Let's begin with your Violin Concerto No.1 ‘1914.’ In your program notes for it, you mention Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ Trilogy. Was it a coincidence that you picked up this work or was it part of your research after having agreed to the project? What was your approach to provide an objective view of what went on?
I had read Barker’s trilogy maybe eight or ten years earlier. I don’t know how I came about to read it, but I really liked it. In British schools, English means studying the poets. That’s when I was introduced to the War poets who are really important poets. So I studied them as a fifteen, sixteen year old and they made an impact on me.
There’s this brilliant musical, “Oh, What a Lovely War!” and I had seen that as well. Somehow, it was part of my psyche. War World I was major. One never forgets hearing “the war to end all wars” which is what they said after the end of the First World War. Then when I came to do the Violin Concerto, all my past images of First World War came back to me.
What preparation I did for the concerto is I read The Radetzsky March by Joseph Roth. That was an amazing book that presented the Austro Hungarian perspective, leading up to the war. It helped me get in the mindset, the psyche, the feeling of the time from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. I read some more broad historical text books, too.
Nowadays, most people, if open minded, try to look at see other side of a story. If you’re right in the middle of a war, emotions run high and it’s harder to get a more objective view. But a hundred years later, we look at it much more objectively and see what mistakes both sides made. And then, we can therefore, try become more sympathetic and understanding, and critical of both sides.
Based on what we know now, it can be said that the experience for the soldiers were quite similar on both sides, regardless of what side they were standing on. And then the leaders as well, a lot of parallels were drawn among them. There was a ruling class completely out of touch with the monster war fair that was developing. I am not a nationalistic person, not at all. Unfortunately, there are people who use nationalism or religion to cause disagreements and problems. It’s a real shame. I am against that. This was my chance to explore WWI from an objective angle.
Daniel Hope, the violinist who premiered your Violin Concerto at the Proms joked about performing Prokofiev 3 after having performed your grandfather's, Sergei Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto. How you have dealt with the weight of your last name and the idea that critics and audiences could be tougher on you for the simple fact that you are Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson?
It’s difficult. It’s taken me a long time. It has taken me strong attitudes. The more work I do, the more I compose, the more I feel comfort in my own voice. It becomes easier with time. I get moments when I doubt myself, but every artist gets that.
In the beginning, when I started composing classical music, I was quite intimidated, particularly self conscious of what people would think. When I was a teenager, I think that pressure made me stop practicing much on the piano or the French horn. I was a good performer, but it did affect my confidence, I was very self conscious. You have to be very confident to be a really successful performer. Now I have the confidence, but unfortunately I don’t have the years of practicing. That was something that suffered from that pressure, being a performer.
The brilliant thing about composing is that when you are in the zone, and you’re really inside the music, you actually forget all else completely. When you’re doing the composing bit, no one is there, it’s just you by yourself. You practically forget who you are, where you are, you are just in the music. Nothing matters then. The pressure goes away. The thing is you have to get yourself to that point where it’s all about the composing and you relax. When I was younger, I almost avoided composing. I made excuses. Not anymore. Once I get going, I get there. When I compose, I sketch. I put it all on a piece of paper. I don’t worry. I don’t judge myself. I just write way more material than I need. Therefore I know that a lot of it I won’t use. It's a feeling of freedom knowing no one will judge it or even see it, unless I decide it is good enough for a piece.
Anyone who writes music sort of knows, if you’re too self conscious about your work, it suffers. You start thinking too much. In the past, I’ve thought, ‘Oh that sounds too Prokofiev”. I might have changed something or cut it. Now I am more relaxed about that. If something sounds more like my grandfather, I’m ok wih it. In the Violin Concerto, there are elements in that that definitely resonate my grandfather’s style. But I was quite happy about that because the piece had a historical aspect to it. And that was a way to connect with him, in music. I let that happen. It all depends on the piece, what works for the piece. For me, that’s really important.
What’s the impact of your father’s art in your life and music? What is the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from the way he lived his life as an artist, a sculptor, and as a man?
I am very proud of my father’s work. He was the one to deal with the pressure of the family name and everything that came with it. He escaped from Russia in bad terms in the 70s. He wasn’t really part of the Russian community or classical music community. We weren’t really surrounded by the Prokofiev name and aura. We went to the concerts, of course. My parents were really liberal parents wanting us to find our own paths. But it’s not like my father was coming home and telling us, ‘let me tell you about your granddad”. He wanted to get on with his own life. It was a healthy way of growing up. He really did well on that front. It would have been different had I grown up in Russia. Prokofiev is such a major figure in Russia.
My father worked in his studio on a regular schedule, everyday. Sometimes he worked on the weekends as well. He would always be working on a new piece or sketches or perfecting previous work. He was so dedicated to his art. Just like his father to his music. So, from that point, I learned early, if you’re an artist you have to work at it every single day, you’ve got to be disciplined. When you’re younger, it’s difficult to keep that routine but it is so essential. It was very inspiring how hard working and dedicated my dad was. He kept at it even though, abstract sculpture, is really hard. He had some good exhibitions but he didn’t reach a huge audience. He wasn’t really that good at promoting himself. He was more concentrated on his work. We want to promote his art. And that’s another project.
For your other work, Howl, you write that it was meant to be a semi-abstract exploration of the energy and emotions of the socio-political turmoil of the last few years; the protests, the battles and the revolutions; the desperation, the anger, the hope, the pain, the disappointment. Who is your targeted audience and what inspired it?
I suppose, on an immediate level, maybe people of my generation. Actually it’s broader, younger, older. All those distinctions are getting more blurred, especially with age. With contemporary dance, you kind of know it will be a broad audience that’s quite inspiring. They’re looking for something exciting and new.
I like the contemporary dance audience. They’re more open minded than the strict contemporary classical music audience as they can be a bit more academic, more critical, they might have more issues, certain agendas on how they approach the music. The Proms, their audience is amazing, it’s scary as it is huge, in the thousands. The public there are very warm. They’ve come to have a special evening of music. Their attitude is very positive. They want to get into the music.
With Howl, the Arab Spring was happening. It was very exciting to see the people rising against an old regimes. It’s sad it wasn’t managed well, it wasn’t supported, it was hard to keep in place. But that piece was about the frustrations that led up to that kind of revolt. Revolutions. It was an exciting time. It was very clear in the dance as well. Music and choreography worked really well together. The piece was performed in Switzerland and then it was done again in Latvia. The Latvian dancers brought a certain energy to it, it was magnificent.
How do you see the role of music and art in today’s world with tense conflict zones and never ending socio-political turmoil?
I think it’s really important we engage as artists. Obviously, I cannot do art just about specific themes as we also want to have art as an escape. It’s a tough balance. It’s important to make art for its own sake. But you can’t escape the world you’re in no matter what you do. Even if you make abstract art, it’s still about what’s happening to you at that time, on a personal or on a broader level, it all finds its way into the music. Sometimes I notice things I’ve done in a piece. My Bass Drum Concerto reflects what actually happened. I composed that piece after at a certain time. It has strong energy and excitement. Dramatic events taking place led to that particular work. When it comes to art and its involvement in major issues, the question remains whether or not we can make change happen. The problem is that most often we’re quite powerless. It’s hard to do anything with an impact on what's happening especially if far away. Well, I guess if you’re moved from an event, it could give you confidence and belief, to go that extra step. It could be a wakeup call or it could be about solidifying, crystallizing your feelings about specifics. It can help on that front. It’s hard to do more than something that feels like token. Music has the power to give people much needed support, even on an emotional level. It gives hope. It tells people they’re not alone in their struggles, and that’s a powerful feeling of solidarity. A tangible work of art can really feel supportive. It’s something I’d like to do more of.
What can you say about the Seattle Symphony premiere of your work Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot with Sir Mix-A-Lot and the events that resulted in an unforgettable evening in Seattle. It was really amazing. What happened in the concert was way beyond what we expected. We knew it would be quite different that Sir Mix-A-Lot would be performing with the orchestra. They don’t normally do that. The Seattle Symphony series Sonic Evolution is about commissioning a piece of music by a living composer inspired by a musical icon from Seattle. They did that for Kurt Cobain, Soundgarden, Quincy Jones who has lived in Seattle, Jimmy Hendrix grew up in Seattle. There was a piece written for Ray Charles.
Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot was great, it was a lot of fun. I love hip-hop. Sir Mix-A-Lot is one of the best, I love him. I knew I wanted to study his pieces. I went to his studio. I took note of all rhythmic patterns he uses and used it as a starting point. There’s no proper story, it’s more of a climax when the drum box is about to explode. It’s a fantasy, psychedelic fantasy, when a hip hop studio gets transformed to an orchestra format.
I would like to do a series of writing new compositions inspired by hip hop artists. It would include cool suites inspired by all different styles of hip hop. I haven’t had a chance to really pull it out just yet. Maybe one day.
What is your attitude towards the institutionalized reality of classical music? What’s the impact of Nonclassical label? I personally, love going to traditional classical concerts. I am used to the format and the behavior. Though I have been putting on these Nonclassical events, more relaxed and in a relevant contemporary way, I don’t have a problem with the old fashioned way.
Of course there are the missed opportunities, avoidable damage. I think concerts could start later. Programming could be more imaginative. Programming is often too traditional, too musicological. A lot of the big orchestras and big institutions could still do a lot more contemporary music. They’d get more audience not less if they include more contemporary music. Same old programs "always draw the crowds," the say. But that sounds more like the chicken or the egg dilemma. I think it’s like patronizing the public, underestimating them by always playing it safe and sticking to the big, famous works over and over again. Today's music scene could be more creative, bringing guest curators from other art forms, giving the public confidence to come along for exciting musical experiences.
Nonclassical is on the forefront of this alternative movement of promoting contemporary music. It is proven that there is more of an audience to contemporary classical music that seem to be coming to the bigger venues also. Perhaps there’s a shift. Nonclassical and myself have been guests at the Barbican where I’ve been DJing. We did a whole Nonclassical night at the Opera House which is one of the most traditional spaces. It worked really well and everyone seemed happy. More to come...
Shobana Jeyasingh and Rambert Dance, Daniel Hope, Maurice Causey, are some of the artists with whom you’ve collaborated for recent works. What are the key characteristics of other artists swaying you to sign up on a collaborative project? What makes a successful collaboration?
The downside of composing is that you spend a lot of time alone. And I am a sociable person. I like working with other artists. If someone approaches me to collaborate, my reaction is positive. Most of the time, as a composer, people come to you. Come to think of it, maybe I need to instigate more collaborations myself.
But particularly with choreography, choreographers are looking for music, so they approach me. Then I check out what they’ve done. I’ve been really lucky that the people with whom I’ve worked so far, I really like their work. I’ve done three pieces with Shobana Jeyasingh. We have had a strong partnership. She is a choreographer who knows how to compose choreography. She has an idea of the meaning behind the dance, and a clear concept of structure, as well. It’s not really a given with a lot of contemporary choreographers. They’re too locked into, they’re too focused on the movements themselves, the details, the appearance. Shobana has scrapped beautiful material in favor of material that will tell the story or give the message she is trying to convey. That drives her incredibly and it makes her work compelling. It’s a very intense, continuous collaboration with Shobana. I’ll be changing the music right to the last minute sometimes. It’s all worthwhile.
Maurice Causey, he’s really inspiring to work with. He’s been a Principal Dancer with William Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet. Now he’s a choreographer. He has remarkable energy. A lot of my music is rhythmic, with a strong sense of meter, a pulse. He really enjoys that. There’s a mutual inspiration for each side.
When you’re in a team, you have to restrain your enthusiasm. I really like a chance to discuss a theme, find new angles. You can do that by yourself but it’s fun doing it by collaboration. So for me, it’s a big aspect. What makes a collaboration successful is when you’re both on the same page after you’ve discussed it. Quite often, it can be that the composers go off doing their thing and hand it over to the other artists who then put their own touch. That can work. But it is more like two stages. It is certainly more enjoyable when you have the back and forth dialogue.
“Gabriel Prokofiev Gets the Proms into the Groove” was the title of The Guardian article dedicated to the Proms premiere of your Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011. What comes next? With Nonclassical, we would like to present a late night Proms. They introduced late nights last season and they proved to be really successful. I have written a Concerto for Trumpet, Percussion, Turntables & Orchestra which will be performed in April by the Southbank Sinfonia, London based orchestra. It would be great if it's brought to the Proms.
Maybe they pick up The Saxophone Concerto that will be premiered with Branford Marsalis and the Naples Philharmonic. I would love that. A night with rappers for a late night Proms down the road. We’ll have to wait and see.