Composer, DJ, producer and events coordinator Gabriel Prokofiev is a leading voice in 21st Century classical music. Gabriel has an interesting musical heritage as the grandson of one of the leading composers of the 20th Century, Sergei Prokofiev. Born and raised in London, Gabriel’s music combines a unique mixture of influences, from his Russian heritage to London’s electronic dance scene. Gabriel is breaking barriers with his Nonclassical organisation, bringing classical music to younger generations through a record label and club nights. His unique sound combines electronics with classical music. He composes chamber music, concertos, opera, and contemporary dance. Gabriel’s works have been performed internationally by orchestras such as BBC Philharmonic and St Petersburg Philharmonic.
Gabriel believes in music’s universal power to address challenging topics. He spoke to us about his latest release Litvinenko, the soundtrack to ITVX’s drama about the poisoning of former Russian security officer Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko who had defected to the UK. Gabriel also uses music to portray human interaction and the bravery and challenges of protest in his recent release Strange Blooms + Howl!.
Given your family heritage as the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, many would assume that classical music is something you were heavily exposed to. Could you tell us a bit about your musical and sonic journey? What was the sound or musical exposure of your childhood? Did growing up in London influence your sound?
Yes, it’s a perceptive question, most assume I’ve been surrounded by classical music. My grandfather died before I was born. My father Oleg Prokofiev was a visual artist, a painter and a sculptor, and my mother a painter. I grew up in a very creative family, but it wasn’t a music household. My dad loved music, but lived under the shadow of his father’s success. He was keen to have his own identity as a visual artist, and I was surrounded by his artwork. He never pressured me to do music, but I did do piano lessons from a young age, and then trumpet and French horn. My dad would take us to big Sergei Prokofiev concerts in London, such as a ballet or symphony. Over my childhood, I heard most of his music in concert. I really love his music, so I felt very close to it from early on, I could really connect with it.
“As a child, I often listened to vinyls of Sergei’s music…My dad also loved jazz, contemporary classical and other classical music…I had a good feeling at home for music.”
As a child, I often listened to vinyls of Sergei’s music. My dad also loved jazz, classical, and contemporary classical music. He played a variety of music: Stockhausen, Glass, Bach, and modern jazz, so I had a good feeling at home for music. Aged ten to twelve I formed a band, we did gigs every few months in south-east London where we lived. We got really into being in a band and writing pop songs. That was something I completely separated from my family background and classical side, I really loved it. From then I started a double life of classical music in orchestras, choirs, school, and later a degree and masters in music, whilst also playing in bands, and doing electronic and dance music.
Living in London was a really big influence for electronic music. In my teens, in the nineties, it was the beginning of dance culture when electronic dance music (EDM) suddenly exploded. In the pop band we didn’t take dance music seriously, we thought it was joke music because it was just repetitive. We were into songs, but then I got into EDM and started going to raves and clubs. It introduced me to the wonder of electronic sound leading me to specialise in electroacoustic composition, which is complex classical music purely using electronics or sampled sounds. London was big, and it’s still part of my identity now. There is a strong heritage of EDM in London such as grime, garage, and drum and bass.
Has it been a process to find your own musical identity and move past any expectations associated with your name? Do you find any influence from Sergei Prokofiev’s composition in your own work?
Yes, in some respects. I was a late starter composing classical music. I did some at school, but then I did Electroacoustic music because that was completely disconnected from my grandfather. I felt very self conscious about being related to Sergei, and I thought people had certain expectations. I probably had expectations of myself, I kind of shied away from it.
I composed songs and dance tunes in bands, then focused on Electroacoustic at university. I composed one acoustic piece at university which was successful and commended by Judith Weir, but it wasn’t until several years after my master’s degree that I wrote my first string quartet. I realised I really wanted to write traditional classical music, at first I actually used a different name. I was that concerned about comparisons with my grandfather! Quite quickly I realised I had my own sound, particularly with rhythms. I was really influenced by dance and funk, and love syncopated rhythms. That became part of my musical approach.
“I realised I really wanted to write traditional classical music, at first I actually used a different name.”
I wrote two string quartets for The Elysian Quartet. They said I had a particular style, and I noticed there was a Russian feel to it. I would say a broad Russian sound rather than just Sergei. Over time, I would come up with ideas that reminded me of my grandfather. At first I thought I couldn’t include them, but now I think I should just let it be and be proud if it sounds like him because that’s my family, and I love his music. So there is some connection, but it took a while for me to feel confident about my voice. I’m lucky that musicians and journalists have responded saying I’ve got my own sound, that’s reinforced my confidence.
You are composing in a very different musical environment to your grandfather, in a different country, but also a time where classical music is far less mainstream. Your music crosses many genres, how has your own experience been with the notion that classical music is ‘niche’, and can you tell us how you’ve been breaking those barriers down with your compositions and work with Nonclassical?
In the 20th century, culture and mass media evolved. Art forms like opera and symphony had been superseded by cinema and television. It’s been tough for classical music to keep its place. I think it’s a real shame that many, especially in the UK, don’t have contact with classical music. Lack of music education is a big issue, people feel they wont understand classical music, or it just doesn’t feel familiar. That’s just not true, and if people are introduced to more music younger they’re more likely to go to broader concerts. I like all genres of music, and one of the issues in the 20th century was that classical music became inward-looking and tried to find solace in itself as a high art form. That is unhealthy and damaging to classical music.
Back in the 17-19th centuries, composers did both light and serious music. If you have a symphony or string quartet the contrast of playful dance ideas alongside moving music is what makes it so rich. I think classical music now is stuck in one mood, or takes itself too seriously. That can be off-putting to new audiences. I like to incorporate different genres and influences, and look for contrast in mood and feel within a piece. I started Nonclassical in 2004 specifically to present classical music in a non-traditional or non-classical way.
“Classical music has become inward-looking and static, and its mode of presentation hasn’t changed for 100 years. It’s not in sync with most people’s lifestyles, particularly younger generations.”
Classical music has become inward-looking and static, and its mode of presentation hasn’t changed for 100 years. It’s not in sync with most lifestyles, particularly younger generations. We should present it in a more relaxed way. Historically chamber music was an informal practice in homes, playing a range of repertoire and discussing it. Now, if you go to see chamber music, it might be in the top venue of Wigmore Hall which is very formal. It’s great for concerts, and I love going there, but chamber music should also be shared in bars, clubs and pubs. That’s what we’re trying to do with Nonclassical, trying to normalise it and make it more approachable – to put it into spaces that aren’t just for those in the know.
If you grow up going to concerts you take the culture for granted. If you didn’t, many things feel really odd. You can’t make too much noise or speak to your neighbour, and you’re stuck in rows. Most people aren’t used to that. With Nonclassical everyone’s standing and can move around with autonomy, you’re more relaxed and can enjoy it more. The last thing you want is for people to feel tense and intimidated in a concert. Nonclassical was kick-started when none of my friends turned up to my first string quartet concert. Nobody wants to go sit with lots of old people on a Sunday. That made me think something has to change!
For many, classical compositions can portray emotion in a unique way, having worked across so many genres how do you feel about this idea? Does your classical background lead you to focus more on melody than other electronic artists?
That’s a really interesting question. It’s tricky because lots of people have profound experiences listening to other genres, I think it’s risky for classical music to claim an emotional high ground. I do think, however, that classical music can offer a deep listening and immersive experience. Classical compositions can be 30-60 minutes long. Generally, in other genres things are broken up into songs, whereas a symphony can take you on a whole journey into deep thought. It’s a different experience, it’s neither better nor worse, but I think it’s really important. I would compare it to only reading short stories and never reading a full novel. I think that’s what is really special about it.
The other thing with classical music is the artistry and the level of musicianship. There’s this incredible tradition in orchestras with 80 musicians who are all at the top of their game, and it’s all acoustic and live. It’s a very unique and powerful experience. It’s a shame if people don’t experience that. I think there are good things to learn from pop and dance music, skills which we would ignore at our peril. In classical music, there’s a lot of sonic innovation in terms of the production of electronic music. Incredibly skilled producers find ways of making very impactful sounds doing interesting things with bass, and that’s something we can use in classical music.
“The other thing with classical music is the artistry and the level of musicianship…and it’s all acoustic and live, it is a very unique and powerful experience. It’s a shame if people don’t experience that, I really think that’s important.”
With pop music, in crafting brilliant and concise songs there is something that has immediate impact. That can be applied to classical music as well, classical music doesn’t just have to be about a piece with a five minute intro. In classical music, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, and Sergei, are all examples of composers where you’re sucked in within two seconds. With contemporary music I think we can always learn from that, we shouldn’t forget the importance of stuff that’s immediate.
With electronic music and melody, it’s tricky. I love melody, and I feel that’s part of my heritage because my grandfather was one of the last melodists of the 20th century. The trend for classical music was to move away, particularly from tonality. Melody became a dangerous area, so to speak. There’s a lot of music that has gestural shapes but not clear melody. For me, it’s an interesting challenge to bring melody into contemporary music. Increasingly I’m trying to let go and include more singable, accessible melodies. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as you’re not doing anything pastiche or clichéd. It’s always exciting to try and bring melody into your music.
Your latest album is very powerful, a beautiful and haunting soundtrack of ITVX’s Litvinenko. Can you tell us about the composition process, and how you reflected on the sound of Soviet-era Russia, radioactivity, suspicion and paranoia.
There’s an interesting intro to this story. In spring 2021 I was listening to The Reunion on BBC Radio 4, and it happened to be Marina Litvinenko, Alexander Litvinenko’s wife. Marina was reunited with those involved around her husband’s poisoning. I was really moved by her story, hearing her talk about the details I didn’t know was very powerful. Afterwards, I thought I’ve got to compose a piece about this! Then, by complete coincidence six weeks later, a friend told me a director was interested in me doing the score for his new drama Litvinenko. It was like stars aligning, it was a project I really wanted to do before I was even asked to do it.
Normally with film and TV, composers write the music towards the end of the process. In this case, I was on board before they started shooting. I read all the scripts and wrote sketches, which they used to edit as soon as they started shooting. There was an ongoing collaborative process, as they were filming I was composing and reworking. The project is the director’s vision, so there was a lot of material which I thought was right but didn’t suit them. Some pieces I’m really happy with ended up in the drama. There was also some filler music, to show the passing of time, which doesn’t have much emotional impact. It meant that some of the music was a lot more minimal and repetitive than I would normally write, but this is the point! It’s a very different kind of project and you just take the challenge, and it’s nice to collaborate with people.
It pushed me to write a lot more lyrical, melodic, and openly tonal music. It was a good excuse to let go of my contemporary music hang ups and make it more accessible, for want of a better word. The melodic lyrical side was particularly to do with Marina and the emotive journey that she went through. I also wanted to give a Russian feel because she’s Russian, and it’s a Russian story set in the UK. It’s a tragedy of someone who tried to stand up to authority and lost his life because of it. I also wanted to portray the fear of the radioactive poison, the Polonium-210. I bought a special drone box called The Stargazer by Møffenzeef Mødular. I don’t normally use drones, but I wanted to musically represent the sound of this hum of radioactivity. A new toy in electronic music inspires you, and I got some really cool, pulsing, haunting radioactive drones.
There’s a Russian synthesiser called the ANS, only one was ever made. It’s in the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow, and I’ve seen it. It’s got a very glassy, magical sound. It was used for the soundtrack of Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, a seventies science fiction film. It’s not like any other synthesiser, it’s a bit like the remix machine as it converts to sound what you draw on a glass plate. Amazingly, I found someone in Russia had made a computer emulation of the ANS. I used that to make really high frequency haunting psychoacoustic sounds. I was really glad to make the connection of using a Russian sound to represent a radioactive poison that is only manufactured in Russia.
You mention in the press release that your own family were targeted by the KGB under Stalin, with your grandmother Lina having been imprisoned for eight years in a gulag between 1948-54. You also work with Ukranian violist Maxim Rysanov on this album. Do you believe in music’s unspoken power to explore difficult topics, or even help bring unity at times of international and European tension?
Definitely, I believe in music’s power to explore topics. Sometimes something can be very overtly political, or it can be more subtle. I think music can be very effective like that. It’s difficult, often we want music to be an escape from the problems in life, and the last thing you want is to be taken into a depressing place at a concert. At the same time, it is important to reflect on serious issues with music. Music can convey emotions without words in a very special and universal way. People might not be able to hear a speech about a particular conflict or persecution, but perhaps they can hear a piece of music and instantly connect to the emotions.
“Music can convey emotions without words in a very special and universal way.”
Maxime Rysanov is a phenomenal musician, and it did feel significant to have a Ukrainian violist playing some of these melodies. Whilst Litvinenko has nothing to do with the invasion of Ukraine, it is to do with the legacy of Putin, and is a signpost in the story that has culminated with the invasion of Ukraine. We actually did the final sounds two days after the invasion of Ukraine in February. We were in the studio watching the episode where they declare in court that Litvinenko’s murder was without doubt ordered by Putin. This was just two days before he ordered the invasion of a sovereign country. Litvinenko was back in in 2006, so it felt quite uncanny to be doing it at the same time – you see what a bad direction history had turned in.
Your other recent release Strange Blooms + Howl! is very different musically, but perhaps similar in theme. You describe Howl! as ‘A five-movement electronic composition that explores the experience and struggles of protest and rebellion’, originally composed for contemporary dance. As with Litvinenko, you are using music to explore a powerful topic which you say ‘feels as relevant as ever’ with the war in Ukraine and protesting in Russia forbidden. Can you tell us more about the music, and how you go about addressing these themes in your composition?
I recently released a CD which has two pieces on it, Howl and Strange Blooms. Howl is about protest. The theme of Strange Blooms is about the secret life of plants, but also partly a metaphor for human social interaction and cultural exchange as well. Howl was written just after the Arab Spring, which was facilitated by social media. Facebook was used in countries where protest was forbidden, people were able to coordinate with social media and share information outside the radar of the government who hadn’t yet wised up to it. It was very exciting and showed social media as a positive force for change.
I wanted to use all electronic sounds to represent the way that all the communication was done electronically, through digital clicks and beeps. I used a vintage synth with ‘clicky’ and bleeping electronic sounds, I wanted to use that to create something quite emotional and fired up, and explore the journey of protest. The piece has four movements. Each movement is a different aspect of the journey of protest, whether it’s the protest itself, the build up before, the fear of being caught or persecuted for protesting, and then a cathartic release when the protest has finished.
“With the challenges of protest, music allows you to enter that world for just a few minutes.”
It was originally done with contemporary dance, but over the years I performed some of it at gigs. In 2019 I performed in Hong Kong and we were just around the corner from protests. We actually went to a big protest, and it was a very powerful experience. There was so much passion and courage, shouting at police because they knew their freedom was at stake.
When we performed it, people could really relate to it. For me, it’s an important piece, and a chance to consider the bravery of people who protest, especially when we’re not protesting. With the challenges of protest, music allows you to enter that world for just a few minutes. This piece is 20 minutes, and you can get really sucked in deep into that experience in a much shorter time frame than almost any other way, it makes you think!
We spoke to Fretwork about their work with you on the Albion Project, this is a very interesting collaboration with viol consort. This project explored British and English identity in music, following Brexit. When we’ve discussed classical music in this context we are usually referring to European classical music. As someone with mixed heritage do you think there is such a thing as a European sound to classical music, and do you think the sound or style of individual countries contributes significantly to your own composition?
It’s something I think about quite a bit. There is certainly a European tradition, and certain composers such as the incredible influence of the German school, of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel. Germany is in the centre of Europe. Russian music emerged later in European classical history, and was strongly influenced by German tradition. National styles emerged, and I know that I’m drawn to the Russian approach. I don’t know if this is because I’ve listened to a lot of Russian music, or if I am carrying some Russian DNA that is somehow coming out musically! It doesn’t matter how, but somehow that’s part of my sound. I would say my English sound expresses itself more when I do popular music. Looking globally, popular music is where the UK has been most influential, with bands and songwriters, and also electronic music.
Certainly I think Europeanness is more to do with the formats, the form and the instruments. Each country, however, has quite distinctive sounds. You can tell, or make a good guess, which European country a composer is from. In one of the first gigs I had in Moscow, a Russian string quartet played my first quartet and the violist said “Gabriel, your music is more Russian than what the contemporary Russian composers are writing”. That was very funny, I took that as a compliment, it was really interesting. There are composers who’ve lived in other countries but stayed true to their heritage.
You have composed many concertos, chamber, and orchestral works. What can you tell us about your Concerto for Turntables and how this came about?
I love writing concertos, for me it’s a really communicative medium. The soloist is like a protagonist conversing with the orchestra. The orchestra can be like a crowd, society, or a group of individuals, or even like a landscape through which the protagonist is journeying. There’s all different kinds of scenarios you can create, and for the audience it’s exciting to have an individual to identify with. The turntables Concerto came about because I’d already done some remixes of classical music, including hip hop remixes of my first string quartet. I’d also done another piece with turntables, but just playing the ‘clicky’ sounds of vinyl. I made rhythms out of the clicks of vinyl and then pressed that onto vinyl – sort of taking the vinyl to its limit.
Will Dutta, a young event’s producer, approached me. He’d just seen DJ Yoda, a brilliant scratch DJ, performing at a festival and said “wow, imagine a concerto with an orchestra and a turntable”. For him, I was the obvious person. I wasn’t sure, I thought it could be a gimmick to get classical cool for the kids, for a photo opportunity. I didn’t think it would work musically and would sound very contrived, the idea in my head was of someone scratching a “waka waka” sound over strings. I thought it would be horrible, that bringing together different genres was dangerous and could go horribly wrong!
I thought about it, and decided to give the turntables the sound of the orchestra so they’re connected sonically, and it’s not going to feel so contrived. You hear the orchestra play something, and then you hear the turntable scratch and manipulate that same sound. It’s almost like a live remix, or a live theme and variations. I thought it was fascinating philosophically, the juxtaposition of the live sound and the recorded sound. Once I had that concept, I got excited and wrote the concerto in 2006. In 2011 the BBC commissioned an expanded version for the National Youth Orchestra. I did a full symphonic version, and it was the first time a turntablist had performed at the Proms. Many of the turntable community came, and it was broadcast on BBC and put on YouTube. It became my breakthrough piece, and kickstarted my orchestral career.
I took the piece very seriously. I was already a fan of turntablism, I’d been to turntable battles, which are comparable to the piano and violin duels of Beethoven and Paganini’s time. I see it as a typical activity of an emerging instrument where people want to test the limits with these battles. I think it’s a very serious instrument, and wanted to do it justice. I wanted to connect to hip-hop culture where it comes from, but also to contemporary classical. It brings the two worlds together. I think when people listen to it they realise it’s a really serious piece of music, it’s not a gimmick. That really helped people see where I was coming from as a composer.
Many people in the classical world are hesitant to include electronic sounds in their music. Whilst acoustic music is extremely powerful and important, electronic music is only becoming more popular and advanced, especially with its use in dance and club culture. Classical music has traditionally been associated with social dance forms, do you feel that this direction of including classical music in electronic dance music is less of a step away than many would imagine?
It’s a very good question, it’s a topic that people don’t talk about. The way popular dance forms used to be part of classical music is a really important classical tradition that got lost in the latter half of the 20th century. It’s something I’m really interested in bringing back. I’m using the popular dance forms of our time in my music, just as people were doing in the classical and romantic period. Even people like Stravinsky experimented with jazz and ragtime. I’m interested in connecting with all different contemporary dance forms.
I myself was quite hesitant to have electronic sounds with classical. The turntables concerto is amplified, but by using the sounds of the orchestra. It took me a while to dare to start combining classical instruments with pure electronics, I thought they wouldn’t sit well together. I composed Terra Incognita for Rambert at Sadler’s Wells, for string ensemble and electronics. I got to a point where I was confident with my string writing and electronics to bring them together. I included some clicky, glitchy electronic sounds, and even some bass drum sounds, and that sounded great. That gave me confidence to continue combining the two .
My main rule is to only use electronics if there’s a really good reason to, never because it’s the cool thing to do, because ultimately an orchestra can make most sounds you want. That’s the most exciting thing about an orchestra, you can bring or find really interesting objects in a percussion section, or try extended techniques or combinations of instruments to make unusual sounds. You have to consider if you actually need electronics. For me, it’s to do with the theme of the piece, and then maybe the sounds.
“My main rule is to only use electronics if there’s a really good reason to, never because it’s the cool thing to do.”
I did a piece called Breaking Screens for string orchestra and electronics. It is about contemporary life and the fear of recent developments, of online life and the climate crisis. I wanted really powerful futuristic modern sounds, and a sub-bass and deep bass that an orchestra can’t create. I wanted some mechanical electronic sounds, which musicians could imitate, but I wanted the real thing. I think the two can work well together, the biggest downside is that it can’t be fully acoustic. I completely appreciate the magic of a purely acoustic concert. When you introduce electronics, you’ve got to somehow either have electronics quiet so they sit with the acoustics, or you have to amplify the orchestra. It’s all possible, and it all works!
Do you have any exciting projects or concerts coming up this year?
Maxime Rossano is performing my viola concerto in June at the Oregon Music Festival in America. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales also recorded it, which will air on BBC radio 3. Then, I’ve written my first piano trio which is, I would say, the archetypal classical chamber music medium. I’ve set myself the challenge of writing a piece that I hope will enter the repertoire, but that is not a cliché piano trio. It will be premiered by the Van Baerle Trio in Utrecht on 23rd February, and then in the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam on 24th February. I’m really excited about the piece, I had so much fun composing it because I could do funky piano stuff, but also quiet melodic things. In London, I will be doing some DJ sets with Nonclassical, on 4th March at the London Handel Festival, and on 12th March The Greenhouse Effect at Barbican Conservatory.
Our playlist in this spotlight Gabriel Prokofiev explores Gabriel’s work, as well as the music mentioned here.
Gabriel’s work can also be found in our playlist Alchemy.
Nonclassical is a registered charity, visit their website to support and learn more.