The Skinny on NONCLASSICAL: An Interview With Gabriel Prokofiev pt.2

Today the Nonclassical label officially hits the streets (in shops and online) in North America. Here is the rest of the interview with Gabriel Prokofiev.

From Taylor Vick (Our E-Marketing Manager)

Do you get inspiration from music or from other art forms?
Well inspiration can come from anywhere really. I might hear certain rhythmic approach, or an orchestral sound in a piece of music, and then start compose something inspired by that… but often that will only be a initial kernal in the beginning of a bigger piece. A more common inspiration for me is often hearing sounds for the environment around me: I might here a distant rhythm from a train, combined with the accelaration of a car, and then some garbage rattling in the wind, these ‘atmospheric’ sounds can often inspire a melodic or rhythmic idea. I often get intial inspiration for a piece when I’m cycling to my studio in the morning, the experience of motion seems to be quite effective in getting the creative juices going, along with all the stimulus of cycling through a busy city. Of course visual art can also be very inspiring, especially abstract painting, which can inspire the idea to create something that has similar shapes, rhythms and form; though I’ve yet to compose a piece directly inspired by one piece of art.
What does the score look like for turntables? For Fanta Bottles?
For Turntables it’s as near a classical concerto score as possible.
The DJ part is similar to a percussion part, with rhythms given and approximate hi/lo pitch indication, but with clear written comments giving the type of scratching technique to be used, and indicating with sample should be used by the DJ. There is a little bit of flexibility for the DJ to improvise the finer details of some of the rhythmic scratching, and so that the most important part of the score is to give the cue points.
In the fourth movement, when the DJ plays pitched material the score is given at pitch, and is played just like a normal pitch-instrument part. And, in each movement there is a cadenza, where the DJ is free to improvise with the samples & develop new ideas.
Fanta Bottles and the rest of IMPORT/EXPORT (the 32 minute piece it is part of) is done as normal percussion score, with clear descriptions of each technique used. A loop pedal is used to create denser textures & rhythms at some points in the piece, and the record & playback point are also clearly marked. For some of the gestures like rubbing two glass fanta bottles together, graphical notation is used to visual represent the movements of the bottle.
Generally I try to use existing notation techniques, even though sometimes classical notation isn’t ideal; I find that real subtleties of rhythmcan be hard to notate with exact accuracy (with out looking ridiculously complicated), so it’s often best to use words as well to describe the ‘feel’ of how something should be played.

How do you like running your own record label and leading the charge for a re-energized classical scene?
It’s exciting, but also distracting. A couple of years ago I realised that I was spending most of my days just writing emails and talking on the phone; fortunately I know have a few other people, including the brilliant Dave Halliwell helping me run the label. I think it’s so important for any music maker to have an outlet for their work, and Nonclassical provides that for me which is great, and ofcourse we release works by other composers and performers as well, so hopefully we can become a bigger and bigger force for new music.
I’m not sure if we are completely ‘leading the charge for a re-energized classical scene’ as you say, but we’re are certainly doing what we can to get more contemporary classical music out into the ‘real world’. There are plenty of really good young composers and ensembles out there, and I just don’t understand why more people haven’t thought of putting on classical club nights and the like so that this good music can get more exposure (only in the last few years have more alternative classical nights really started appearing) . It’s our responsibility to be pro-active and make sure the music is heard… I don’t really understand how classical music has allowed itself to get stuck in such a straight jack of tradition -so that young composers barely have their work heard except for in college end of term concerts and occasional lunch-time concerts or small festivals; imagine telling a Rock band that their songs would only get performed once every 2 years, if at all!
Anyway, all in all I’m very excited by our classical club nights, and feedback we get for each CD we release; so I am very happy with what we’re doing, but it’s still early days really.

Do you have plans to expand the nonclassical movement from The Macbeth in London to other cities?
I would love to run our club in cities all over the world… but the problem is finding the time to set-up new club nights. We have previously done one-off Nonclassical nights in New York (at Le Poisson Rouge), in Austin (part of SxSW), at Rock Festivals in Oxfordshire, and Yorkshire, and at The SouthBank Centre, London. We are hoping to run more regular events in New York, and hopefully in Holland and Portugal as well. Ideally we will find ‘partners’ who can help run other events, and then we will curate the nights, and some of the Nonclassical regulars will go over and perform. We will be back in the USA in March 2010 for SxSW, and will certainly stop off in NY, but hopefully we can do something before christmas.

What is your favorite food?
Like most people involved in music, I really enjoy my food. I eat almost every type of food, and love the variety that’s out there so it’s too hard to find a favourite. It’s like music, different food works for different moods & occassions. If I was to combine several favourite dishes into an imaginary ‘symphony’ of cuisines it could consist of something like:
I Dim Sum, II Fresh Sea Food platter (oysters and fresh crab), III Cochon de lait Roti IV French Cheese Plate (Chabichou, Pont-l’Evêque, etc..) V Marquis de Chocolat….
And then there are the wines….

What is your take on the physical vs digital delivery of your albums?
The big problem with digital download is that many people just download single tracks, so that the experience of listening to a whole album by one artist is becoming less popular. And for classical music this is really tough, because many compositions are conceived as complete works of several movements that need to be listened together and that compliment each other. Also, some listeners might just check a 1 minute sample of a track before buying it digitally, and with classical music 1 minute rarely gives a balanced impression of what a piece of music will be like. Also there is the problem of sound quality; and though higher quality mp3s can be bought online, I don’t think everyone is aware of the reduced sound quality they will be getting with an mp3. CDs always give a much higher sound quality.
However digital can be a quick way for people to dip-into and discover new music without commiting to buying a whole album, so that can be a positive way for listeners to broaden their musical horizons.
From Megan McClary (E-marketing and E Press Assistant)

Who are your favorite composers?
phew… that’s always the hardest question… there’s plenty:
Big fan of Russian music (surprise, surprise): old and new: Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, S Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Schnitke, Gubaidulina
French: Ravel, Debussy,
Bach of course, late Beethoven, Schubert.
20th century classics like Berio, Ligetti, some Stockhausen, Xenakis
And of course young, living composers!: Tansy Davies, John Richards, Larry Goves, are 3 young UK composers doing great stuff at the moment.
But I know I’ve missed out plenty…
What was your most recent music purchase?
I was recently introduced to the music of irish composer Gerald Barry, so I bought a CD that contained ‘chevaux-de-frise’ – seriously heavy weight orchestral texture, no compromise.
A CD that I need to buy is one that has Mossolov ‘Iron Foundry’; it was performed in the same program as my Conerto for Turntables by the RSNO in the Glasgow festival hall last year, and is a killer piece, the original version of techo circa 1928! – I believe NAXOS might have released a recordin of it….

What were the challenges of working with a DJ for your Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra?
There were quite a few challenges (several of which you’ve identified). The immediate challenge was, can the Turntables really function as a musical instrument and play with an orchestra? also notation was of course an issue -not only how to notate? but will the DJ be able to read music?
Firstly, what sounds should the DJ be using on his Turntables?
Yes that was the first most important question.
Immediately I was aware that having a DJ scratch a bunch of standard scratch samples and breaks over an Orchestra would probably sound a bit cheesy, and though I was keen to take on board influences from hip-hop, anything too literal in terms of sound material might sound cheap, so the obvious solution seemed that the DJ should scratch with sounds from the Orchestra he is playing with. So I chose various phrase that the orchestra were going to play and decided that we should record them & give them to the DJ. However DJ Yoda had explained that besides using ‘breaks’ (short, loopable musical phrases) there were certain classic scratch sounds that were particularly effective for more elaborate scratching, which are used by most DJs through out the world, like the ubiquitous “ahhhh” and “fresh” voice sounds (sampled from “Change Le Beat” by Fab Freddy Five) and even the simple test-tone sound. To fully represent the extent of what the Turntable can do we would need sounds like them. I realised that these sounds could come from the Orchestra too, but in a less conventional way. So that the loud yawn and then the ‘cough’ from the conductor at the beginning of the 3rd movement actually become useful scratch sounds for the DJ. Then in the 4th movement, a loud gasp/inhale from the flute player is used, and also a long flute note is looped into a test-tone like sound which the DJ then uses to play melodies.
Secondly, how does one compose a ‘concerto’ for an instrument that can actually play-back existing sounds and music!?
A main approach I took to composing the DJ part, was that in each movement a few different ‘Scratching’ & DJing techniques would be performed by the DJ, and that created quite a good framework for the piece. Many of the classical DJ techniques, like ‘scribbling’ for example have a very distinct sound which they bring to the original sound that is being scratched with, so that it wasn’t all about just playing-back existing sounds at all. A lot of the writing was done as if I was writing for a very expressive percussion instrument; so I was working rhythmically but also bearing in mind that I as using sounds and phrases that had already been played by the orchestra -sometimes it was almost like having 2 orchestras: one live, one on the turn-table, and of course that was fun. The opening of the 2nd movement plays with that; and the DJ play-back the opening opening string phrase, but then brutally stops it; then once the strings enter he plays it back slightl;y out of sync with the live strings creating an interesting jerking, skipping texture.
The notation for the 4th movement was different, and I could write for a pitched instrument as the DJ was using the pitch-control to play exact melodies (though the tuning of the turntable was less than exact).

Thirdly, how to notate for the DJ?
I notated the DJ part in a similar way to a percussion part, with rhythms given and approximate hi/lo pitch indication, but with clear written comments giving the type of scratching technique to be used, and indicating with sample should be used by the DJ. There is a little bit of flexibility for the DJ to improvise the finer details of some of the rhythmic scratching, and so that the most important part of the score is to give the cue points.
In the fourth movement, when the DJ plays pitched material the score is given at pitch, and is played just like a normal pitch-instrument part. And, in each movement there is a cadenza, where the DJ is free to improvise with the samples & develop new ideas.
There are a couple of specific DJ-notation methods that have been developed, but they would take quite some time to learn, and I wanted the score to be something most people could look at and understand quite quickly. I don’t think my notation was perfect but it communicates enough information; I prefer to be pragmatic in these situations, rather than try to get all clever and re-invent the wheel.

What have you found is the most common reaction of an audience listening to your music for the first time?
hmmm, tough question, it does depend on the gig. But generally people seem to engage, and follow where the music is taking them.

With your cutting-edge, modern style, do you find that your music draws a predominantly younger, hip audience?
I suppose there are aspects to my music to which younger audiences can immediately relate to, but in fact I’ve had stuff performed to older, more typically ‘classical’ audiences and it’s gone down really well; so hopefully a whole range of people can appreciate my music. But if I can appeal to audiences who might not usual consider listening to classical music that’s a very positive thing too.

What do you like to do in your free time (if you have any)?
Ha ha… Sometimes my free-time does. But once I get away from work, I’m quite good at relaxing and distracting myself with other activities.
I love to travel; and besides seeing a lot of Europe, I’ve enjoyed trips to the USA, and also spent quite a lot of time in Tanzania, East Africa where I did one years voluntary work when I was 19; I learnt Kiswahili and actually wrote my student dissertation on Tanzanian music; and I’ve also become a fan of African literature and history. I also love theatre and dance, and used to do a lot of acting when I was a teenager, even considered going to drama school!

Have you ever received any particularly negative feedback from the classical music world?
So far so good… At least I’m not aware of any serious negative feedback. But I think that may be some people in the Classical world might have disregarded what we’re doing with Nonclassical Records as ‘cross-over’; because we have ‘remixes’ on most of our releases. I think that’s a real shame, because the remixes we have on our releases are a very interesting, daring, and provocative musical ‘experiment’, which are in no way a callous attempt to ‘cross-over’, and are an exploration of the boundaries of different genres… something that can be of interest to any curious about new directions in music.