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 by placing 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 airlifts classical music out of the concert hall and drops it in clubs and bars. But when I meet him, it quickly becomes 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 that he is the grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. And he admits that he has been inspired by his grandfather: ‘having someone that successful in your family sets a really high bar, so he’s made me very ambitious and overly self-critical.’
But he is also keen to emphasise that he was never pushed into classical music. His father was a sculptor and painter, meaning that the young Prokofiev did not grow up in a musical household. An interest in music developed of its own accord, consolidated by university composition studies at Birmingham and York. But 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 grandfather. He is also grateful to reviewers for recognising him as a musical voice in his own right, without constantly comparing him to the other Prokofiev.
It’s really important for classical music to connect with music that evolves naturally. We ignore that at our peril.
For his part he’s done plenty to cultivate that distinctive voice, mainly by putting classical music in dialogue with other genres. ‘I’m really interested in bringing in rhythms that I hear coming out 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 evolve in a very natural and instinctive way: ‘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.’ In his opinion, non-classical music represents a new 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 that at our peril.’
Prokofiev’s ease with both the classical and non-classical worlds is also crucial to his record label Nonclassical, whose monthly club nights present classical music as if it were Rock or Electronic music. But the real reason why he set up the label in 2003 was that he wanted his work to appeal to his peers. He recounts how, when he composed his first string quartet, he had hoped that his friends, including those without a classical music background, would come and 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 part of anyone’s lifestyle, especially when you’re in your 20s. So I thought, I’ve just got to put it on like a normal gig, and that’s what I did.’
It worked: between 150 and 200 people, mostly in their 20s, attended this new classical music club night, and thus the launch of Nonclassical came off with a splash. A surer sign of its achievements however, is the fact that it is still going over 10 years later, 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, Prokofiev is surely one of contemporary classical music’s greatest advocates. ‘What drives me,’ he tells me, ‘is the desire to demonstrate that this music is really relevant to people.’ 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 Nonclassical an attempt to diminish the existing classical music scene. It’s just augmenting it. It’s another experience.’