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.

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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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Naxos of America begins distribution of NonClassical Records

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 →