- 29 October, 2009
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With our recent North American Launch of Gabriel Prokofiev’s “Nonclassical” label we find ourselves fortunate enough to have two fantastic releases by the Elysian quartet. In sept we released Gabriel’s string quartet no. 1 and now on Oct. 27th we’ll release Gabriel’s 2nd string quartet also performed by the Elysians. I can’t rave enough about these recordings, it’s also given Elysha Miracle and I a chance to interview the quartet in anticipation of this second round of Nonclassical releases….
First off of course we’ve become familiar with the quartet through its work with Gabriel Prokofiev and Nonclassical, can you tell us how this relationship came about?
Laura went to York University with Gabriel and they had a lot in common musically, both being interested in contemporary and electronic music. A few years later, when she had joined the quartet and we had started working with amplification and electronics, she rang him up and suggested a collaboration. He wrote his first ever string quartet for us, and it went so well that we commissioned him to write us another.
Of course on these Nonclassical releases of Gabriel’s string quartets your performances are also remixed, what’s the groups take on this part of the projects?
We thought it was a great idea, especially as Gabriel’s music is so influenced by dance music in the first place, and when we heard the remixes we were all pleased with how they had turned out. They only use sounds from the original recordings, so the remix artists had to find ways of creating new music from original material without resorting to extra drums or beats.
Which remix is most fun to play? Which do you prefer listening-wise?
The remixes are not written to be performed live – they were made by people using sounds from the recordings and have had many many effects and layers put on them. We have talked about trying to turn them back into live pieces, but the complications have so far put everybody off! Listening-wise it would be far too cheeky to single anyone out…
Can you give us a little history lesson on the quartet itself? Maybe tell us a bit about each member?
The quartet got together at Trinity College of Music in 1999 and gradually morphed from a normal classical string quartet into what it is today, totally dedicated to contemporary, electronic and improvised music. A big turning point for us was playing George Crumb’s music, and then also meeting Gabriel. Each member of the group has a very diverse background in classical, jazz, pop, and improvised music and everyone plays regularly with other groups, and on other instruments. This seems to bring many styles of playing into the group and gives us a great advantage and certain lack of fear when we improvise.
You have such a fun and energetic feel as a group. What makes you have such a unique approach to playing and ‘classical music’?
Thanks! I think we might come across like this because we all consider ourselves ‘musicians’ rather than ‘classical musicians’ and we bring our different musical experiences to the group. For instance, two of us used to play in a samba band, and that not only teaches you a lot about rhythm and feel, but also a great deal about group vibes. Also each one of us knows what it’s like to play on stage in a pop/folk/rock context, which is usually so much more fun and relaxed than playing classical music. So I think subconsciously we probably bring a bit of that into our concerts.
Have you recorded projects for other labels? If so what were / are they?
We recorded a great project with British composer Max de Wardener last year, with cover art by Stanley Donwood (Radiohead collaborator), for Stanley’s record label Six Inch Records. We have also contributed our improvising skills to some pop albums, and recorded our own EP of improvised music. We are also planning a few albums with other people next year – will let you know which label they come out on!
What music / art inspires the quartet as a group?
Wow big question. I think our various inspirations would be so massive it would be crazy to list them all! But as far as music goes you could definitely throw in the Crumb, and Gabriel, then Dai Fujikura, Reich, Stravinsky, Hot Chip, Melanie Pappenheim, Can, Janacek, Keith Tippett, Adem, Simon Fisher Turner… Art is a bit less relevant to us as a group, but individually I think we are all pretty modern in tastes…
I see from your facebook updates that you guys play in Germany from time to time, where else do you perform regularly and what rep do you play generally?
We have been to Belgium and France several times, and many other countries internationally, but mostly we perform in the UK. Our repertoire has become more and more fully improvised over the last two years, but we also play a lot of British and American contemporary music, most of which is either written for us or commissioned by us. Our concerts at the moment tend to be a mixture of very contemporary music and improvisation, sometimes both within the same piece.
Are the members involved in other music projects? What might those be?
Emma and Vince together are remix artists Geese and are becoming quite successful with their string instrument based remixes. Jenny and Emma play in Mercury-nominated Basquiat Strings, which is a jazz based project, and Laura is successfully carving out her own solo career with her music for cello with voice. All four of us are involved with other performers too: James Yorkston, Nancy Wallace, Adrian Crowley, Gilad Atzmon to name a few.
Ok so WoW you’ve worked with Damo Suzuki! how did this come about? Your impressions of Damo? Was this material recorded? How is CAN important to the quartet?
Damo is a pretty amazing guy, in that he makes his living going round the world improvising in a made up language every night. i’d like to make a living this way…seems like a nice life! He’s usually very friendly and interesting, occasionally grumpy when he hasn’t had enough sleep and has been flying around the world too much.. He is a total showman on stage with incredible charisma and a great voice. We’ve played with him twice now, and the first time was the best, at the Purcell Room on the South Bank, London. This was recorded, and Damo absolutely loved it, so it was then edited because it was VERY VERY long, and then…don’t think it got released or anything. Hopefully one day… As a group we obviously listened to a lot more CAN prior to and after working with Damo, and I think we all took a lot of inspiration from the spirit and energy in that band. Obviously when we improvised with Damo it was an entirely different thing. But CAN are great. You can always learn a lot from bands like that.I can’t quite remember how the collaboration came about.
Any future plans with Nonclassical? Plans on performing in the USA?
Nonclassical’s pop imprint StopStart will hopefully be putting out Laura’s solo album next year, and we are also discussing our future projects with them, but nothing is concrete as yet. We would absolutely love to go back to the USA after our very successful first time out there this March for SXSW, perhaps with composer Graham Reynolds who we met in Austin, or with Meredith Monk who we are working with next year. If anyone wants to book us a tour we’ll be right there….
- 2 October, 2009
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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…
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….
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.
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!
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.
- 26 September, 2009
- 3 Comments
On Tuesday Sept. 29th (my Birthday!) we’ll be launching the label Nonclassical in North America. What makes this label so unique and special is their approach to new music both acoustically and electronically. The label is the brainchild of Gabriel Prokofiev who just happens to be the grandson of yes, Sergy Prokofiev. This is the first of a two part interview with Gabriel about his music, the label and the Nonclassical movement itself.
Ok …well…Gabriel it is going to be unavoidable the fact that people here will want to ask you about and chat about your family’s legendary musical heritage. So I’ll touch on this first and then move beyond it.
It can be said that the name Prokofiev is one of the most important ones in the history of 20th century classical music, how do you deal with this legacy and what have been the challenges and the blessing of coming from such a musically important family?
Big question… It’s certainly not always easy, and just seeing the word “legacy” in your question makes me feel heavy! The big trick for me as a composer has been, that once I’m in the composing ‘zone’ I generally forget where I’m from and who I am, and just follow the music. If I dwell to heavily on this big heritage that I have it can certainly disrupt my creative flow, and when I was younger I think I quite often avoided composing. And unfortunately I’ve never really had a mentor as such, so did lose a few years of composing. Now I just get on with it, and once I’m really feeling inspired and exited with something, then I don’t feel so inhibited by my roots, and can in turn feel inspired by them – so that it can become a positive situation.
I think my potential as a performer was more significantly affected by my heritage, as I always felt very self-conscious performing classical music when I was younger, and therefore often made mistakes and didn’t practice much. But as composing is more private, I’m able to lose myself in that world.
I hear some of your grandfather’s sensibilities in your music, is this intentional? What impact has he had on you as a person and composer of classical composition?
Most S Prokofiev sensibilities you might hear in my music aren’t intentional, and a few people have told me that my music often has a ‘soviet’ feel to it; which is something that I never tried to do… it’s just how it comes out – may be it’s in my blood ? Pr may be it’s just because I’m a fan of Russian music listened to quite a lot of Prokofiev when I was growing up ??
But there have been a few moments when I’ve given a little nod to my grandfather. In the 2nd movement of my 2nd Quartet, the ‘alberti-bass’ type figure in the Viola becomes a unison motif, which changes from straight quavers to a swinging dotted quaver /semi-quaver, I deliberately extended this passage as a humorous reference to the oh-so-famous Dance of the Knights (from Romeo & Juliet), but nobody’s noticed it yet -so I guess I was the only one who got the joke 😉
I grew up with quite a mix of music. I loved both Pop music, Classical, and Jazz. My dad was a big Jazz fan, so I heard a lot of different Jazz as a child; but neither of my parents were really into pop music (The Beatle’s White Album was the only pop album they happened to have, and I think a friend had left it in our house by mistake!), so I got into pop music through school friends, and my older sister; also an uncle of mine gave me a cassette of Grace Jones & Sade when I was 10 and that set me up to be a big funk & hip-hop fan as a teenager.
Of course I heard quite a bit of my grandfather’s music as a child, and besides Peter and the Wolf, my big childhood favourite was a another children’s piece by him called ‘The Winter Bonfire’, I used to spend many an afternoon running round the sofa to that as a four year old. Then as I grew older I discovered more old and new classical music -like many people I went through as stage of listening to renaissance choral music, then Bach piano music, Beethoven quartets, Stockhausen, Debussy… etc… In the 1990s I also got really into the emerging electronic dance music scene, and was very exciting my the energy and rhythm of some of the early acid house music and techno.
As for what inspires my sound and love for both acoustic and electronic music, I guess there is inspiration from my eclectic music tastes. Also I’m particularly excited by music the has ‘drive’, music that has a sense of purpose and energy, and sonic innovations of electronic music can really enhance that, as can a group of great musicians.
Your music and goal in what we know as Classical Music is to me as refreshing as it is challenging, what would be your ultimate achievement / achievements within the context of your current path?
Well my number one personal aim is just to write exciting, and original music; and then have that music reach many listeners and then inspire and move them. As for my broader aims with ‘Nonclassical’, I really hope to help contemporary classical music get more exposure and appreciation; there are so many people who could enjoy contemporary classical music but never have a chance to properly listen to it because it never enters their world; just isn’t part of their life-style; or seems like something they wouldn’t understand. But in fact they just a need the chance to experience it in a situation where they feel comfortable and are able to really listen properly. Music can bring such a wide range of experiences, but many many people are generally enjoying only a part of what music can give them ; which is usually what is on most radio playlists: short, predictable, reassuring Songs. We do get tastes of more demanding, or more extended forms of music in Cinema, etc.. but I think that there could be much more.
John Matthias, the Violinist and co-composer of Cortical Songs, is good friends with Thom Yorke, he actually played Violin & Viola on Radiohead’s album The Bends. So he asked Thom if he was up for doing a remix of this classical piece he’d written, and he was. It was the first remix Thom Yorke has ever done, and it’s one my favourite things he’s done.
About six years ago, I composer friend of mine, John Richards told me I really should meet & work with this Russian pianist called GéNIA. He had composed a ‘Suite for Piano and Electronics’ for her, which we later released on Nonclassical. We finally met up got on really well, and I promised to write a piece for an upcoming solo concert she had; I left it till the last minute and had to turn it around in 2 days; but she liked it and we decided I would write a book of piano music for her. Then a year or so later I asked her why she called herself “GéNIA” ? why didn’t she use her surname? She explained that she actually had a situation similar to mine – I had already told her that in the past I had used a different second name (and still do for the hip-hop, and dance music I write and produce). She said she didn’t want to be connected to her famous great-great uncle . So I asked what her real name was and she said: Evgenia Chudinovich! I felt kind of embarrassed because the name Chudinovich meant nothing to me, but then she explained that her famous Uncle was in fact Vladimir Horowitz! Whether anyone would be able to trace that from her own Chudinovich surname seemed unlikely (was she even more paranoid about her heritage than me!?) but I could understand how she wanted to keep a separate identity. Then of course we realised that our ancestors Vladimir and Sergei had actually worked together (Horowitz made the world premier recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s 7th piano sonata in 1945, and also gave the American premiers of the so-called War Sonatas (6, 7, and 8), S Prokofiev called Horowizt a “miraculous pianist”, and Horowitz (when he was just 19) also premiered my grandfather’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in Russia, but as a piano arrangement with violin. So it was an exciting, and strange feeling for us, that 60 years after our ancestors met through their music (each of them on opposite side of the globe in Russia & the USA, here we were working together here in London (geographically in between USA & Russia), and we hadn’t even been aware of it; we had been naturally brought together by music.
[Well I should tell you -you’re the distributors !]
There’s a lot of exciting stuff planned for 2010: GéNIA: ‘Gabriel Prokofiev Piano Book’ (working title) Olly Coates: ‘file under coates’ – selection of new pieces for solo Cello, Cello & Electronics, and multitracked Cello from various young UK composers. Juice Vocal Ensemble: debut CD. 3-part female acapella group, works from various composers The House of Bedlam: Contemporary Classical 5 piece led by composer Larry Goves. There are several more releases which are yet to be confirmed -will keep you posted.
Do you have plans on coming to the USA this or next year? If yes where? When? What kind of performances would these be?
- 24 September, 2009
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On September 29, Naxos begins distribution of Gabriel Prokofiev‘s genre-busting label NonClassical Records. The U.K.-based Prokofiev-grandson of the composer-has been at the forefront of the new music scene in his country since 2003. He began by producing events across the … Read More →