Composer Gabriel Prokofiev on hip-hop, turntables and why he hates making classical music "cool"
Reader’s Digest: How did you come up with the idea for the Concerto for Turntables?
Gabriel Prokofiev: I think most people who grew up in the 1980s and 90s are aware of scratching and turntablism. In the 80s, there was that Herbie Hancock track, “Rockit” and that was one of the first tracks that had scratching at the forefront. I think I might have seen it on Top of the Pops as a kid. And then I was at university and I had housemates who were really into hip-hop and scratching, we even had turntables in our student accommodation.
I would go to DMC battles where you see the real turntablists competing and that blew my mind. It’s the turntable equivalent of seeing a virtuoso pianist or violinist at work. The DJs weren’t even wearing headphones, they’d just drop the needle in the exact right place on the vinyl, and they created all kinds of amazing sounds. So this stayed with me.
And then in 2005, Will Dutta, who is an amazing pianist and record producer, approached me with this idea of a concerto for turntables. I was a bit torn because I knew how brilliant turntables could be but at the same time, I was sceptical about whether it would work with a full orchestra because it’s such a different sound world.
But then I thought about it more and realised that I don’t have to give the turntablist the traditional scratch sounds which are part of the hip-hop culture. Obviously, the techniques emerged out of hip-hop but it doesn’t mean you can’t give it other sounds and incorporate it with other styles of music. I kind of had a breakthrough. I thought if the turntable just used the sounds from the orchestra they’re playing with, then there would be this real connection between the turntable and the orchestra, and it wouldn’t feel like this uncomfortable juxtaposition of two different worlds.
RD: Were you worried about the project becoming a disaster?
GP: Oh yeah, totally. When I was first approached about this project, my first reaction was, “Oh God, that’s a classic disaster waiting to happen, you know, somebody trying to make classical music look ‘cool.’” Scratching can be really annoying, too. Back in the 1990s, there was a period when everyone would just add a generic scratch sound to a track just to make it sound cool, and it was just really annoying. So turntablism can be a gimmick.
But when it’s performed by a serious musician or turntablist, then actually it does become a really expressive musical instrument. People who dismiss it are the ones who don’t really understand turntablism.
"I could almost see them rolling their eyes, thinking, 'Oh, here we go, it’s one of those projects made in an effort to draw in younger audiences'"
It’s like when people try to incorporate elements of dance music in classical music. Some people might just whack a house beat underneath an orchestra and that’s just a gimmick—they’re just doing that because they think they can draw in a younger crowd. But it’s not done with integrity.
RD: What’s the feedback been like so far?
GP: Generally I’ve been really pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the positive response. I’ve also been impressed by the response of the musicians in the orchestra. Again, half of them were a bit sceptical at the beginning. I could almost see them rolling their eyes, thinking, Oh, here we go, it’s one of those projects made in an effort to draw in younger audiences. But then when they meet the turntablist and see his skills and virtuosity, and hear the phrases that they themselves are playing in the orchestra, being played back and manipulated into other sounds, they get really excited because they realise that it’s actually quite remarkable.
RD: What is it like working with conductors on this piece?
GP: A lot of the time orchestras are playing pieces by composers that are no longer around. But as a living composer, I’m always keen to talk to the conductors, even to the musicians, if possible, just to explain some things about the piece. Obviously, I try to put everything in the score but there’s always little details and nuances that perhaps aren’t always conveyed in the score.
With Vladimir Jurowski [who conducted the Turntable Concerto at the Proms in 2011] it was great because I went to several rehearsals, I had a meal with him, we talked about it quite a lot, he adjusted the tempo a bit and made one of the movements slower. It was a really enjoyable experience because he’s someone who loves to get inside every piece he does.
RD: What does the score even look like?
GP: I’ve written it like a percussion score, with normal notation, but I’ve put a lot of descriptions of what I want them to do in text and I tried to explain what the different symbols mean. And ideally, the turntablist needs to have some basic knowledge of reading music. Otherwise, they have to learn it by ear because they need to know when to come in. And even if they can’t read music they can just follow the score to know which sound comes next because they have to play the right sounds at the right time.
RD: You mockingly mentioned that you were worried that people would just think you were “trying to make classical music cool” earlier. But is that something you genuinely care about?
GP: That’s something I’m very interested in. In 2004, I founded this organisation, Non-Classical which is classical club nights, and record label. And we basically release and put on events of contemporary classical music but in a non-classical way. That’s still going strong. So, that’s something that I’ve always cared about. I just don’t like the phrase, “trying to make classical music cool”, I think that just cheapens good intentions.
"The way classical music is presented just got really old-fashioned and out of synch with modern lifestyle"
The good intentions are to keep classical music relevant and trying to keep it relatable to contemporary life. Since I was a student, classical music, even when it was created and performed by young people, wasn’t really connecting to young people’s lives. It still felt very much like a 19th-century culture. The way it’s presented just got really old-fashioned and out of synch with the modern lifestyle. So I think it’s trite to say “let’s make classical music cool” but we need to make it relatable and relevant.
"I think classical composers are foolish to ignore musical development outside of classical music"
Having a contemporary instrument like the turntable, showing that that can be a part of classical music, that’s a good example of making classical music really relevant to contemporary culture. A lot of people say that it’s a historic, boring artform, you know, sitting in rows, in a hall, in silence, like it’s a school or a church, and the programme is always done in quite a dry style, a lot of notes, lists of names, that we’re supposed to know. There’s a lot of presumed knowledge and that can be a turn-off. So it’s about finding connections with people.
Another theme in my music is connecting to contemporary dance styles and rhythms whether that’s club sounds like techno or hip-hop or something you just hear blaring out of someone’s car window. Stuff that’s part of our lives. The way electronic dance music and different dance rhythms have evolved in the past 50 years is very exciting, and I think classical composers are foolish to ignore musical development outside of classical music.
And in the past, classical music was much more engaged with popular dance of its time. You look at all these dances like minuet and polka and waltzes and mazurka—those were all just dances that people were dancing to in social occasions and they were incorporated into classical piano music, orchestral music. So I’m just trying to reconnect with that tradition.
RD: What have you been listening to during the lockdown?
GP: The problem is that I’ve actually been composing a lot during the lockdown and when I’m writing music, I try not to listen to that much because I’m really trying to get into my zone. When I finish a day’s composing the last thing I want to do is listen to music [Laughs]. My ears are just tired so I end up listening to talk radio or something.
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