Interview with Gabriel Prokofiev

It would be easy to assume that the London-based composer, producer and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev is something of a classical music rebel. His Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra (2006) wowed BBC Prom audiences in putting an object associated with club music at the centre of an orchestra. He is also the man behind the contemporary classical music label Nonclassical, which takes classical music out of the concert hall and puts it in clubs and bars. But when I met him on a bright Saturday morning in January, it quickly became clear that Prokofiev’s relationship with classical music is far more nuanced than one might expect.

“I’m a big fan of classical music,” he tells me enthusiastically. This is perhaps not that surprising, given he’s the grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Yet Gabriel is keen to emphasise that he was never pushed into classical music. His father was a sculptor and painter, meaning Gabriel did not grow up in a musical household. Gabriel nevertheless admits he has been inspired by his grandfather: “having someone that successful in your family, it’s set a really high bar, so he’s made me very ambitious and overly self-critical”.

But other than being intimidating figure from the past, the impact of Sergei on his grandson’s music is actually rather limited. Indeed, during his teens and 20s, he was more interested in playing in bands and producing Dance, Electro and Hip-hop music than in following in the classical footsteps of his ancestor. He’s also grateful reviewers recognise that he’s doing his own thing, without constantly comparing him to his grandfather.

More important for Gabriel’s music, then, is his comfortable relationship with non-classical genres. He is a firm believer in putting classical music in dialogue with other kinds of music as a way to reinvigorate it. “I’m really interested in bringing in rhythms that I hear coming our of people’s cars or in nightclubs. And that’s what classical music used to have: a lot of engagement with the dance forms of its time”. He goes on to explain how popular and dance music evolved in very natural and instinctive ways. “It’s not like somebody sat down and thought, how are we going to do something new, or I’m a bit tired of current style, let me think of a new beat. It doesn’t happen like that, it just gradually evolves out of another style.” This is what makes non-classical genres so important. They “represent an era. People find a real connection with it. For classical music to connect with music that evolves so naturally is really important. And we ignore it at our peril.”

Gabriel’s ease with both classical and non-classical music is also an important factor for his record label Nonclassical, whose monthly club nights present classical music as if it were Rock or Electronic music. But the real motivator behind him setting up the label in 2003 was Gabriel’s desire to reach an audience of his peers. He recounts how when he composed his First String Quartet he wanted his friends, including those without a classical music background, to hear it. But the work was premiered at Blackheath Halls at a Sunday lunchtime concert. “I invited people to come, and just no one came. No one is going to come to Blackheath Halls on a Sunday afternoon, or anywhere like that. It’s just not in anyone’s lifestyle, especially when you’re in your 20s. So I thought, I just got to put it on like a normal gig, and that’s what I did.”

Gabriel’s rational clearly worked. The first Nonclassical event was a success: between 150 and 200 people, mostly in their 20s, attended this new classical music club night. A bigger sign of Nonclassical’s achievements however, is that fact that it’s still going over 10 years on, despite London being a very competitive city. “It really proves that contemporary classical isn’t some kind of elevated, old-fashioned music for people who’ve studied it”.

Nowadays, Gabriel is surely one of contemporary classical music’s greatest advocates. “What drives me,” he tells me, “is that this music is a really relevant part of people and I feel strongly that a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to hear the range of exciting music that’s out there.” Even his label ­– ­contrary to what its name may suggest – is eager to support rather than defy the long traditions of classical music: “in no way is it [Nonclassical] an attack on or trying to diminish the existing classical music scene. It’s just augmenting it. It’s another experience.”

Published on The Cusp.




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