IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Gabriel Prokofiev, composer

In this Spotlight, we sit down for a Q&A with up-and-coming composer Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of venerated composer Sergei Prokofiev and whose “String Quartet No. 1” will be played at ALIAS’ Spring Concert on May 21, 2011. Prokofiev has serious classical chops, but he is also known for his dance, electro and hip-hop compositions. He also has the U.K.-based music label, Nonclassical, which is inspired by, as he says, a new music scene emerging in the London clubs, and “the next generation of classical performers, composers and promoters who are redefining the rules, and breaking out of the constraints of the traditional classical concert hall.”

In addition to classical, you’re known for your dance, electro and hip-hop music. What attracted you to this genre? I’ve actually always been involved in pop, as well as classical music. Some of my first experiences in music were writing pop songs with a friend when I was 10 years old. Then, I continued to play in bands throughout my teens. I became increasingly interested in rhythm and syncopation, and find that some dance, hip-hop and urban music is particularly innovative in its creative rhythms.

How has your dance, electro, hip-hop background influenced your classical writing? I see hip-hop, electro, etc. as the urban folk music of our times, and so I’m just following the age-old tradition of classical composers taking influences from the folk music around them. Classical music over the last century has had a tendency to focus on a predominantly academic and intellectualized approach (especially in Europe), and it often feels like it has lost touch with the general public and the world outside. I think that taking influences from contemporary urban “folk” is one way that we can re-engage with the world we live in and make music that connects more to the culture of our times.

You have a very well-known grandfather, Sergei Prokofiev. How did he influence what you’re doing today? I don’t know how much my grandfather influenced me to follow music, but I am certainly very inspired by his music and his incredible work ethic. If anything, having such a famous ancestor should have put me off making a career of music!

Your music label, Nonclassical, has released some very interesting and diverse albums, including one that features instruments like a Fanta bottle and an oil pan. What attracts you to a project or artist? Nonclassical Records was set up in order to release young, contemporary music that is truly fresh, contemporary and hopefully relevant to the world we live in. There are surprisingly few record labels releasing contemporary classical music, and almost none just focusing on the works of young composers and performers. So when I come across artists or composers who are really doing something unique and contemporary, the discussion begins…

The name of your label is interesting: Nonclassical. What’s the story behind the name? The simplest way of explaining the name Nonclassical is: Classical music presented in a “non classical” way. The initial reason for the name was almost accidental. About seven years ago, I was co-running an independent dance/urban record label (along with producer Boxsags) that was called Nonstop Recordings. When I decided to release The Elysian Quartet playing my first quartet independently, I thought the label could be a classical off-shoot of Nonstop; so I initially called it “Nonstop Classica,” but that sounded too clunky. While I was looking at the name I thought: “Why not just simplify it to Nonclassical?” The more I thought about the word, which contains the word “classical,” but also questions it, the more it felt right.

You often remix your classical works, which is a relatively uncommon practice. Why do you do it? What do you hope to accomplish or offer your audiences through your remixes?
There are a few reasons. The initial reason was that when I decided to release my first quartet, I quickly realized that, at 16 minutes long, it wouldn’t fill a CD! So I thought I’d take inspiration from the dance music tradition of having remixes in order to complete the CD. My first quartet also has some rhythmic elements and syncopated grooves that are clearly inspired by electronic dance music, so I thought it would be quite an interesting musical experiment to see what would happen if producers were to remix it and potentially take some of those elements back to their root.

Another reason for the remixes is that they provide the perfect music for the DJ-sets I do at the Nonclassical club nights, as they combine modern, club-friendly production with contemporary classical harmony, textures and instrumentation. Finally, I think it’s a very interesting musical experiment having producers from different genres working with contemporary classical source material; very interesting to see what it will inspire them to do, and also fascinating to blur the boundaries between genres.

Your monthly “classical club nights” feature contemporary classical music performed in an informal club or bar setting. What inspired the club night concept? Why does it work? The initial inspiration for the night was the simple truth that very few of my friends and peer group ever came to my classical music concerts. The typical classical chamber concert just did not fit into their live-styles; but, I really wanted my peers to hear my music. I hoped that it would resonate with them; after all, surely a young composer should appeal to their own age group, as well as the typical (more mature) classical audience.

So, I decided to take my music to the places where my friends went for music: night-clubs and bars. And that led to hosting the first Nonclassical club night in an east London venue called Cargo in 2004. Since 2008 the club-night has been monthly and we have a strong, mainly young following. The nights work in a similar way to club-nights for rock or jazz gigs. The DJs start at 8 p.m., and then the live music starts around 9 p.m. and continues until midnight. But there is quite a particular approach at Nonclassical in that the live sets tend to be just 20 minutes each. This helps keep the night really dynamic and the audience stays focused. Normally there will be four live sets in a night with a 10-15 minute DJ breaks in between, and then DJ sets from around 11:30 p.m. until 2 a.m. Most of the DJ-sets are made up of Nonclassical remixes along with some contemporary classical music, and a little bit of left-field electronica.

What’s next? Wow! I’m actually crazy busy at the moment. I have two big symphonic commissions to finish in under three weeks, and I’m going to be working right until the last minute… pressure! Also, I’ve just expanded the orchestration of my Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, as it’s going to be performed at this year’s BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, which is very exciting for me. Vladimir Jurowski will be conducting the NYO, with DJ Switch (three-time DMC world supremacy champion) as the soloist.

The Symphonic commissions are quite unique: one is an orchestral ‘remix’ of Beethoven’s Ninth, commissioned by American conductor John Axelrod (for French Orchestra ONPL). The other commission is a ballet of Midsummer Nights Dream for Bern Ballet in Switzerland; it will be half my music and half Mendelssohn….I’ve even done a waltz interpretation of Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March!

Learn more about Gabriel Prokofiev on his blog at http://gabrielprokofiev.com.