What Classical Music Can Learn From Kanye West

Whether or not Ye was forward-thinking, the musicians behind the Yeethoven project want to bring two very different genres together.

Kanye West
Lucas Jackson

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.

The performance was well-timed, coming amid so much conversation around West’s extra-musical antics and in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s recent winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, typically reserved for classical composers. The day after the Aspen show, I spoke with Cohler and Feigenbaum about how Kanye draws from the classical, and how classical composers might draw from Kanye. This interview has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: With Yeethoven, you’re making an argument about Kanye’s career, saying that something changed for him with Yeezus. Can you describe that change?

Yuga Cohler: If you just go through his earlier work—even 808s, which was pretty cutting-edge at the time—his songs are intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus: standard pop-song format. Where that broke was basically Yeezus. In addition, his sound world started changing—it was much more electronic—but primarily, his formal innovation is what we’re pointing toward.

Stephen “Johan ” Feigenbaum: When you think about what’s fundamental in classical music that’s different from popular music, the format freedom is a big part of it. You could have classical music that still has the same chords and melodies as pop, but it still wouldn’t be rigidly stuck in the song format.

Kornhaber: Your argument is a bit counterintuitive because people generally describe Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as orchestral and classically influenced. You’re saying the opposite. Do people think about classical music incorrectly?

Feigenbaum: In that sense. I do string arrangements for rappers and pop stars, and when they want strings on Teyana Taylor’s album, they’re doing it to add a “classic,” “classy,” “highbrow,” I’m a legit artist in an old-school kind of way sense. They’re doing it on the tracks that are the least musically innovative. They’re good tracks in other ways, but they’re trying to be retro.

Classical music in general is associated with stodgy, old institutions. It’s useful to incorporate the sound of stings, this superficial reference, if you want to associate yourself with the legitimacy of older institutions. Within classical, we’re obsessed with what’s interesting and challenging, which is why a lot of people are into Kanye and Yeezus.

Kornhaber: What do you think of Ye and West’s other recent output? Does it continue the evolution you say began with Yeezus?

Feigenbaum: I think the turn he started with Yeezus, he continued with Pablo, and I would say he’s kind of going back to the classic [hip-hop] stuff with the most recent work. Which is fine, but it felt like a reversion. I like Ye. I like the Pusha album. But they’re not pushing this specific kind of boundary we were focused on with this concert.

Cohler: Which raises the question of to what extent him transgressing these boundaries is deliberate or not. With Yeezus it definitely felt like it was. With Pablo it sort of felt like a natural outcome. With Ye—I’m totally postulating here—he’s just not thinking about that. He’s in a happy, very positive place.

Kornhaber: Johan, how did you end up in the G.O.O.D. Music camp?

Cohler: Mike Dean [Kanye West’s producer and engineer] followed you on Twitter.

Feigenbaum: He followed us on Twitter after Yeethoven. He brought me in to do strings for Desiigner, and I guess that went well, so he brought me in to work on Nas. They gave me this choir sample to redo, and I sang the entire choir on the first song of the Nas album.

Kornhaber: Was that like a dream come true to you two? To be acknowledged by the artist you’re paying tribute to?

Cohler: It’s an absolute honor.

Feigenbaum: Now we officially know that Kanye knows about it. But it was never about stanning Kanye. We’re just trying to make a point: He’s an example of someone who does a lot of the things Beethoven did. On the classical side, if we’re saying we’re continuing the tradition of Beethoven, then why are we not having the kind of impact that somebody like him had in their time? Someone like Kanye is. Maybe we can learn from that on the classical side.

Kornhaber: Have you heard from people in the classical world who’ve been converted to Kanye fandom?

Cohler: Yeah, especially the orchestral musicians. They’re generally young, under 35. Some of them already love Kanye, some of them have never heard of him, but in almost every instance they’ll be like, oh he’s not just an asshole who says this or that. He’s a legitimate musician.

Feigenbaum: Looking out at the faces last night, half the room looked like people who didn’t ever listen to Kanye West before in their life. But they were nodding intently. Lincoln Center was the same vibe. In L.A. we played more to people who already know Kanye is awesome, and they’re being told, you’re right he is awesome and here’s why.

Kornhaber: And the Beethoven is new to them, maybe.

Feigenbaum: That’s the other thing that’s cool to see.

Cohler: There was an amazing moment in the second L.A. show. It was standing-room only—no seats. We were playing a Beethoven song, and then someone in the audience started cheering. And someone else was like, “Shut up, respect the music!”

Feigenbaum: We do “duh duh duh dunnn” [from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5] and the audience erupts. That’s fucking awesome!

Kornhaber: That’s also a clash of audience approaches with regards to pop and classical music.

Feigenbaum: Totally. We’ve been playing with that, too. We’ve done three of the full-scale shows, and two of them were seated and one of them was a real club, pop-music environment.

Cohler: It kind of works both ways!

Feigenbaum: Kids who’ve never been to a classical concert have an idea of a classical concert—a positive idea about it. They assume it’s going to be an incredible, transformative experience. They treat it with respect and they expect it to be profound. The fact that they can enjoy that and be legitimately moved by it suggests it’s possible to do essentially a classical concert for young audiences and have it work.

Kornhaber: It’s a fascinating moment to have this event happening given all the attention that’s being paid to everything else about Kanye except for the music. How do you think about his persona, or is it completely beside the point?

Cohler: In the context of the concert, we incorporate it to the extent that he’s similar to Beethoven. But certainly the concert itself is focused on the music itself.

Feigenbaum: It’s fun to play up that Beethoven was a notorious asshole, too. Not that that’s even the point. I don’t really think Kanye’s an asshole. His relationship to Trump seems to me on the level of: Trump is a reality-TV star who uses fame to break down barriers of the establishment. I don’t think that he really thinks about the politics of it. It sucks that he’s said some things that are really hard to forgive. But he’s said a lot of crazy shit throughout his career. We started paying attention when it was politics.

Kornhaber: Some people might be leery of using classical terms to describe pop, as it might be seen as confirming the thought that one is a higher art form than the other. Do you worry about that?

Feigenbaum: Well, since entering the pop-music world, the judgments I would have made when I was in classical music about pop, I increasingly understand why they would have been irrelevant. And it’s made me appreciate that most classical music isn’t about the technical shit either. Pop includes a lot of what is called “extra-musical information.” The lyrics, that’s not music, that’s words representing outside ideas. The artwork, the music videos—all this stuff that’s not the music, but that is used to create the product. But it turns out that’s true in classical music. There’s no Mahler No. 9 without knowing his daughter died.

Kornhaber: How much do you feel like you’re losing by leaving the words out? Do you think Kanye’s music works without lyrics?

Feigenbaum: Yeah. Well, not all of it. What we’re really talking about is Kanye as a producer. We’re not talking about Kanye as a rapper.

Cohler: One of the benefits of stripping out the lyrics is that when you introduce words, there are a lot of meanings and prejudices associated. If you listen to the lyrics for “On Site,” they are filthy and arguably morally reprehensible. But like once you strip that out it’s much easier to focus on the musical content.

Kornhaber: But you could argue those meanings are part of the musical content.

Feigenbaum: I think they are. I think we’re just saying the way classical musicians talk about why Beethoven’s symphonies work, you can talk about the production on Yeezus in that way. If we’re trying to take this to classical music and say, “this music is legit,” we’re going to say on a purely technical level this shit is provocative and challenging. But you could probably do a whole concert just comparing the cultural stuff and not focus on the theory.

Kornhaber: What did you think of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer?

Cohler: It’s inevitable. And probably a good thing. My Facebook news feed is full of instrumental orchestral musicians, and there are a lot of rage posts.

Feigenbaum: The fact that for almost every year the Pulitzer went to some contemporary classical composer was an important data point in the argument that classical music still matters. The door is open now. There’s not going to be classical composers winning in a decade. Which is fine, in my opinion. If the Pulitzers are supposed to be an honor for the music that’s most relevant to our cultural conversation, Kendrick’s a way better answer to that. In classical music, people should think about why we’re not working harder to impact the national cultural conversation.

Kornhaber: That’s pretty tough on classical music.

Feigenbaum: Oh yeah. Part of why I’m doing pop music is because I want to reinvigorate classical. There’s a lack of realism in classical about how much it matters. The more that illusion is broken, the better.

Kornhaber: At the same time, part of your argument is that Kanye is classical. Could the Pulitzers be saying the same about Kendrick?

Feigenbaum: We’re not saying Kanye is classical, we’re just saying he’s doing what classical composers should be doing. At least for me it’s that.

Cohler: Yeah, this came up yesterday: What does the term classical mean?

Kornhaber: And you had a really expansive view, Yuga, saying you don’t think there’s any real need to draw a distinction between genres.

Cohler: When it gets to the actual terminology, it’s difficult. Clearly there’s this notion that certain types of music are meant to be appreciated in a deeper way or over a longer term than other types of music. The Pulitzer is intending to be the “deeper” music, whatever you want to call it. Giving it to Kendrick is saying [he’s that].

Feigenbaum: All the composers that studied at Juilliard and Yale and so forth, maybe they’ll start writing music like Kendrick.

Kornhaber: But then does it become pop? Do they have to start using verses choruses?

Cohler: I have a theory. Obviously genres are blending, even on the level of Taylor Swift going from country to pop. If that’s true, and audiences are coming to expect that, it’s easy to extrapolate that classical and pop can blend in some way. Maybe you’ll have pop songs that are in crazy meters and have weirder harmonies and stuff like that.

Feigenbaum: I see it going one direction. Classical musicians are going to listen to more stuff like Damn. I don’t think there’s any evidence that what we would call classical music infiltrating the mainstream in any way. I don’t see like suddenly the new David Lang piece is going to be taking the indie-music community by storm.

Kornhaber: But you’re kind of arguing that’s what’s happened with Kanye, aren’t you? And you see it with him working with Caroline Shaw, or even with you.

Cohler: Caroline Shaw is a great example.

Feigenbaum: Yeah, there’s one. She’s exactly what classical music should be. My view of it is that if Kanye were do do an opera tomorrow, we’d all be talking about it and that would mean a lot for the future of opera. The best way for me to do it is to get a Kanye to use their platform.