Gabriel Prokofiev experiments with classical compositions

Gabriel Prokofiev wants you to rethink music: how you listen to it how your body responds to it and what happens when you stick the word “classical” in front of it.

“To really take music in you need to be very relaxed. You need to feel at ease; you shouldn’t feel that you ought to listen in any particular way or you should have a particular reaction. And if you feel like you want to clap or respond you should be able to. In some concert situations — and I think Canada is probably a bit more relaxed than the U.K. — but if you move around in your seat too much sometimes you can get somebody looking at you in an annoyed way.”

Gabriel will be in Calgary this weekend for a show of his own compositions and some by his grandfather the iconic Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Gabriel will perform on DJ turntables alongside pianist Katherine Chi cellist Shauna Rolston and members of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday and Sunday nights at Local 522. It’s part of Bison Noir a new series launched by the Honens International Piano Competition which aims to level the barriers posed by the classical music experience. The name is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to (Le) Poisson Rouge a New York City nightclub at the epicentre of a movement in contemporary classical music which some have labeled “post-classical.”

Gabriel Prokofiev fits that movement to a T — as a London-based producer DJ and founder of a record label and club night called NONCLASSICAL he is a very different sort of musician than his grandfather. Gabriel speaks at a fast clip in flowing sentences and with a British accent. He’s eager to talk about the things that excite him most: the sonic possibilities of electronic music the communicative possibilities of live performance and the elemental possibilities of dance rhythms in all genres.

“At first in a way I was trying to do too many different genres. I was attracted to all of them so it was natural. Eventually I realized I wanted to focus more on classical but maybe at first I was a bit intimidated. But at the same time that’s been part of my language as a composer: I like to be influenced by popular styles and especially dance rhythms from other genres. And I actually think it’s something that a lot of modern composers don’t do and it used to be a lot more common.”

Not that Sergei Prokofiev was any old fuddy-duddy either — he wrote some of the most prickly dark and twisted classical music of the 20th century as well as some of its most romantic and enthralling. Even those who don’t know his name have heard his score for Peter and the Wolf or his popular ballets such as Romeo and Juliet . Grandfather P. had a knack for dance rhythms too.

Gabriel Prokofiev doesn’t mind questions about Sergei though when it’s the first thing that comes up he says “that’s a bit of a pain.” He considers himself fortunate that his parents raised him in England a bit removed from the shadow of the man he calls “our great ancestor.” Gabriel’s father Oleg Prokofiev escaped that shadow by pursuing a career in painting and the visual arts and by moving to England. A bit of distance probably allowed Gabriel to take an active interest in music and not just classical — after studying electro-acoustic composition in university he produced records for hip-hop and grime artists including the English rapper Lady Sovereign.

His turn towards classical arose from a love of live performance. “When you write for acoustic instruments you have this fantastic communication between composer and performers” Gabriel says. “And you write a score and then you hand it over to these brilliant musicians and they bring it to life and they bring their energy and their feelings and their experience into your music.”

The sounds he asks for are often derived from electronic music though. “Certain very mechanical sounds or very short lippy sounds or certain quite raw dirty sounds — that we would have never thought of making say 50 years ago. But because of what’s happened with electronic instruments our ears have heard more. We’ve had this new sonic world revealed to us. So I’m very interested in taking those sounds into acoustic music.”

The Bison Noir performances will open with Sergei’s Overture on Hebrew Themes followed by Gabriel’s Cello Multitracks in which a live solo cellist (Shauna Rolston in this case) performs along with eight recorded tracks. Later Katherine Chi will perform piano music by both Prokofievs and another work by Gabriel Two Dances for string trio bass clarinet piano and scratch DJ. Gabriel will also work the turntables between sets sampling and remixing the night’s performances and finish the night with a DJ set.

Featuring people like Gabriel Prokofiev and Shauna Rolston in a nightclub setting can accomplish several things says Honens artistic director Stephen McHolm. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with introducing it in a nightclub setting because the whole point is to introduce people to the music.”

And to introduce more of them to Honens Competition winners like Katherine Chi the only Honens Laureate from Calgary. “All the pianists who win the Honens Competition are young” says McHolm. “Most are not just stuck in a practice room listening to Bach all the time — they have interests outside of classical music. Doing something contemporary and stretching the boundaries is exciting for them too and it lets them relax and have fun with the music.”

For Saturday night’s Bison Noir Chi will have just performed a Mozart concerto with the Calgary Philharmonic — McHolm expects that some of the CPO’s more adventurous audience members will follow her to Local 522. That’s the reason for the late start time of 10:30 p.m. (Sunday’s Bison Noir starts at a more conventional 8:30 p.m.). For his part Gabriel Prokofiev is impressed: “This is really even later than what we do in London. So there’s a lot of respect to the people in Calgary. You guys like to stay up late I guess?”

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