Hail The Machine Overlords! Gabriel Prokofiev Talks


NonClassical have been disrupting the conservative world of Classical music for some time now. By daring to introduce turntables to orchestral concertos label boss Gabriel Prokofiev has pissed off and impressed the classical old guard in equal measures. Recent NonClassical shows have drawn the links between the worlds of techno and a century's worth of composers experimenting with music inspired by, created by and mimicked by machinery, most notably having Juan Atkins headline a bill that included a performacne fo Steve Reich composition. Now they're back with a series of shows this April exploring the relatoinaship between man, music and machine. On April 13th and April 15th the label are putting on shows where music from Prokofiev, Aphex Twin, Alexander Mosolov, Shostakovich and more will be performed in a variety of unique ways – we spoke to Gabriel to find out more – 

Hey Gabriel, so this new series of shows is called Rise of the Machines?

That’s right – it follows on from the recent Juan Atkins event we did. We’re looking at our interaction with technology, human awareness of machines, and how some instruments are more machine like than others. There should be another big event in September that will carry on these themes. It’s very topical – I’m really interested in it, and you keep getting little things that chime with the themes appearing in the press. My girlfriend told me she heard a program on French radio the other day where a surgeon was interviewed, and he was saying that already there are procedures that they prefer to be done by machines as they’re more accurate. He reckoned that within about 20 years from now all operations will be done by machine – I was really shocked, as I didn’t realise this mechanisation was entering the world of doctors. But we’re at that turning point, and artificial intelligence is on the increase.

So the way I see it, this goes one of two ways – we move increasingly towards a society where robots do all the menial tasks and the people live in a utopian dream of self-expression, or the wealthy replace the majority of jobs with robots and leave the majority of society as unemployed scum scrabbling about for grubs in shit

Well that’s the fear, that’s the dystopian thing. I already don’t like going to the supermarkets and using an automated checkout, and this is only a small thing. I think it’s terrible, I know it’s not a great job to have, but when you’re young it’s a way to earn money and that’s one more job, one more way of getting cash that’s gone. And it’s going to get worse and worse. In this series we’re just looking at this discussion from a musical perspective. But the first show we’ve got on in this series goes backs to the roots of mechanisation, looking at the early interaction with machines. We’ve got this piece which is sort of the Godfather of mechanically inspired music, The Iron Foundry by Mosolov- it’s from 1927 and is the go-to orchestral piece that was inspired by factories and machines. It’s the first case of an orchestral piece really trying to imitate the sound of a machine.

That’s strange, as the industrial revolution was some time before that point – why do you think there was no compositions reflecting machines beforehand?

I honestly don't know. There was this futurist movement in the teens and the twenties – maybe someone had tried something with piano before, but that’s something I’d have to look into. This was definitely the first orchestral piece where someone tried to make something explicitly mechanical sounding. Because of that it almost sounds like techno, and going into the 80s, that’s something that people say about Detroit techno, that it was inspired by the sounds of factories.  

Are you going to be doing anything around the idea of mechanised composition?

There’s one thing on the 13th of April – we’ve got a guy called Tom Richards, he’s at Goldsmiths, a composer who builds his own sequencers. Rather than using the standardised 16 clicks per bar, he has much more irregular patterns, he composes much more complex kind of analogue sequenced material. He doesn’t use any laptops and he’s showing a more freeform, abstract kind of sequenced music. But then what we are going to do in September is we’re going to commission these concertos for drum machine and orchestra. We’ll be using drum machines as solo instruments with a full orchestra.

On the 15th of April it’s all about the orchestra mimicking the machine – we’re going to play my concerto for trumpet, percussion and turntables – the turntables are obviously a machine, but they’re one that has become a musical instrument. The turntable doesn’t have its own sound, it has to take it from other sources – in this case, a melody is played on the cowbell and then mimicked on the turntable, we’re trying to get this point across that the machine is mimicking the human. There’s one part where the turntables pick up this trill that’s played on the rim of the drum, then the DJ slows it down until it turns into a click, which then starts controlling the whole orchestra.

I was interested to hear that some of the scratches where very traditional hip hop vocal scratches rather than something more outlandish-

The vocal bit in the turntable concerto is just in the third movement. The reason behind that is that when I wrote that concerto, which crazily was 10 years ago – DJ Yoda was the original turntablist, and he was adamant that if I wanted some really nice dexterous scratching in the piece, you have to have a voice sound, because that’s always in hip hop. I didn’t want to use the ‘Ahhh’ sound that every DJ uses, but he was adamant that I used a voice somewhere. In the other movements it’s all orchestral sounds. In this new piece that we’re performing on the 15th are all from instruments, wood blocks, rims, trumpets cow bells. The wood blocks turn into really nice textures on the turntables. And there’s some big orchestral hits – at one point these big hits that were played by all the strings and the brass stops being played by them at all ,and is just played by two turntables, with the bass hits on one, and the highs or the snare on the other, it’s like he’s completely replacing the orchestra.  

And what else is on the cards?

Rise of the Machines on April 15th is a specifically orchestral concept. Alongside of Iron Foundry, there are these two Aphex Twin compositions recreated by two American composers as orchestral pieces – that's an example of someone using sequencers and synthesisers to make his music, but then that music being impersonated by an orchestra. This concert is all about humans, and the human touch, but how it's been influenced by machines. 

Rise of the Machines takes place across two dates –  

8pm | Wednesday 13th April 2016 | The Victoria, Haggerston | £6 + BF

7pm | Friday 15th April 2016 | Ambika P3, Marylabone | £7 – 15 + BF

more info over on the NonClassical website