals by the Yale-trained composer and pop artist Stephen “Johan ” Feigenbaum. He had, in a way, gotten West’s attention by drawing attention away from the noise around West and back to his music. Since 2016, Feigenbaum and the conductor Yuga Cohler have periodically put on performances they call “Yeethoven,” including two in Los Angeles and one at New York City’s Lincoln Center. With a contingent of classical instrumentalists, they trace the similarities between the works of a 21st-century rapper/producer and a 18th- to 19th-century composer.
“We wanted to figure out why it was that the two of us, and a lot of our friends in classical music, were so enamored with Kanye’s music,” Feigenbaum said before an abridged Yeethoven set last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The five songs they played comprised selections from 2013’s Yeezus—a noisy and divisive album that Cohler and Feigenbaum hear as a turning point in West’s career—and 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Some of the tracks were mashed up with Beethoven compositions. One point of comparison: the jarring tonal switch in the end of “New Slaves,” recalling the turn at the close of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Another: the way West’s “Waves” uses its high end to keep time and its low end to convey melody, much like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.