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The Incorrect Path: Gabriel Prokofiev Interviewed
Peter Meanwell , April 9th, 2014 08:07

"It’s when people get too high and mighty and too precious that things become dull", Gabriel Prokofiev tells Peter Meanwell during Nonclassical's tenth birthday celebrations

Cambridge Heath in East London started life as an area of gravel, with at least one ancient house there in 1275. Since then it has been home to a windmill, a sawmill and a raft of tailors, as well as a concerted attempt to Christianise the Jewish population of the area in the early 19th Century and in 1927 a new estate named after Lenin. Today, the former light industrial spaces are populated by a web of studios, galleries and artist hubs. Here amidst the debris of recorded production: boxes of vinyl, fading posters, and mugs of tea are the offices of record label Nonclassical, and the adjoining studios of its founder the composer Gabriel Prokofiev. The accumulated detritus presents an archaeology of concerted production set against widescreen whiteboards of future plans, on one a production slate of eight new releases for 2014, the other outlining ideas for Nonclassical's 10th anniversary year.

Back In 2004 Black Dice released Creature Comforts and Sonic Youth Sonic Nurse; Animal Collective had Sung Tongs out and Fennnsz' Venice was feeling out the middle ground between noise and melody; elsewhere, various members of the Spice Girls and Boyzone were still stringing out solo careers. Gabriel Prokofiev, classically trained South Londoner, grandson of renowned early 20th Century classical composer - Sergei Prokofiev - was keeping his compositional head down in synthpop band Spektrum, and making beats that would soon end up on the debut album of diminutive rapper Lady Sovereign, under his pseudonym, Medasyn.

Over the last ten years, the label has released work by Tansy Davies, Juice Vocal Ensemble, Aisha Orazbayeva, GeNIA, and Joby Burgess, as well as remixes from Tim Exile, Thom Yorke and Murcof, and placed contemporary classical music in London venues such as the Macbeth, the Shacklewell Arms, Cargo and XOYO. Sat at his mixing desk, Logic open on the studio computer, with analogue synths piled in the corner, we talked about Nonclassical, and his attempts to merge his dual worlds of electronic music and classical composition.

If you go back ten years, what was in the air that meant Nonclassical had to exist?

Gabriel Prokofiev: There wasn't much in the air that's why it had to exist! it felt like a bit of a void. I'd grown up playing in pop bands and when I was 14 we made a cassette, we photocopied the inlay and with a double tape deck made 120 copies. From that point onwards, I was in the recording world, and it became a natural process that if you write a piece of music you're going to record it. So when I wrote my first string quartet, which was after a considerable break from actually writing classical music I was really pleased with it and I thought I have to record this, but hang on, who's going to release this? In the dance music world there are loads of labels you can approach and you can try, but with classical music there just was nothing, no options.The string quartet that recorded it was the Elysian Quartet, they were really young, they hadn't won a competition, this is 2003 and I was 28, they weren't on the circuit so none of the traditional labels would take them. Me too - I'd just come back to composing, there just wasn't any label that would take me on. I already ran a label with another producer in these studios, that at the time was called Nonstop Recordings, and we were doing some hip hop and electronic music so I knew how it all worked, the structure and I was quite excited about running a label, and then I thought, "What the hell, I'll release it on my own label."

At first I called it Non Stop Classical - because there was Non Stop and this was going to be the classical sister label, but then it sounded too much of a mouthful, so I cut out the 'Stop' and it became Nonclassical - it was only after I thought, that has a clever double meaning - it's got the word 'Classical' in so it's definitely to do with classical music, but then the 'Non' is not saying we're anti-classical it's just saying its done in a non-traditional way, that's the idea. The band Spektrum that I'd been playing in for several years, we self-released two or three 12"s and I was just from that culture and was applying it to the classical world. But as soon as I'd done the album, someone called John Richards, a composer who's at De Montfort now heard the album and said, this is really cool, I've got a project I recently did with this Russian pianist Genia, I think it will be perfect for your label. I hadn't really thought long term about what it was going to be, I just wanted to release this string quartet, and then when he approached me I thought, "Wow, actually this has got a lot more potential, I could be a proper label that could serve a lot of people, there's lots of other composers and groups who might want to release on it."

What was the reception like, did you just walk it round to record shops?

GP: I think at that time we were with SRD for distribution, and they distributed Leaf Records who were doing leftfield electronic music, and they took it on and we did vinyl and CD for the first three releases. It was well received, there was a review in DJ magazine and in Time Out, word got out and just before the release happened we did the first Nonclassical club - on March 20, 2004 - at Cargo (in East London), and it got a lot of attention. The Elysian Quartet were headlining, Louisa Duggan a harpist was playing John Cage in the bar, the Quartet did 2 sets, and I DJ'd in between alongside Tom Relleen who worked at Phonica records. The whole thing launched really nicely, and then it's the hard thing, it's always the way, the first time if you do it right, you get great attention and then it's sustaining after that. The club didn't then happen every six months, I was in the middle of doing other projects at that time, producing for Lady Sovereign, and then Spektrum was on tour a lot so I was doing loads of gigs, it was really busy.

At what point did you decide to focus on the classical?

GP: Only four years ago, quite recently. When you're composing classical music you've got the whole contemporary scene encouraging you to push things as far as possible and then in the pop world you're always trying to pull things back and simplify and it's a very useful skill, but often when I had had some brushes with more commercial music I just found people who didn't have a clue about music making the key decisions and suddenly saying, that version's crap, do another one. It's just heartbreaking, but in contemporary classical music the more adventurous you are the more encouragement you get and then you've got more control. The composer is given a lot more creative freedom, in the pop stuff I was often collaborating with someone else.

How much creative freedom do you give to people on your label?

GP: Oh total, complete creative freedom. My philosophy for the label is to release stuff that works on the label but not get too artistically involved (myself) when it is other composers and performers who have chosen the work. [I'm involved in] quality control, especially as there's not much money in it! If maybe you're paying someone loads of money you can really justify certain artistic control, but even then who's right and who's wrong? One artistic interference that I might bring to Nonclassical releases is the whole idea of having remixes on the albums, which is important to the label identity. Hot Chip are the most famous people, Vex'd who are these young dub step guys who are in the studio opposite here, famously Thom Yorke did a remix; a lot of really good producers though and a lot of them aren't known. The Nonclassical remixing has this rule that you can't use external sounds, you can only use sounds from the master recordings, and it always says that on the CD and we tell the remixers. The last album we released called Cello Multitracks with Peter Gregson, the nature of the piece, and the percussive stuff he does with the cello, I just knew that the material, but also the sound of the cello the different effects he makes, would be good for remixing. The original album had some really nice remixes, and then we decided to do a remix competition of one of the tracks and we got 28 remixes in, just through Soundcloud, and it was all unknown producers. Out of the 28 we were meant to choose the best four or five, but we ended up with ten so we're releasing two EPs.

It's interesting you were saying that as a producer in the pop world it was quite reductive, and you railed against that by putting out classical music, but now you're giving people the chance to be reductive again through the remixes?

GP: I think it's a really interesting exercise because in classical music you have a lot of really interesting ideas, but the general trend now (unless you're doing minimalist music and you just have one idea that stays the same for ages, or slightly changes) is that you get some repetition but not so much and there's continuous repetition and change. It's nice then to have remixers identify really beautiful and special passages and explore them more, and why not? The remixes are definitely a different type of music to the original composition, it is something in between classical and electronica, and that is the Nonclassical style - to blur the boundaries between genres. I suppose I have been concerned sometimes that by having the remixes [on the label], there might be certain people - classical fans - who won't take the label seriously, because they'll say this is crossover or that we're trying to popularise classical music, but its just a musical experiment really.

I suppose the other important thing is to ask myself, "Why am I making this CD?" Is it just as an archive record; a collection of pieces by a composer, or am I making it so someone will want to listen to it at home? For Nonclassical the idea is to make CDs that will work as albums, and I think we've generally achieved that. I think often with contemporary classical recordings there's a tendency to just do all the works of one composer, there's a tendency to put the microphone in a concert hall and have a very pure concert type recording and I think both of those things are going to be problematic for a CD that is going to be listened to at home. Unless you've got an amazing stereo it can sound just like you're a bit far away at the back of the venue. This makes it hard to engage with the music. Some of it is excellent obviously - but we've always tried to do quite dry upfront recordings because I'm aware a lot of people aren't used to listening to classical music as much as they are heavily produced and compressed music. We're not going to overly compress anything but we're aware of that. We generally get the CDs cut quite loud. I think with a lot of classical music you have to see it at a gig really, and often the CD is an attempt to capture that moment. The idea of Nonclassical is to be a record label in a more traditional indie sense.

Have you had much flack from the core classical world?

GP: The thing is there's probably plenty of unspoken flack, I haven't seen any really. When the label got signed to distribution by [classical label] Naxos about five years ago they said, "We think you should reissue some of the CDs in a more classical format, without the remixes." For example, with my String Quartets, you could put them both on one CD and make a non-remix version. We said we'll see, and in the end didn't do it. We got really good feedback from Amazon, and they never asked us to do it, initially they seemed unsure, but it was fine.

Is it just a perception issue that people think classical and non-classical genres are incompatible?

GP: There are certain ways of listening and certain aesthetic values that can be different, I know that there is some music I've made that won't work in a concert hall setting, and vice versa, but there are some magical moments when the two worlds collide successfully. Also I'd say that the people doing classical music shouldn't be afraid of doing something more rhythmic or more popular as well, it used to be the case a lot more that composers did more humorous music and more popular music as well, they had a broader aesthetic range and now it seems very narrow in a lot of musical worlds. The guys who are doing techno will only do a certain kind of techno — it seems the genres are quite strict in a way, once you enter a genre you stay within those rules, we can't help being quite dogmatic in the end. I find it hard as sometimes when I bring two genres together and I put on my producer beats hat, then suddenly my composer hat gets in the way and says this is cheesy or kitsch you can't go down this route, it's an interesting battle.

I guess that raises a question about the idea of the classical club night, is there a conflict between modes of listening, modes of attention, can you listen to a string quartet and have a dance as well?

GP: I'm very careful about that as it's a risky area, and i'm trying to make sure that we get it right, because there have been times in the past with say, Hooked On Classics or Vanessa Mae for example where they've done a very cynical mix of pop and classical. But the audience for Nonclassical don't seem to have a problem with it at all.

I think the thing is when you have music that's challenging and you put it in a new space, you still have to be so careful because you can blow it so easily, if you push it too far. If you have one too many pieces that are a hard listen, that demand too much concentration, then you can kill it, and the audience can suddenly get a bit annoyed; a bit tired; a bit worn out, and then they might not come back. It's not just putting it in a cool venue, the programming is so important. You have to be so careful.

Can you programme Schubert? There's cultural cachet in the American minimalists, but how far back can you go?

GP: The premise of the night is that contemporary music doesn't get performed enough. I think it's absolutely ridiculous that the idea of a second performance has become a thing, a second performance should be standard, a fifth performance should be standard for new music, but it isn't and a lot of contemporary music doesn't even get a second performance. From my experience playing in bands, every band plays their songs hundreds of times in one year, even crap singer song writers, but in classical music there are so many things that have become the norm that I think are completely outrageous.

So the idea of Nonclassical is not against classical music but against the systems around classical music?

GP: Putting it in the most extreme way, there's a stereotypical way in which classical music's presented - which I like and I'm not saying that should stop - but its not going to help the music move forward. It's a 19th Century way of presenting the music, and the people who present it and programme it are often in the same bubble, not really thinking and questioning the way they're programming. With contemporary music for example, someone programming one composer and their contemporary for a whole evening, it seems like a purist academically correct thing to do, but you're just going to exhaust the audience. No one's going to hear a note after half an hour of something that's completely new, a challenging listen, the same composer - if that composer's got a massive following then maybe, but none of these composers have. So we do these 20 minute sets. It's very important, so people also have time to talk about what they've just heard as well, reflect, because if you have an hour non-stop of completely new music unless you're really familiar with it and already a fan, it's very tough, even for someone who's a really experienced listener and that's just intelligent programming really.

Do you have a problem with complexity though? You've used the words 'difficult music' or 'a hard listen'...

GP: No I don't, because we put on quite complex music at Nonclassical. When I was doing a Masters at York, New Complexity was a style, the approach was making complexity a central point of the music that was quite in vogue in the 90s, and I find it a little bit strange and perverse that complexity should become such an important feature of music. I think it's something that can happen and it's great, but i would never say I'm going to write music that's complex, but I don't have a problem with it.

Composer Brian Ferneyhough (whose compositions are often regarded as the height of complexity) has talked about his frustration that people want music to be simple to understand, and that they're not willing to give it time...

GP: I agree, but you have to be realistic, it's hard to keep an audience engaged for two hours of a Ferneyhough programme. I think it would do his music more justice if you have his music and then something contrasting. If you look at the tradition of classical music going back historically there was always a contrast of simpler and more complex music. So if a whole piece stays complex you need a slow movement. He might have done a slow movements but his slow movements are still complex, you a need a moment of repose.

So it's more about programming decisions, not the merit of complex over simple music?

GP: Yeah.

Are you opening the classical world up to a bigger audience?

GP: With the label it's hard because the industry has shrunk so much, and people aren't stumbling across stuff in record shops. The thing about the internet opening it up for everyone is kind of a myth because there's so much to wade through, and the starting points have been claimed by the big labels, the banners and the adverts, so you know people still have to know what to search for, so it's still always a struggle to reach new audiences.

Is what you're doing opening up the classical world too?

GP: I definitely notice with the classical people that a lot of them get really excited and think, "I can do this." I just gave a talk in Cardiff, and two young guys were saying they are really into electronic music but were a bit nervous about taking those influences into their classical composition, but they said they'd seen what I'm doing and it's really exciting. In the classical world, it's not really talked about much, but when you study classical music from a young age you have a sense of duty. You have to practice from very early on and people aspire to wearing the old fashioned outfits and playing in the orchestra, or to be one of the famous pianists on stage: it's an incredible thing you look up to but there's a very strong sense of duty and tradition and the feeling that there is a "correct path". And of course there isn't, it's just what makes good music and good art and I think a lot of people who work in classical music feel that they should be following a path, it's almost like a quasi-religious belief. So if Nonclassical helps people feel relaxed about doing a remix or bringing in electronic music into what they think of as classical then that's a positive thing. The funny thing is of course, that this nervousness is a new thing in classical music, because it did used to borrow ideas from folk music and pop music a lot more in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the boundaries were much less strict than they are now, and it's all part of the 20th Century reaction against the rise of popular culture and people trying to protect the high arts

Is there an elitism that turns people off what Nonclassical is doing, you fighting against distinctions of high and low art?

GP: I think there's some of that. I wrote 'A Concerto For Bass Drum' and it was premiered at the Roundhouse in North London, and it was a really exciting gig. The place was totally rammed, there were more than 1,000 people there and it was with the London Contemporary Orchestra, a really ambitious contemporary classical programme. It went really well, and there were a lot of young people there and people were getting into the piece. Then just before the applause started someone shouted "Rubbish!" really loud. It was really calculated, and it was really upsetting at the time. Even though the response from the audience was brilliant, at the back of my mind i felt a little bit heartbroken. Afterwards there was a blogger from the Telegraph who found the person who shouted rubbish and she wrote a post asking "Is it ever OK to shout rubbish at a concert?" It turns out the guy was a composition student from Guildhall School of Music and he said he shouted rubbish because he thought the piece was a bastardisation of classical music, and it was like WOW, ok you have a real chip on your shoulder about this. I can't see what was a bastardisation of classical music in that piece, it was a really seriously composed piece for a full orchestra, but the guy had obviously planned to do it before the the concert anyway, so didn't know what it sounded like. But it was probably all part of the Nonclassical thing as well.

Obviously you have got to respect good art, but sometimes good art comes out of unexpected ways; you can't limit your horizons in any way. As long as there's quality control, you can try anything. It's when people get too high and mighty and too precious that things become dull. Obviously there are some things that won't work in a Nonclassical club, and some you wouldn't want to remix so all these things are done with care and with reason, the idea is to augment and expand the classical scene…

With the surname Prokofiev, it's impossible to ignore your musical grandfather. Does Sergei Prokofiev live with you as a musical force?

GP: Yes, maybe not day in day out, but I've heard all of his music, and I've been to more concerts of his music than anyone else's. Because my dad died 15 years ago me and my cousin, Serge Prokofiev Jr. now have the role as signatories, legal administrators of the estate, so if there's an unusual usage request, if one of us says no, then it can't happen. So I'm still involved, every week there's an email, and it's a real pain in the arse at times, but I love his music and it's a massive influence on me, in some pieces more than others. I thank my lucky stars in retrospect though that I didn't grow up in Russia and that my dad wasn't a musician. Who's to say, maybe I'd have done more music if he was a musician, but the point is I was free to follow my own path, and growing up in the UK having the name Prokofiev, people would recognise it, and especially in musical circles it would slow me down from getting confidence as a composer and really going for it, so I used a different name for a while and that gave me a bit of freedom. Had I been in Russia though where he's such a big deal, the pressure would be really intense I think. And my dad had struggled as the son of a very famous composer, he was a visual artist, he himself was trying to escape the shadow of his father, so the shadow wasn't present in the house, he'd already made that break.

What are you working on now?

GP: I've got this thing for Seattle Symphony, for Sonic Evolutions, it's been going for six or seven years and they commission a composer to write an orchestral piece for Seattle Symphony inspired by one of the musical icons of Seattle. All the most famous people have been done, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Quincy Jones is originally from Seattle, but when I got the list the one person who hadn't been done who I thought was really interesting was Sir Mix-A-Lot. He's a 90s rapper; he's quite humorous and a fun guy. So I'm orchestrating two of his most famous hits, and he's actually going to rap on stage with orchestra. He's got this rap persona but in reality he's the softest, he's only interested in mixing. His most famous hit is 'Baby Got Back' which starts, "I like Big Butts..." and so I'm doing a new piece based on the rhythms of his, of raps...

Float Dance EP1 by Peter Gregson & Gabriel Prokofiev is out on Nonclassical now