By Whitney Phaneuf
Yuga Cohler is on a mission to disrupt the classical-music establishment. And he already has its attention. The 28-year-old conductor, who debuts as the music director at Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra (RSO) on May 5, gained international prominence last year with his project Yeethoven, an orchestral concert comparing the works of Beethoven and Kanye West that culminated in a sold-out show at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in January.
Cohler recognizes that his new post at RSO will require a different approach than his recent success with Yeethoven, which played in Los Angeles and New York, but he’s not deterred from taking risks altogether.
“Becoming a professional music director is a milestone in the path of a conductor. But I am interested in how to incrementally push the consciousness, to push the public relevance of the orchestra and classical music as an institution within a vibrant community,” Cohler says, by phone from his home in Boston. “To make the value and the worth of classical music relevant and abundantly clear to the community you’re serving, and to allow people to enrich themselves through classical music—not in a forceful way, not a neocolonialist way, but like, ‘Hey, you like this? Maybe you’ll like this, too’—is the conductor’s number one job, at least now in America, and that is what I’m looking forward to doing there.”
Cohler, like most millennials, has never siloed his musical tastes by genre. Raised in Boston by a violinist mother and a clarinetist father—both professional musicians—he started studying piano when he was three, played violin from six to nine, and continued moving through instruments before settling on the oboe in fourth grade. He began listening to the radio in his early teens, discovering ’90s alt-rock bands Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth, and then rapper Eminem. “I had a huge Eminem phase,” he says with a laugh. When he started playing oboe in orchestras, he added classical to the mix. By high school, he was obsessed with underground hip-hop, folks like El-P (now of Run the Jewels fame), who created socially conscious rhymes that challenged the mainstream sound of the time. By 15, he was also hooked on conducting.
Growing up 20 minutes from Harvard’s campus, Cohler says it was a natural choice for his undergraduate studies. While completing his degree in computer science, he gained experience conducting, serving as music director of the Bach Society Orchestra. He chose Juilliard, his mother’s alma mater, for his master’s program and entered the same year Alan Gilbert, newly minted as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, began teaching.
“We share a lot of similarities. I’m half-Japanese, he’s half-Japanese. He went to Greenwood Music Camp, which is the music camp I went to as well. And lucky for me he’s one of the greatest conductors in the world. Studying with him for two years was super intense, very educational. I learned much of what I know about conducting from him.” At 25, Cohler became Juilliard’s youngest graduate of the conducting master’s program.
Soon after graduating from Juilliard, he became the music director of the Young Musicians Foundation (YMF), a nonprofit that gives music students—ages 15 to 25—professional experience before they head into orchestra jobs. “At YMF, there’s an educational component, which was strange, because I’m not that much older than they are,” says Cohler. He knew YMF was the perfect place to develop a project about Kanye West, specifically his 2013 album Yeezus, which represented a departure for the rapper known for pop hits such as “Gold Digger.”
Yeezus’ visceral, anti-commercial sound struck a chord with Cohler and his colleagues.
“I was attending Julliard and was at the Aspen Music Festival during that time, and you would go to a post-concert hang at someone’s place, or you’d be in the car driving somewhere, and people were blasting Yeezus and talking about how radical it was. There aren’t many pop albums that have permeated the community like that,” says Cohler. “It’s a radical departure from traditional pop song formats—verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. These songs lack choruses entirely. Some of the songs lack percussion. ‘On Sight’ doesn’t have a snare. These are sonic things that, if you’re a serious musician, you intuitively notice and think, ‘Oh this is different.’”
Cohler approached his childhood friend Johan (né Stephen Feigenbaum), a Yale composition graduate, composer, and producer who has worked with hip-hop artists such as Vic Mensa. Over the course of seven months, they developed the project via hundreds of emails, ultimately settling on comparing West to Beethoven.
“What both of them share is a willingness to ruthlessly upend traditional forms,” Cohler explains. “For example, Beethoven’s very well known for his use of subito pianos and subito fortes. Suddenly the music will be very soft, and suddenly the music will be very loud. Beethoven [No.] 5 is a good example of this. Interestingly, Kanye West does the same thing. In ‘Blood on the Leaves’ on Yeezus, he has these very loud, boisterous, angry trombones juxtaposed against the very quiet, solemn piano sample [Nina Simone’s searing rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’]. It’s this combination of loud and soft, angry and sweet, both of them share.”
Cohler and Johan settled on a format of six pairs of compositions, each consisting of one West song and one Beethoven piece. They eased the audience in by keeping them separate to start, kicking off the set with Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Op. 84, and West’s “New Slaves.” Then, as the show progressed, the pairs become mashups with elements of each incorporated to demonstrate the musical similarities.
“Beethoven’s very well known for his use of subito pianos and subito fortes. Suddenly the music will be very soft, and suddenly the music will be very loud. Beethoven [No.] 5 is a good example of this. Interestingly, Kanye West does the same thing.”
Translating the largely electronic Yeezus to an orchestral composition was an interesting challenge for the duo. “Johan did a great job of spreading out the responsibility of the strings to cover a lot of those sounds. In ‘Hold My Liquor,’ there’s a big synth guitar riff that glissandos all over the place, in addition to a very sharp, insistent 16th-note figure that is a synth sample. The way we achieved that is through sharp, staccato notes on the flutes with ponticello violin playing up on the E string, digging very hard into the string, almost as a percussive effect, while the other strings did the glissando of the guitar part. That type of attention to detail was a very arduous part of the process,” says Cohler. “Ask any conductor and they’ll say the life of the orchestra is in the string sounds. What’s incredible about the string section is that they’re so versatile. There’s a whole range of extended techniques that give you access to this entirely new sonic palette.”
Yeethoven debuted in 2016 in Los Angeles as part of YMF’s Great Music Series, created by Cohler. Garnering press coverage in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Huffington Post, Pitchfork, Los Angeles Times, and more, Yeethoven’s first show couldn’t accommodate everyone and YMF reports turning away over 1,000 people who wanted to go. Yeethoven II opened in 2017, playing to a sold-out crowd at Los Angeles’ Belasco Theater, and then in New York in January 2018 as part of Lincoln Center’s Young Patrons Series. After the L.A. show, YMF sent an online survey to the 1,200 concertgoers who attended and, out of nearly 600 responses, 53 percent said they had never previously attended an orchestra performance.
“There were basically two types of people who came to the concert. One was people who love Kanye. They’re super psyched about it and just love the show. The second type were people who didn’t know much about Kanye, were perhaps classical-music fans, but who were interested enough to show up, and they loved the show, too. There’s a third type who, upon hearing the name Kanye West, immediately dismissed the show out of hand. I don’t think there’s anything we could do to change the minds of those people,” says Cohler, adding that the Lincoln Center performance’s crowd was all under 40—with the exception of his parents.
As for changing the hearts and minds of those who cringe at the thought of West’s music standing alongside the classical greats, Cohler says to give him time.
“It’s not going to happen in one concert. You have to lay out a path over several years of how you shift the culture to that point where it’ll be receptive. If I had $100 million to run an orchestra, I would probably spend $60 million of that to get a bunch of very smart, very motivated, culturally plugged-in people to just exclusively think about solving this problem. My impression is that the resources at major artistic institutions aren’t allocated in that way because they want to mitigate risk, which I get to a certain extent, but over the long haul, actually it’s riskier the way they’re doing things—which is 85 percent on subscription concerts of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart, and 15 percent on random pops.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strings magazine.