By Maggie Molloy
Classical music buffs are typically familiar with the works of 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev; but are they familiar with the works of his grandson?
Gabriel Prokofiev is a London-based composer, producer, and founder of the Nonclassical record label. Created in 2004, Nonclassical is an independent record label which is dedicated to the discovery and promotion of new, innovative, forward-thinking classical music. The label’s albums often feature collaborations between classical musicians and producers who typically work in different genres.
The label also hosts club-nights: contemporary classical performances presented in London pubs, rock venues, and nightclubs, with DJs performing between acts. The idea behind club-nights is that they make contemporary classical music more accessible, particularly to a younger audience.
In honor of Nonclassical’s 10th anniversary, this past August Prokofiev released an album titled “Gabriel Prokofiev: Selected Classical Works 2003-2012.” In keeping with Nonclassical’s mission, the selected compositions feature elements of the Western classical music tradition while also experimenting with innovative new sounds and instrumentation.
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The album begins with the complete recordings of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 and String Quartet No. 2 performed by the Elysian Quartet. Both pieces utilize rich, percussive rhythms, visceral bow strokes, dense musical textures, and dynamic interplay between voices. Prokofiev tends to favor swelling violin melodies layered over very rhythmic, typically pizzicato backdrops. With each movement, he utilizes the full pitch range of every instrument (as well as every possible style of playing) in order to fully immerse the listener in a unique musical atmosphere.
The quartets are followed by two movements of Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, performed by the Heritage Orchestra and featuring DJ Yoda. If anyone was going to combine the two seemingly separate worlds of hip hop and classical music, Prokofiev is probably the most qualified to do so: the unique concept for this piece is informed by his background as a producer of hip hop, grime, and electro records. The concerto’s dynamic rhythms and dramatic punches are at times reminiscent of Stravinsky—except for, you know, with turntables.
Since his turntable concerto, Prokofiev has further fused hip hop and classical music in a number of other projects. Earlier this year, the Seattle Symphony performed Prokofiev’s orchestral arrangements of Seattle hip hop pioneer Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Posse on Broadway” and “Baby Got Back.” The Symphony also premiered Prokofiev’s own original Sir Mix-A-Lot-inspired orchestral composition, “Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot.”
Though these compositions did not make it onto his compilation album, Prokofiev does feature plenty of other imaginative works. Four selections from his Piano Book No. 1, performed by GéNIA, give the album a slightly softer edge. The pieces seem to explore every pitch of every octave on the piano, ranging from growling bass backdrops to light, whimsical melodies.
The piano pieces are followed by all four movements of Prokofiev’s Cello Multitracks, performed by Peter Gregson. This piece is certainly not your typical cello repertoire: it was written for nine layered cello parts, all of which are intended to be recorded by a single cellist. The piece truly highlights the cello’s unbelievable range, combining even the toughest, grittiest sounds with the most vocal, melodic qualities of the instrument. Plus, hearing numerous layers of the same instrument interweaving with itself also creates a truly unique aural experience.
Prokofiev’s compilation album ends with an excerpt from “Import/Export: Suite for Global Junk” performed by Powerplant. The piece is inspired by musicians and composers from around the globe who use unconventional objects as percussion instruments. The result is a rich array of percussive sounds and echoing rhythms.
From his turntable concerto to his nine-cello suite to his found-objects percussion piece, Prokofiev’s compilation album showcases his ear for experimentation and musical innovation. Regardless of his musical lineage, Gabriel Prokofiev has certainly secured a name for himself as one of London’s most imaginative contemporary composers.