Last week, the Young Musicians Foundation, a nonprofit organization offering scholarships to thousands of young musicians in the Los Angeles area, announced an eye-catching free concert: “Yeethoven.” Pairing segments of Beethoven’s most readily recognizable works (his “Egmont” overture, his Fifth Symphony, and his String Quartet No. 14) with orchestrated snippets of Yeezus tracks (as arranged by composer/conductor Stephen Feigenbaum), the well-intentioned program made big promises out the gate: “As the concert progresses, music by the two will become increasingly integrated, ultimately resulting in a total mash-up of the two. If you find this concert far-fetched, we invite you to come and listen—see if you can tell where Beethoven ends and Kanye begins.” Reading this and watching the promotional video, I felt myself struggling to decide: Was this simply a bad idea, or a really, really bad idea?
From the available evidence, at least, the concert sounds spectacularly ill-conceived. For one, they chose to arrange snippets from Yeezus, West’s most relentlessly amelodic album made up mostly of digital blasts, blurts, and gasps. The potential material it offers for orchestral arranging, especially when put up against something like Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14—the opening movement of which Wagner once called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes"—seems pitifully scant. Nothing from Late Registration, which featured the efforts of Jon Brion, an actual arranger? Or from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which featured actual string interludes?
Furthermore, the promo copy refers to 2013’s Yeezus as “Kanye West’s latest album,” suggesting that no one involved in planning this concert Googled West’s name at any point in the last few months. In the promotional clip, we see musicians playing the “fate” motif from the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, followed by horns blaring the Hudson Mohawke sample at the heart of "Blood on the Leaves,” which suggests the level of equivalence Feigenbaum is working with. The only similarity between “Blood on the Leaves” and Beethoven’s Fifth is a minor key and the presence of dotted eighth notes, which would also suggest a strong equivalence between Beethoven’s Fifth and “Turn Down for What.” The entire concert feels as though it stemmed from someone saying "Yeethoven" and giggling. The fact that musicians were hired, a concert program drawn up, and an entire press campaign hatched feels like folly.
I worked at a classical music magazine for a few years, so I am accustomed to the shape and tone of convulsive mini-controversies like this one. They happen more often than you might think, as the most craven instincts of concert programmers trying to lure younger audiences by any means necessary—Debussy Goes Clubbing! “Baby Got Back"… with an orchestra!—runs into the ever-reliable hair-trigger gag reflex of the classical music faithful. The side planning the concert offers weak platitudes about engaging with modern culture, while the side disdaining the concert snorts at mass music culture’s continued plunge into irreversible banality.
As one of the rare (and lonely) critics who has attempted to write about both classical music and rap for mainstream publications, these conversations fill me with a familiar melancholy. They proceed from an irreparable misunderstanding between those who enforce the high/low art binary and those who refuse it. Binary thinkers imagine relativists as people who make no distinctions; relativists look at binary thinkers as people who make only one. Both sides reliably talk past each other and throw up their hands; no one learns anything. Something like Yeethoven is just another squirt of gas on a garbage fire.
I firmly believe there is no “high/low” binary, for the simple reason that binaries reduce the need for critical thought, and I enjoy critical thinking. Lumping things on two sides of a room and drawing a line is less difficult than figuring out where each individual element belongs in a space. And if you are going to start mixing and matching—say, by establishing a parallel between a rapper and a composer that leaps over genre boundaries, countries, and hundreds of years—for god’s sake, think hard about what you're doing.
As an experiment, I tried to imagine a different concert that pairs Kanye songs with a famous composer. Kanye shares a bit in temperament with an entirely different figure: Igor Stravinsky. Both had a relentless need to stay modern; both were towering egotists unafraid to subsume those egos in a sea of talented collaborators. Neither was shy about taking a hard left in their work, veering from minimalism to maximalism as their projects demanded, following their impulses all the way to their logical conclusions. When Stravinsky wrote “The Rite of Spring,” he was so consumed by its lustful, primordial power that he mailed nude photos of himself to friends. After hearing Schoenberg's eerie, lapidary “Pierrot Lunaire,” scored for a tiny ensemble, Stravinsky stripped everything down to a force of 12 and began embracing objectivist ideas about function and simplicity. “Pierrot Lunaire,” then, was his Le Corbusier vase.
Later in Stravinsky’s life, when he caught a bout of late-life religion, he wrote the Symphony of Psalms, and the piece is so perfumed with vivid religious feeling that the urban sophisticates he had lured into his orbit with “The Rite” probably staggered from the hall, gagging. "As soon as they like you,” Kanye has preached, “make 'em unlike you.”
Both also had an X-ray sensitivity to perceived slights. When Musical America informed Stravinsky in 1963 that he'd been chosen "almost unanimously" as Musician of the Year, he meticulously underlined the "almost" in red pen. As Charles M. Joseph noted in Stravinsky Inside Out, "Stravinsky simply had to win every fight, probably accounting in part for his need to carp over the smallest matters." West, who once told VIBE that “by not giving my album a classic rating, you diminish your magazine’s credibility," would have vigorously nodded in assent.
So what would a concert that successfully compared Stravinsky and Kanye sound and feel like? My strong guess is that it wouldn’t involve orchestrating snippets of a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album cut, then skin-grafting them onto a performance of “The Augurs of Spring.” Such a relentlessly literal comparison doesn’t respect the language of either form of music; it insults both the classical fan and the rap fan. But what about a concert that threw them both together, the rap concert and the classical, switching back between the two and trusting the audience to listen to a concert that speaks two languages? That might unleash some dangerous, unstable energies, and it might stir some actual epiphanies between those who turn their noses up at Kanye and those who stare blankly at classical music. Some would certainly loathe it, but it would be worth more than 100 Yeethovens.