Gabriel Prokofiev: A Two-Pronged Approach

Robert Barry spends time with the composer trying to bring concert hall and rock club together

Malihe Norouzi

When Gabriel Prokofiev was ten years old, his uncle gave him a present. It was a dubbed cassette. On one side was the smooth twilit sophistipop of Sade’s Diamond Life, but on the other side the young Prokofiev found Nightclubbing by Grace Jones. (“One of the top ten albums ever,” says Gabriel today.) In that same year he started his first band. Just a duo really, him and a friend from school, writing pop songs. These early compositions were nothing much, “just a simple chord sequence with a melody on top,” as he puts it. But still it was “a big moment – when I first had that magical feeling of creating something from nothing.”

For me, it’s so important, if you’re writing music, that you communicate with people – especially people of a similar age, in the same situation. But in classical music, people have just given up on that.

And as I talk to him, over instant coffee and a plate of chips in a greasy spoon off London’s Cambridge Heath Road, I sometimes get the feeling that what he really misses is that feeling of being in a band and making music socially.

“For me, it’s so important,” he explains, “if you’re writing music, that you communicate with people – especially people of a similar age, in the same situation. But in classical music, people have just given up on that. Kids who play the piano or play the violin, they get really good, but they never perform to their mates. Their piano tutor might put on a little concert and their family will come but they never actually share it with their friends. It’s almost like, from the very beginning of classical music, you kind of accept that you’re not going to share it with your peer group. It sets up this whole train of thought that it is just this other world, this hidden away world.”

Spektrum - Breaker (Broken Album Edit)

Prokofiev released two albums and a slew of singles and 12-inches with his band Spektrum (featuring singer Lola Olafisoye, later of Chrome Hoof) in the early ‘00s, and went on to produce several tracks for grime MCs such as Shystie, Zuz Rock, and Lady Sovereign. But, alongside this, he was also busy studying composition at Birmingham, followed by postgraduate studies at York University. Classical music eventually took over. In 2003 he composed his first string quartet and since then his orchestral music has been performed at the Proms, the Stadttheater in Bern and the Royal Opera House. He is currently composer-in-residence at the Orchestre de Pau Pays de Béarn in the south of France.

It was out of frustration with the curiously insular nature of the classical establishment that he had started Spektrum. In the last few years of the ‘90s, Prokofiev was studying electroacoustic composition at York. As good as the course was in itself, he felt disheartened. “When we’d have a performance of our work, just a handful of people would come,” he recalls. “It didn’t feel like there was any real effort to try and drawn in the local community.”

A few years earlier, at Birmingham, he had been stunned by the “mind-blowing sound diffusions” created by the Beast (Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre) but then he would go out to techno parties at the weekend and wonder, with all these people showing such a keen interest in electronic sounds and heavy audio, why was no one bothering to draw them into the electro-acoustic concerts at the university?

Spektrum - Horny Pony

Hence, Spektrum, a group that seemed to take post-punk funk and soup it up with an arsenal of electronic processes that wouldn’t have sounded out of place at the studios of Pierre Schaefer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales. “The idea,” Prokofiev says, “was to do something that you could dance to but could still be quite experimental.” Their debut, Enter the Spektrum, was highly praised by The Wire magazine and the group toured extensively for much of the ‘00s. But even as that first record was hitting the shops, Prokofiev himself was already up to other things.

Around the turn of the century, Prokofiev had moved back to London, and, in 2002, began renting a studio in an office block in east London. It was the year Wiley began releasing his first eski tracks – fidgety, synth-led instrumentals like “Eskimo,” “Avalanche” and “Blizzard” – on his own Wiley Kat Records label. A track called “I Luv U” self-produced by a teenaged Dizzee Rascal had just made its way onto the internet. Wiley and Dizzee alike were both from Bow, a short walk from Prokofiev’s new base in Hackney.

Lady Sovereign - The Battle

“I just started making beats,” Prokofiev says. “And there was one MC who just happened to come round my studio one time. He was really keen so I said, ‘Let’s record a couple of tracks.’” One track Prokofiev imagined as a battle between two MCs, so this MC, Frost P, invited his friend Zuz Rock round. Next he thought of having these two male rappers face up to two women on a track. Prokofiev was in the midst of working on a community theatre project at the time. One of the guys he worked with had just finished a film with “this young girl who’s just a phenomenal MC. She’s called Lady Sovereign.” When Sovereign first came to meet Prokofiev, she was only 15 years-old. She arrived, accompanied by her manager, who was 16.

“The Battle,” the epic seven-minute track of staccato strings and syncopated beats over which Frost P and Zuz Rock faced up to Lady Sovereign and another MC, Shystie, would end up on Lady Sovereign’s debut EP, Vertically Challenged, alongside another Prokofiev-produced track, “A Little Bit of Shhh.” He went on to co-write and produce the lion’s share of her first album, Public Warning.

You make a piece of music, you record it and release it. It’s sad [that this way of working] is missing from most contemporary classical composers’ thought process.

“Every six months or so I suddenly remember all these cool grime tracks I’ve got on my hard disk that are still unreleased and I think, ‘Why did they never get released?’” he muses. “Oh, I could still do it now. There’s no deadline. The stuff’s kinda coming back up. But now I’ve got all these orchestral things, I’m never gonna find the time.”

When I meet up with Gabriel, he’s in the midst of working on a new commission for the Orchestre de Pau. It’ll consist of three movements, each inspired by a different city: London, Vienna and St. Petersburg. Right now, he has a full plate of commissions lined up, with a concerto for a big American orchestra and an album of electronic works, among other things. In fact, he’s now so busy as a composer that he’s about to step down from his role directing the label Nonclassical which he started some eleven years ago as a vehicle for the release of his first string quartet.

Prokofiev’s initial approach to becoming a classical composer was informed by his experience playing in bands like Spektrum. As he puts it himself, “You make a piece of music, you record it and release it. That’s sort of standard procedure. It’s sad [that this way of working] is missing from most contemporary classical composers’ thought process.”

The first string quartet received its premiere at Blackheath Halls, the same venue where, as a 14 year-old boy, Gabriel had been thrilled by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Prokofiev’s first thought was to share the experience with his friends, so he invited a whole bunch of them along. “But they didn’t come because it was a Sunday afternoon classical recital and no one does that on their Sunday, really.” He soon realised he would have to take the proverbial mountain to Mohammed.

Thus was born the Nonclassical club night, starting off at Cargo, in Shoreditch, and then moving to the Macbeth on Hoxton Square, and later the Shacklewell Arms in Dalston. I first came to a Nonclassical night when it was at The Macbeth. It was an extraordinary thing to come to a pub more used to hosting acts like Franz Ferdinand, The Horrors and Pete Doherty, only to find instead the stage occupied by a chamber orchestra playing Bartok and Arvo Pärt. As the label’s website puts it, “The success of the night partly stems from the fact that it presents Classical as if it were Rock or Electronic music.”

Elysian Quartet @ Cargo performing Gabriel Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 1

“Going somewhere like the Macbeth was brilliant,” Prokofiev says, “because it’s sort of saying, this music doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal. It’s another type of music and you shouldn’t be afraid of it and we don’t need to be all snobbish about it. Because if you want people to enjoy it, they need to be relaxed and you need it to be available. Being in the venue where people go on a more regular basis is a way of breaking through those barriers.”

In the studio, Prokofiev composes using Logic – the same software he once used to record tunes with Spektrum and produce grime beats. For him, the program is not just a means of laying down ideas but, with the ease of transforming and transposing phrases, it becomes a productive “compositional tool” in its own right. It is perhaps no surprise then, that one of the themes of Gabriel’s music – though not, he insists, an “essential” one – is the incorporation of rhythmic ideas and sound sources from electronic dance music amongst more traditional classical forces. One of his most successful pieces, performed at the BBC Proms in 2011 by DJ Switch and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, is a concerto for turntables and orchestra.

Howl by Maurice Causey, original composition by Gabriel Prokofiev

Recently, he has been composing more and more for contemporary dance, with remixes of the Concerto for Turntables employed in Karole Armitage’s production “Mechanics of the Dance Machine”; an electronic work, Howl, created for the Tanz Lucerner Theatre in Switzerland; and, more recently, Beyadère – The Ninth Life, at the National Opera House’s Linbury Theatre. What he likes about writing for dancers is the feeling of being “part of a team. I’m going to the rehearsals, I’m watching the dancers. We have production meetings to talk about the lights, set, everything. That’s just a social situation that’s really refreshing.”

“When I’m composing, for example, doing the cities thing, I’m just kind of alone on it. I can play people demos and ask for feedback, but it does get quite heavy because it’s all down to me. So it is just great to suddenly be part of a team when you’re a composer who’s locked away by themselves a lot.” In the future, he’s keen to put together a small touring ensemble, a little like the groups led by Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the ’60s and ’70s.” I think it’s a really good approach,” he says. “To have your own band.”

With your work now being performed at the Proms and the Royal Opera House, I begin tentatively to ask, do you ever feel like you’re becoming part of the –

“Establishment?” he finishes the question for me, shaking his head with a wry smile. “It’s funny,” he says, “Maybe I’m more part of a movement to encourage orchestras to step out of the concert hall. But I’m also trying to bring a bit of the non-concert hall, a bit of a rougher vibe maybe, into the concert hall – to musically change the ambience a bit.” In recent years, his music has been performed in a factory in Leipzig by the MDR Rundfunk Orchestra and at London’s Oval Space by the Peckham-based Multi-Story Orchestra. Meanwhile, Nonclassical continues to put on interesting and unusual nights of modern and contemporary classical music in pubs throughout London plus Paris and New York.

“It’s a two-pronged attack,” he says. “You’re trying to bring new people into the concert hall and other people out of the concert hall. There’s nothing wrong with both sides.”

By Robert Barry on August 19, 2015

On a different note