The Wonderful and Frightening World of NONCLASSICAL: An Interview with Gabriel Prokofiev Pt.1

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 ;-)

Can you talk about your background a bit? What music did you grow up with? What music do you love? What else inspires your sound and love for both acoustic and electronic musics?
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 music I love… It’s hard to know where to start or where to end. Different music works for different situations, so in a club or a bar I can get really excited by a beat by the Neptunes, or some funk from parliament, a groove by Liquid Liquid, or some Ndombolo by Koffi Olomide. But in a concert hall (or at the Nonclassical club-night) I can fall in love with Schnittke, Prokofiev, Bach, Berio, Ligeti, Francis Dhomont, Xenakis and plenty more…
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.

Of course one can’t help but recognize the name of Thom Yorke as one of the remixers on the Cortical Songs CD, how did this come about? Will Thom be collaborating with you on any other releases?
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.
I’ve been fortunate enough to hear some of the solo piano works that you’ll be releasing next year (and they are FANTASTIC pieces by the way). You told me a very interesting story about meeting the pianist who would perform these, can you please describe this scene in words for our readers?
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.
What are the future release plans for the Nonclassical label? (if you don’t mind telling us)
[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?
We’re planning to bring the Nonclassical club-night to SxSW, in Austin, in March, which we did last year and it went down very well. And we hope to stop off in New York on the way, and then even do a small tour. We will bring as many artists that we release on Nonclassical as possible probably GéNIA (to promote my forthcoming Piano Book, and John Richards’s suite) Power Plant -which features virtuoso percussionist Joby Burgess (we’re just mixing a 32 mins work I composed for him, which involves playing a large oil drum – not sure if we’ll be allowed to bring that over on a plane!) Olly Coates -one of the hottest Cellist in the UK right now. He’s just become a musician in residence at the Southbank Centre, London, and we’re going to record his album this autumn. Then there is also the possibility of organizing some performances of my Concerto for Turntables, but that’s TBC.

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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 →