BY DAVE ALLEN Let’s get this out of the way: Gabriel Prokofiev is the grandson of the great Russian composer. It was all that the articles about him could talk about after he launched Non-Classical, a London-based label and monthly club night, in 2004. Quite apart from his lineage, though, the DJ, composer and expert in African music is worthy of attention. Both his label and club night pair classical music—well, not Mozart and Beethoven, but they’d recognize the instruments—with DJ’d sets of dance music and remixes of the classical-styled source material. Prokofiev writes in traditional genres – the string quartet, for example, or the piano etude – but his approach demonstrates considerably more flexible thinking and an openness to other influences—more BPMs than Brahms. On Saturday, he brings two of Non-Classical’s all-stars of the label’s lineup, percussionist Joby Burgess and pianist GéNIA, to Crane Arts as part of a North American mini-tour for the label (NYC and Baltimore were the earlier stops). They’ll play his music, among those of other non-dead composers, and he’ll spin between sets. It’s not the gala at the Academy of Music, for sure. I talked with Prokofiev about the right way to make a remix, selling an orchestra on a concerto for turntables (seriously), and getting classical music on this continent out of the concert hall and into the clubs.
PHAWKER: How would you characterize your relationship to the classical repertoire and the ensembles – string quartet, symphony orchestra, etc. – that play it?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: Hmmm.. difficult question. I love much of the classical repertoire, and am inspired by many classical composers. But depending on the piece I’m composing that relationship changes. When I composed my Piano Book No1, for example, as it was the first time I’d dared to compose for the piano, a lot of my early experiences of learning the piano as a child and teenager subconsciously found their way into the music and I found myself referencing classic piano repertoire like Bach, Mompou, Satie, Sergei Prokofiev and even Scott Joplin, even though that hadn’t been my initial intention! Because I like to compose in quite an instinctive way, sounds I’ve experienced from the past often influence me and can come out in my music unexpectedly.
But with my String Quartets, there is a strong influence from electronic dance music, also I consciously didn’t listen to any String Quartet repertoire at the time of composing them. Though there are some references to Classical styles, such as Alberti bass in second movement of Second Quartet, and to Soviet style in the third movement of the First Quartet, I was keen to look for new sounds and approaches to composing for String Quartet, which is such a versatile ensemble with such a range of possible sounds.
PHAWKER: I know the name of your label and your club night is ‘Non-Classical,’ but why invoke classical music at all? It seems you’re about something different – a different sound, a different kind of ensemble, a different style of presentation. What associations have music listeners developed with ‘Non-Classical,’ your sound and your style?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: I still think that what I’m doing is connected to Classical music, that’s why the name invokes ‘classical.’ The name is mainly to show that we are ‘classical’ but presenting it and exploring it in a ‘non’-classical way; looking at ways in moving contemporary classical music forward but not in the traditional and standard way.
Classical music should be progressive, and is continually evolving, but at the moment, the predominant way in which it is presented and many of the attitudes surrounding it seem to be stuck in the past, and are disappointingly conservative. But if people want to consider it as a different or separate genre to classical, I don’t mind. I heard that Rough Trade records in London thought that ‘nonclassical’ could be its own genre.
I think that the remix aspect of the label is much less classical, and considered by many listeners as its own ‘nonclassical’ style—in the truest sense, NOT invoking classical so much.
PHAWKER: I know you’ve studied African music and produced dance music, but you’ve also been surrounded by classical music from an early age. I’m curious about the sum total of that musical experience. What do you like to listen to now (apart from your own, of course)? What types of music or sounds is your ear drawn to?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: Not surprisingly, my music tastes are very eclectic. My general attitude is that different types of music are good for different situations and different moods. My ear is always drawn to music that is original and rhythmically exciting; also surprising and unexpected harmonic/melodic movement always interests me. When I was a teenager I got heavily into funk, hip-hop, electro and actually have a big vinyl collection of records by people like Parliament, Bootsy Collins, Tom Tom Club…
Also I still love to listen to various African music, like Franco. Also, I co-produced a traditional album for the late, great, Tanzanian Master musician Hukwe Zawose, and his music is always very close to my heart. So I listen to different music at different times. I occasionally have BBC Radio 3 playing, until I get frustrated by their conservative and avuncular style, and sometimes I catch some exciting contemporary music on there. Otherwise, I listen to contemporary music that’s been recommended to me from all different composers.
PHAWKER: In your composing, how do you find you work best? Do you find you need to be isolated from other music in order to compose, or does it contribute to your work?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: Generally I don’t listen to other music on days when I’m composing, I like to leave space for sounds or music to emerge my head or inner-ear. Consequently, I don’t listen to as much music as I’d like to! I often get ideas coming to me when I’m cycling to my studio—movement seems to be an inspiring experience. But one way in which other sounds and even music can inspire me is when I hear something in the distance from my studio, or on the street when cycling or walking. For example, I might catch a second of a drum beat from a car driving past my studio, or hear a rhythm from a train passing by and that might inspire a musical idea – the sound will be distorted by distance or movement but might still inspire something.
PHAWKER: How were you able to convince an orchestra – much less multiple orchestras – to take on a Concerto for Turntables? It doesn’t seem like something many American orchestra – or even some European orchestras – would go for. How did the DJ, conductor and musicians get along? Is this a genre you’d revisit in the future?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: The first orchestra to play the Concerto for Turntables was the Heritage Orchestra, and they are an independent orchestra who are already interested in doing ‘different’ stuff (you can check them online), but I remember that they were surprised by playing with a DJ, but once they heard what he was doing they really enjoyed it and got quite excited about the piece.
However, the RSNO, who are a much more traditional orchestra (and quite ‘mature’ —at least 50% are white/grey-haired), were certainly unsure about the piece at first, and in the first rehearsal, the groove-based style of some of the movements of the Concerto didn’t have the right energy at all. But when it came to the concert and the adrenaline was flowing, they totally got into it and did a brilliant performance (also helped by a brilliant conductor from Winnipeg, Alexander Mickelthwaite), and after the show, many of the players told me they’d really enjoyed playing the piece.
PHAWKER: In taking on a piece of classical music, what makes a good remix? Does it matter if the original work is recognizable? What elements of a composition have you found are most easily usable or adaptable in a remix?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: Remixes can go in so many different directions. I personally prefer it when elements of the original work is recognizable in some way, but we have had some fantastic remixes in which the original was very hard to recognize, and some serious aural detective work needs to be done in order to find the original piece.
The Vex’d remix of GéNIA ‘John Richard Suite for Piano and Electronics’ is a great piece of beatless-dubstep sonic art, but the use of distortion, filtering, and time-stretching make the original almost impossible to find. Then the Vex’d remix of Elysian Quartet ‘G Prokofiev Quartet No 2′ is mainly based on some pianissimo string ‘taps’ which have been amplified and distorted until they become thundering drums – and only once you have located the original source sounds does the connection become clear – but initially it’s hard to find that connection; I think that was a very exciting use of the material.
Alternatively, the Ed Laliq remix of Elysian Quartet ‘G Prokofiev Quartet No1′(in which he broke the Nonclassical house-rules of not using any sounds other than those from the original master recordings, and added some snare drum samples) works really well too; he just took a few grooves from the original and looped-them but it still makes an exciting remix and explores a different aspect of the original.
As to which elements of a composition are most usable, it all depends on the remixer. Most obvious would be looping a phrase or groove from the original, but in fact any aspect of a piece can be used. Max DeWardener just chose all the sustained notes he could find in Elysian Quartet ‘G Prokofiev Quartet No. 1′, stretching them into long, held chords to create a beautiful, static, chordal piece—which contrasts significantly with the original work.
PHAWKER: In composing a particular kind of piece with a long history – a string quartet, for example, or, in the case “Piano Book No. 1,” an etude or a sonata – what’s your approach? Is tradition a guide, or an obstacle? Are there any works from the classical repertoire that are touchstones for you?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: I think I answered this earlier, but I would add that so far I have never gone out of my way to actually ‘study’ related repertoire to something I’m composing. I prefer to compose instinctively, and follow my ear and imagination. But I am also away that my knowledge and awareness of classical repertoire unavoidably inform and influence the music I compose.
With Piano Book No. 1, I was worried that some of the pieces were too influenced by classical repertoire – but GéNIA, who I composed the pieces for, liked them so much, that she told me not to worry and just go with my instinct. I think she was right; there is a trend for contemporary classical composers to be way too self-conscious and self analytical—feeling that everything they write needs to be intellectually justifiable and analytically sound. In the past, composers were much more instinctive, and uninhibited, and that’s what I strive for.
PHAWKER: With a couple of exceptions, classical music in America seems completely bound to the concert hall. In London, what did it take for alternate venues to gain a foothold, and what might it take for the same to happen here?
GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: It is like that in the UK, there are still only a few people trying to do more formal, alternative events and concerts. It was really down to composers or performers like myself wanting to have their music performed in different, less formal spaces.
I was always dissatisfied by the fact that most of the audiences at classical and contemporary classical concerts were either other composers/performers or a more mature crowd, and that it was always very hard to get my own peer group and friends down to concerts of my music. The fact was that the ‘classical concert’ just didn’t really fit into their lifestyles. So I decided that I needed to get my music performed in situations which suited the lifestyles of my generation. I knew that all my friends went to gigs and nightclubs, so the solution was clearly to put on classical events in nightclubs or gig venues, with later start times and DJ sets in between the live acts to create the right atmosphere. I’ve now been doing these ‘NONCLASSICAL’ club nights since 2003, and have been doing a monthly club for the last 3 years, and we are definitely reaching new audiences and getting a lot of contemporary music performance opportunities they wouldn’t normally have.
As the music industry changes, and the way we consume music changes, I think that classical composers and performers need to start being more hands-on and proactive. In the pop-rock-dance-electronica world, musicians are used to setting up their own gigs and nights, but classical people tend to be used to a more institutional approach when they are booked for performances (often a year or more in advance). Unfortunately, this has to change and the next generation of classical performers have to get out and make themselves noticed – if they want to stay in touch with the “real world.”
Gabriel Prokofiev, Joby Burgess and GéNIA play the Ice Box at Crane Arts, 1400 North American Street. Saturday, 8 pm. Tickets $10, available at the door.