The first instinct on meeting Gabriel Prokofiev is a difficult one to fight. Being the grandson of the composer Sergei, it is inevitable that one should check for signs of likeness. They can be found – but are revealed at greater length, as his musical impetus is uncovered. Gabriel talks about music – any music – with the passion of a composer, and half an hour in his company leaves the impression of a fiercely creative spirit.
Over coffee, we have started talking about classical music – naturally – and how some people feel intimidated by it because of a perceived lack of knowledge. He thinks we should reject this suggestion. “What is there to know? I mean, if there’s something you’re supposed to know then I think the composers have failed, really. There is always a learned approach to any kind of art, but when you’re watching Shakespeare you could have studied the text but you should be able still to just enjoy it. It’s the same with classical music. I guess a lot of it is how it’s presented, and people do feel intimidated and restricted, because it’s old fashioned, all that sort of stuff.
That said, the enthusiasm with which he discusses one of this year’s premieres is also refreshing. “This April I had my third string quartet premiered at the Wigmore Hall, and that was really exciting. It’s still a thrill when you get played at somewhere like that, because you know the audience is really listening”. Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label – more on the name later – has moved from strength to strength with the release of two very different albums. The first, Import / Export, is a suite for percussion, released with an accompanying DVD showing off the instrumental imagination of its composer. “This has been an ongoing project for about three years”, Gabriel explains.” Joby Burgess, the percussionist, was a player I had known for a while. There’s a piece by Xenakis called Rebonds which I really like, and it uses a contemporary classical version of a drum kit, t. I wanted to do a piece like that, and so I went to Joby’s studio to listen to the other percussion instruments he had. He had this empty glass Fanta bottle in the corner, and I ended up saying, “Why don’t we write a piece for that?” and so it all changed.”
The ‘global’ element soon followed. “I knew you could use it as a musical instrument. I’d seen in Africa how people use that sort of thing like cowbells, but it’s also got ridges, so you can get a scratching effect. So I wrote a piece for two of those, and found out that when you tilt the bottle the pitch changes a bit. If you look at the DVD, as he tilts it there is a maximum interval of a sixth, and you can use it to suggest melody. I really played around with that a lot”.
There was a strong response to the method of composition. “I also studied electro-acoustic composition in Birmingham. I loved doing it but was a bit frustrated at the concerts where there was not much live performance. This took me back to the idea of finding an object and seeing what sounds you could get out of it. Joby said he wanted a large, 35 minute piece but I found there wasn’t much I could do with that sound, as it’s quite hard and bright, so then it was a case of thinking what other objects could sit nicely alongside. The Fanta bottle, it had come from Nigeria, the Coca Cola corporation owns it, and they’re obviously American, then I looked up and it turns out Fanta was invented in Germany. Though it’s got this origin Fanta is an international drink, you find it anywhere around the globe, so I thought let’s find other global objects, stuff that doesn’t have a country of origin any more. So then it became a suite for global junk!”
The project steamrollered, including ever more diverse instruments. “An obvious one was the oil drum”, he says. “Steel pans sound great, but I didn’t want to use those, so I went to a place out in East London, and found a place that reconditioned them. It was a beautiful instrument, with about seven clear pitches, like gongs. When I got that, Import / Export suddenly became this potentially exciting piece, with deep, resonant tones. The big mistake I made, though, was I only bought one. If I buy another will it have the same tuning? If someone else performs it, it might suddenly change the tonalities of the piece. I’ve got to buy a couple more and then I’ll know!”
By contrast, the second CD is Piano Book No.1, a collection of structured pieces and sketches performed by virtuoso pianist Gnia. “It’s funny that they’ve been released at the same time”, he says, “because they’re probably the extremes of what I’ve done. The piano work is more classical, more traditional than previous things. The string quartets are more edgy and have more of this dark, electronic influence”.
The quartets were the stimulus for Prokofiev’s idea of remixing his classical work, the choice of collaborators suggesting he keeps a close eye on developments in electronic music. “Getting Murcof as a remixer was so cool”, he says enthusiastically, “but he did a brilliant remix and then he disappeared! It was exactly the kind of sound that worked well for him. I heard his first album, which is electronica with classical samples in it. It’s cool. Sometimes he chooses some minor classical clichs but it’s got some really good stuff on it, and it was really cool to get him on board”.
Speaking of electronic artists, he notes, “I really envy people who have got themselves who have got into the position where they can be happy and write freely, they’ve got beyond the position where they have to write a dance hit that after the first minute has a drop and so on. It’s quite hard to get into that, and I’m trying something that’s more strictly from the classical side of things”.
Does he agree that Nonclassical is a provocative name for a record company? “It wasn’t meant to be that provocative”, he stresses, “and I feel like some people have overreacted to it, as if it’s negative. It just means you see things from a non-classical perspective. The ‘non’ says we’re doing classical music in a non-classical way, it’s not ‘anti classical’! The classical way of presenting things can hold things back and seem old fashioned, but hopefully because it’s got the word classical in it suggests a connection. On the albums you firstly have the classical and then the non-classical in the remixes. But what do these genres all mean? It’s when you’re pushing the connections between them that interesting stuff happens”.
His monthly club nights in Shoreditch are clearly a source of inspiration. “It’s so much fun having contemporary music performed in an informal club and bar setting. People can be a lot more open about their appreciation, and it feels a lot more exciting because it’s not as safe as a concert hall. There is a chance that if people don’t like something they’ll start talking or make noise, and I quite like that. With a lot of contemporary music you don’t know if it’s succeeded or not, because everyone claps with the same volume for everything. Sometimes you get a bit of extra energy, but here you’ve had times when something’s not as gripping and there is a murmur, but when it’s working people are silent. We’re bringing it out of the safe recital rooms, and that’s a real thrill. People are pleased to see it in the informal setting.”
Recently he has been looking to work with Tansy Davies, an increasingly influential and interesting contemporary composer. “We did an after party for her Prom, which was a last minute thing. If we can make it work we might do a regular after Prom party for certain concerts at the Proms, it would be really fun. We’re going to release an album of her chamber music. I really like her stuff, but only Neon has been available on CD before. I heard it on Radio 3 when it came out, and got the CD, and I got in touch with her and I’m really excited it’s going to be on the label. I’m shocked someone getting the kind of success she is doesn’t have anything out. It shows the bad state of the classical record industry that nobody is supporting one of the brightest up and coming British composers”.
Gabriel talks with great enthusiasm about his future plans for the label, which if anything shows a broadening of artistic intent. “We have two more albums to come out in November and January, and then Tansy’s soon after, then the Juice Vocal Ensemble, a female accappella group. The crown jewel of that will be a piece by Elizabeth Lutyens, they’ve found a piece of hers for two sopranos and alto, really stunning. They’re standing up for females in classical music, which as we know is a very male dominated world”. Throughout our chat his stance has been clear – that of a love for classical music, but also a burning wish to get it out of its confines and reach people the other side of the fence.