Slant’d x The Lincoln Center Young Patrons: Interview with K-Factor Conductor, Yuga Cohler
This summer, the Lincoln Center Young Patrons will bring K-Factor, a genre-bending orchestral concert that explores the radical innovations in Korean popular music over the past century, to New York’s cultural stage. To celebrate, Slant’d joined forces with the Lincoln Center Young Patrons to highlight the minds behind this innovative musical program.
First up, we had the pleasure and honor to sit down with Yuga Cohler—the conductor behind K-Factor, creator of Yeethoven, and half-Japanese cultural innovator with an aversion to categorization. Read below to learn about Yuga’s creative process, the hypothesis he’s exploring with K-Factor, and his best advice for Asian American creatives.
Slant’d: What is your cultural background and how did your path lead you to where you are today?
Yuga Cohler: My mother is Japanese and immigrated to the States right after she finished high school. My father is American—he’s white and Jewish. I identify as half Asian (or half Japanese to be more specific), and I’m equally as comfortable identifying as both Japanese and American.
For a long time, I simply wasn’t cognizant of my Asian American identity. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a culturally accepting and liberal atmosphere, so it was never an issue being mixed race. However, throughout the past 4-5 years, I’ve become more thoughtful about how my identity shapes what I do, what I contribute to society, and who I am today.
My trajectory towards music was very traditional: both of my parents are musicians and I started playing the piano when I was three years old. In high school, I became interested in conducting because I love having a birds-eye view of a musical piece. After high school, I chose to attend Harvard because of its rich history of student conducting, which is pretty rare in a college environment. I actually graduated with a software engineering degree and I currently work at Google.
Slant’d: Oh wow, so Google is your 9-5?
Yuga Cohler: It doesn’t necessarily have to be a 9-5. We’re living in an age where we don’t have to be categorized as one thing or the other. I’m a professional musician (I conduct and I’m the musical director of an orchestra), but I’m also a software engineer. It gets busy, but I’ve been doing it ever since I was a kid.
Slant’d: That’s a concept that especially resonates with the Asian American community. Speaking of breaking boundaries, we’re blown away by one of your projects, Yeethoven. Can you talk about your creative process? How does something like Yeethoven come to fruition?
Yuga Cohler: This might be a controversial statement, but depending on your philosophy as a classical music performer, classical music can be considered an “uncreative” artistic field. What’s typically prized in classical music is your ability to faithfully render this thing that’s already been created. The degrees of freedom in classical music performance are very narrow—the composer tells you what notes to play, how loud or soft, and how fast or slow to play them. So I thought to myself: “How can we shift this paradigm? What other value can classical music offer?”
What classical music gives us is a way of thinking about music in a serious, substantial way, which we can apply to other forms of music. Take Kanye West, for example. I believe Kanye’s music has humanitarian value; he has the musical substance to be that artist who will be remembered 100 years from now as representative of this age. With Yeethoven, I wanted to use the orchestral setting to present, dissect, and explain why Kanye’s music deserves serious treatment.
Slant’d: Why are you excited about K-Factor, and what ideas are you interested in exploring with the performance?
Yuga Cohler: I’m excited about K-Factor because it symbolizes K-pop (and Asian culture overall)’s rise to prominence in American culture. It’s especially cool to see something you grew up with considered in a wider context. With K-Factor, I thought to myself, “How can I contribute to this conversation?”
One argument the show makes is that K-pop’s compositional traits are what make it such a global force in music today. K-pop has dynamic and jarring juxtapositions—eight measures of one idiom or genre (whether it be trap music, East Coast boom bap, or 90’s hip hop). Then, all of a sudden, it’ll shift entirely to a different genre, like R&B or soul—and it’ll keep repeating very discrete sections of these modular musical units throughout the song.
K-pop is very appealing to a global audience for a number of reasons. First, it’s akin to how the internet works in an increasingly globalized world: songs are comprised of very short segments of seemingly unrelated content as our attention spans get shorter and shorter. Another argument is that this compositional mode affords a wide variety of styles and influences. Every song, with all its action, is almost like its own musical. These are the phenomena we’re exploring with K-Factor.
Slant’d: What role do you see Asian music and Asian culture playing in America?
Yuga Cohler: I’m excited to see Asian Americans contribute to the dialogue in more prominent ways in different spaces like fashion. I am noticing so much infusion of Asian culture with this recent streetwear boom, whether it’s through the language of Comme Des Garçons or these images of Asian “hypebeasts.”
It’s inspirational to me because I, myself, am not very good at styling clothes. It’s exciting to see these creatives in the limelight and to witness how that influences our understanding of American culture.
Slant’d: What advice do you have for Asian Americans who are pursuing (or interested in pursuing) a creative career?
Yuga Cohler: We’re living in a time when leaning into our diverse backgrounds is a great thing. Asian American creatives should feel empowered to use their backgrounds as a source of inspiration. Not only have I found it personally enriching, but also the market is hungry for different perspectives.
It is also important to have a thesis about your cultural heritage and how your creative spin connects to broader American culture. There are specific reasons behind why we enjoy K-pop, Japanese food, or Asian dramas [that may be culturally-related], but there are also very human reasons behind why we enjoy these things. There are elements and stories that transcend whatever background you come from—and having that perspective is really important as an artist.
Witness the genius of this cultural innovator and celebrate with fellow K-pop fans at K-Factor this Thursday, June 20 at 8:00 PM at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York. For more information and tickets, visit kfactor.org.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.