This weekend, the Art of Time Ensemble, known for their reinvigoration of the classical music tradition, will import UK-based composer, producer, and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev to give classical a jolt of electronica.
For 13 seasons, the Art of Time Ensemble has championed a new vibe within Toronto’s classical music community, tearing at and stretching the fabric of tradition to offer audiences new ways of connecting with composers and musicians. Headed up by classical pianist and artistic director Andrew Burashko, who corrals this army of Canada’s best chamber talents, the mandate of the rule-breaking ensemble is simple: “to give classical music the contemporary relevance and context it needs to maintain a broader audience to survive.”
Indeed, the struggle for survival endured by historical art forms feels like a recurring theme in the bleak, uninspiring landscape that has become pop culture and the bathroom selfies that occupy it. The city has recently seen a push to get younger audiences into proper theatres. A few weeks ago, the Four Seasons Centre was packed with students and budding culturites for a performance of a Mozart opera by the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio. (With tickets starting at $22 and topping out at $55, it feels like a better deal than paying $300 to breathe the same air as Beyoncé.) The Toronto Symphony Orchestra also recently invited me, and at least a dozen of my peers, to a performance of Beethoven’s famed No. 9, and the subtle suggestion that the TSO wants more people like us in the seats is not lost on anyone. And when a Glee star duets with a cello duo for a splashy/sexy music video that ends up on Perez Hilton, you’d think the second coming has never felt more possible.
This brings me to Gabriel Prokofiev, an East London-based DJ and composer that will join the Art of Time Ensemble this weekend to kick off the second-half of its 2013 season. I guess you could say he’s one of the cool cats of classical, a trained musician who not only plays piano and french horn (and composes orchestral sets), but one who’s also produced albums for people like Lady Sovereign. He understands the push and pull of attracting new audiences to this line of performance. “Over time, I’ve become focused more on being a classical composer, but I’ve been continually frustrated by the way the classical scene is quite cut off from my age group and my peer group,” he explains to me before rehearsals for this weekend’s show. “So I’ve always drawn on my experiences in other genres of music to kind of make classical music feel a bit more current, part of everyday life. In the past, classic composers have drawn on popular dance styles at the time, with a different approach to the structure.”
The grandson of esteemed Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, you could say that music—or rather the art of it—fills Gabriel’s veins. The elder Prokofiev is best known for his children’s story Peter and the Wolf, which introduces little ones to orchestral instruments. Although they never met, I wonder if there’s a lingering influence. “It’s got pluses and minuses, really, being related to a great composer like that,” Prokofiev starts. “Generally, I’m actually quite detached from him, and there’s a generation gap. I also didn’t grow up in Russia, where he’s a very prolific figure. I’ve been able to do my own thing, basically. When I’m in really musical circles, it used to get heavy. I would get self-conscious.”
What makes Prokofiev fascinating is what he does in the clubs back home, where he’s started a party series that blends the current with the classical, bringing in musicians to perform alongside a DJ who plays mixes of orchestral tracks. Nine years into the business, he has a repertoire of all these remixes, many from his own record label, Nonclassical, and from other left-field electronica. “I’ve done this thing where you have a DJ that has music produced for more of a club sound system, so production-wise, it feels familiar, but the musical ideas aren’t just straight up house, or hip-hop.” Succinctly, what Prokofiev does is abstract, it’s challenging, and it’s beyond the verse, chorus, bridge formula that continues to hypnotize radio. And it’s not one size fits all.
In advance of his debut with Art of Time tomorrow, I chat with Prokofiev about the intricacies of bringing classical into the 21st century.
You blend digital technology with classical compositions. It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around it without hearing it, but tell us how you do it.
It’s something that happened quite naturally for me. I used to make electro music and program hip-hop and worked with MCs and stuff in East London, so I really like the energy that you get from the rhythms, and I can’t help bringing that into my classical music, sometimes in a subtle way. In a string quartet, you start quite classical, but then you get some grooves that come in. When I recorded my first string quartet back in 2003, I got the idea to put remixes on the record because it had this connection with dance music already, so I got different producers to do it—in the studio, taking the recording and mashing it up, cutting it up, re-editing and making this hybrid that is part contemporary classical, part electronic music. At the same time, I started doing these club nights as well, where I wanted to put on my compositions because I realized none of my friends were coming to those classical gigs on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to share my music with my age group. They wouldn’t come to me, so you bring a string quartet to a club. They’re only going to play 30 minutes, take a break and then play again, but I needed a DJ in between sets who didn’t just play hip-hop or dance, and so I did it, DJing those remixes. It warms people’s ears up, so when they hear the acoustic classical, they’re already in the zone.
How do audiences react?
It’s been really positive. A lot of people love watching art-house movies, reading interesting novels, or going to art galleries. But musically, the most experimental they’ll get is, like, Radiohead, or a quirky electro tune. It’s partly because they think that classical music is an old thing, not for them, but there are other, long-form, complex pieces out there that are longer than four minutes. You know, stuff that’s not as predicable as, say, dubstep, when you know after a minute the bass is going to drop. What’s weird about popular music is that it started out as the youth rebel music, but now it’s so conservative, so locked into patterns. A lot of people are open to this classical stuff, and bringing it into a more familiar environment makes that happen.
You’re also a producer under the name Medasyn, and you’ve produced albums for people like Lady Sovereign. How does this inform your other work?
It’s my alter-ego. That music is also craft, and some pieces also draw on my classical side with the strings. For a while, I was enjoying the discipline of fitting into the verse, chorus, bridge. But that world does become a little bit creatively tiring because you get a lot of people from the record label telling you to change and rework stuff. That’s why I started focusing more and more on my current projects. It was good because I got inside all the rhythmic approaches to hip-hop and I can’t help but bring in some of those rhythms.
What do you believe will be the future of the classical genre?
I like the tradition and I love going to the concert halls, but the main thing is that classical music needs to be performed more—full stop. If you’re a singer-songwriter, and even if you’re really crap and have seven songs, you would still expect to probably perform them several times in one year, just go to an open mic night or local things. If you’re a classical composer of the same age, you’ll be lucky to perform your pieces once—and that’s madness! The music needs to be performed more to build up more communication, [and] only then will composers grow and develop their audiences. I think the best way of doing that is those informal cafe or club gigs, where people can just play their stuff and get it out there. Once that happens more, people will feel comfortable having that on their playlist.
What can we expect from your upcoming performances with Art of Time?
People are going to hear really brilliant musicians performing classical music, but classical music that connects to the contemporary world more than they would be used to. When we go to classical gigs, often we expect music from a hundred years ago, or if it’s modern music, it can feel like a really challenging listen, something that maybe we should have studied. I hope that my music connects with modern life a lot more, and I think the other composers in the Art of Time repertoire [feel the same]. There will be some grooves, and I hope people will be inspired. I’m going to be doing some DJing as well, and playing some of those remixes in between the live sets. I’ve also done a classical composition that features a DJ, and I’ll be playing that.
You’ve also got a gig at The Nocturne on Queen West following Saturday’s performance. Tell me about that.
I’m going to do a DJ set, but it will be on a bigger sound system. My sets are more on the left-field side, more abstract, so they’re not necessarily meant for people to be dancing with their hands in the air. But it depends on the crowd. It’ll introduce this sound that I’ve been working on for the last 10 years, and people will hear the electronic beats that they can dance to, but they’ll hear harmonies and classical sounds you don’t typically hear [along] with it. Anyone who’s curious about new sounds and music should check it out.
Gabriel Prokofiev’s From Chamber to Electronica runs for two shows only, February 22 and 23, at the Enwave Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Show at 8 p.m. Tickets from $25 to $59 are available online or by phone at 416-973-4000. Find out more here.