Gabriel Prokofiev: From nonclassical and back

Vantage Music & The TimeCrafters | Hong Kong | October 2019

The night before Halloween, Gabriel Prokofiev, Russian-British composer, producer, DJ, and founder and Artistic Director of the nonclassical record label and nightclub, set foot in Hong Kong for the first time. He was invited as guest performer and DJ for the Fragrant Village Music Festival that took place in Sha Tau Kok San Tsuen, and we took the opportunity to interview this rising contemporary musical figure.

The Successful Grandpa Problem

The first question of the interview inevitably revolved around the family name. Surprisingly, Gabriel’s childhood was relatively ordinary. ‘Coming from the Prokofiev family, people would imagine me growing up surrounded by the music scene, with Ashkenazy coming out to teach me piano, my first violin lesson with Menuhin, and the like, but unfortunately that didn’t happen at all.’ In fact, it was quite the opposite – owing to personal experience, Gabriel’s father, Oleg, took great care not to thrust the family history upon his son.

Born in Paris but raised in Moscow, Oleg Prokofiev was a renowned visual artist, abstract painter and sculptor. Oleg had a troubling childhood: his father Sergei left the family for his second wife when Oleg was thirteen, and his mother was sent to the gulag 5 years later, but he stayed strong and became a prominent figure in the Russian art scene.

In 1971, Oleg immigrated to Britain. ‘He wanted to start a new life in London, so I think he distanced himself from the Russian community,’ Gabriel said of his father. However, it was hard for Oleg to step out of his father’s shadow. ‘My father had held many exhibitions of his work, but the first line in the press would always start with “the son of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev”.’ While it was natural for the press to capitalize on the relationship, it was nevertheless quite disheartening for an artist who was serious about his own work. Thus, it is normal for Oleg not to talk much about his father at home.

It is not to say that Gabriel didn’t hear much of his grandfather’s music – whenever there was a significant concert of Sergei Prokofiev, Oleg would bring his whole family to attend, sometimes meeting the conductor backstage after the event, so Gabriel did get quite acquainted with his grandfather’s legacy.

Einstein on the Beach in the House

Gabriel recounted that his father had a very diverse musical taste: ‘He loved Bach, but he also loved jazz and contemporary music.’ Once, Oleg brought home a set of Philip Glass’s works, and the house was stuck in a non-stop loop of Einstein on the Beach. ‘It went on for so long. I will never forget that stamping and counting!’

This desire for the contemporary evidently transferred to Gabriel, manifesting in the form of pop music. ‘When I was 10 years old, I had this good friend at school, Nathan Cooper, who was an aficionado of pop music.’ One day, Nathan changed the lyrics to a famous pop song, and bragged to Gabriel that he had ‘written a song’. Unimpressed, Gabriel counteroffered to compose a song together, and they eventually performed their creation in the school’s assembly. ‘It was a blast. All the kids were singing it afterwards.’

The two-man band was ecstatic. ‘We caught this bug of songwriting, and we would meet at the weekend and write songs.’ The process of creating something from nothing appealed to Gabriel greatly. ‘It was the most exciting discovery. When you start, there was nothing but a blank sheet of paper, yet one hour later, you are already having a song, not just the lyrics, but also some interesting harmonies, a nice chord progression, and a melody. It was not like anything I had experienced.’

It is interesting to note that Gabriel’s first encounter with composition did not arise from his connection with his grandfather. ‘For me, it was only a fun thing to do with my friends, and it was pop music, not classical music.’

Going Classical

Gabriel’s interest in classical music only started when he was thirteen. ‘I had to write some pieces in a classical style for school, and my high school teacher, who was a composer himself, was impressed with my work.’ With his teacher’s encouragement, Gabriel began to invest himself into the classical tradition.

At the same time, Gabriel was also enthralled by the electronic dance music of the 90s. ‘During the weekends, we would go to nightclubs and dance through the night, sometimes till the early morning,’ Gabriel recounted. ‘There were no clear melodies in dance music. The harmony was unconventional, and often unusual noises were used, yet the public still loved it.’ To Gabriel, this proved that music doesn’t need to be tuneful for the layman to enjoy it – the masses have the capacity to appreciate other styles of music.

Foray into Electroacoustic Music

Inspired by the nightclubs but also wanting to compose classical music, Gabriel decided to focus on the subgenre of electroacoustic music.

Gabriel explained why he chose such a niche discipline. ‘In a sense, it was a way for me to get away from my grandfather’s influence, since he obviously hasn’t written any electronic music.’ What attracted Gabriel to electroacoustic music was that even though it is part of the contemporary classical music scene, composers in electroacoustic music are less concerned with tonality or harmony, or even with the history of music. Instead, they emphasize on the manipulation of soundscape. ‘It is just sound, and in a way, you are really just creating poems with sound.’

The concept was very liberating to Gabriel: ‘I did not have to worry about any connection with music history, and it gave me a chance to develop as a composer, to think in broader, more abstract terms about sound and form. It showed me how to communicate emotions and thoughts through sound.’

Gabriel went to the University of Birmingham to study electroacoustic music. ‘There were several places where I could get a degree in electroacoustic music, but the University of Birmingham stood out from the rest due to its impressive sound theatre.’ Known as BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre), the sound theatre can mount setups of as many as 100 loudspeakers distributed across the concert space, providing an immersive 3D sound experience far beyond what we hear in cinematic ‘surround sound’ systems. The founder of BEAST, Jonty Harrison, was also a renowned composer of electroacoustic music, and this enticed Gabriel to go to Birmingham.

The Tanzanian Experience

Gabriel’s university life was not only about electroacoustic music: ‘I also studied philosophy at the university, and I even went to Tanzania for voluntary teaching during my gap year.’

When Gabriel first arrived at Tanzania, he was immediately taken aback by the country’s music. ‘Contrary to our usual perception of African music, Tanzania didn’t have that much drumming. Instead, Tanzanian people, especially the Maasai, mainly used their voices to produce vocal polyphony. A lot of polyrhythmic materials were used in Maasai chanting, and it is really interesting.’ It was so inspiring to Gabriel that he returned to Tanzania the following year, this time armed with a field recorder, to record what he heard. ‘I had a letter from the British Library for the recording project, and it gave me an excuse to go to remote places where other people wouldn’t go, and experience music I’ve never heard before.’

The Tanzanian experience proved to be an eye-opener for Gabriel as a composer as well. ‘At university, I was not only discovering new contemporary music, but also music from different continents. This made me realize that in the 20th century, whilst we have the serialist and minimalist revolutions in Europe, there is also this music evolving on the other side of the planet.

Bourges International Electro-Acoustic Music Competition

Gabriel then went on to study a Masters in composition at York University and entered one of his compositions into the Bourges International Electro-Acoustic Music Competition, and won a place in the student residency category.

The Bourges Competition and its accompanying festival were one of the major events for the electroacoustic scene, and Gabriel remembered how hyped up everyone was. ‘Back in York, I had joined the email newsgroup for electroacoustic music, and every week there would be emails on how “the Bourges competition is coming up”.’ Everyone participated – for older composers, there was an open competition with grand prizes, but budding composers competed for the residency category, where the winners were given the opportunity to study as an exchange student in one of the five partnering universities. ‘I was one of the five residency composers of 1998, so they paid for my whole trip to Seattle. We had a wondrous exchange of musical ideas, and I got to see what the other side of the electroacoustic scene was doing.’

For Gabriel though, the prize was worth much more than the residency. ‘The competition was held anonymously, and the fact that I won bolstered my confidence.’ At that time, Gabriel was still conscious of his heritage, and he was afraid that people would judge his music differently when they heard his family name. ‘The anonymity ensured that had I won, it was due to the musical quality of my work but not prejudice, whether more favorably or more critically, on my family name.’

The Bourges music festival gave Gabriel much food for thought, but one thing in particular stood out. ‘The big problem was that the audiences were tiny.’ Gabriel remembered seeing a lot of hotshots in the festival. ‘There were these real masters of electroacoustic music from around the world, and I was dining with them after the concert. They had this aura of being very important, and they are, but just for those sitting in the table together, within this tiny community. There were no fans waiting outside trying to get their signatures.’

This sense of mismatch dismayed Gabriel. ‘They were composing such great music, yet it seemed like there were no audience for it, and they didn’t care about sharing it.’ For them, cultivating an audience was clearly the job for a promoter and not that of the composers.

And the promoters were not doing well either. ‘What I observed was that when they tried to program contemporary music, they only thought from their own perspective, but not enough about how it would sound like to a new audience. For example, if the concert’s theme was to explore the Second Viennese School, most often the program would only consist of works from those composers, or those whose styles were closely related to the Second Viennese School. No doubt it was quite interesting for those who had studied that music before, but except for that small group of experts, it would be a nightmarish concert for everyone else, since there’ll be all this stuff that sounds quite similar. However, had they programmed a Second Viennese composer, then with a Romantic composer who had inspired them, then maybe a Classical composer who had inspired the Romantic composer, and then maybe another composer who hated the Viennese and was the reaction against them, you are telling a much more balanced story, and suddenly it is more interesting to everyone.’

Gradually feeling disenchanted with the contemporary classical world, Gabriel retraced his steps after his graduation from York University. ‘For me, the point of music is communication.’ Seeking to engage with the audience, Gabriel went back to his childhood hobby, forming a local band and performing electronic music in nightclubs, until a couple of years ago, when he started to embrace the classical again with his project, nonclassical.


The aim of nonclassical, as Gabriel puts it, is to incorporate classical music into the lifestyles of young people. ‘We wanted to present classical music in a non-classical, non-traditional way.’

Nonclassical was not always called nonclassical. Its origins came from a group Gabriel founded in York, Nerve 8, whose mission was to organize electroacoustic concerts in unconventional spaces. ‘We once held a concert in a daytime walk-in center for old-age pensioners. It was normally closed at night, but we convinced the owner to allow us to hold a concert in the evening.’ The concert was a success, and those experiences gave Gabriel the confidence to start the classical club nights under the name “nonclassical”.

Fast forward to 2004, Gabriel met Laura Moody, cellist of the Elysian Quartet, in London. Laura invited Gabriel to write a string quartet for them, and Gabriel took it as his opportunity to go back to contemporary classical music.

‘My grandfather also wrote some string quartets, but I deliberately avoided listening to his quartets during that time, for fear that I would be overly influenced or intimidated by his mastery over the medium.’ It turned out he shouldn’t have worried, for his String Quartet No. 1 was every bit as different from his grandfather’s music as it could be. Taking inspirations from the dance music that he was so fond of, Gabriel used syncopated rhythms and dance grooves as the main driving force of his string quartet, creating a colorful, polystylistic piece that juxtaposed the worlds of contemporary classical and the nightclub.

For the first edition of nonclassical, Gabriel invited Elysian Quartet to perform his latest classical work in the club. Another highlight of the night was a special rendition of Purcell, where the quartet played the whole piece backwards, note-by-note in a slow attack, producing a whispery, evocative sound.

The Turning Point

Gabriel’s career as a classical musician gradually blossomed, but his first breakthrough came in 2011, when his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra No.1 was performed at the BBC Proms. ‘The concerto was previewed and reviewed by all the newspapers that time, and I even did online twitter interviews. It was a career launch, and a really nice experience with that.’

Before that moment, Gabriel had been living a double life in music – composing classical pieces on one hand, but also playing at the band and producing other electronic music at the same time. ‘I was juggling all these genres, and it was slowly driving me crazy with the hectic demands.’ After the Proms, Gabriel gradually began to dedicate himself to classical music alone, a move that was hastened by an invitation from the Orchestre de Pau Pays de Béarn (OPPB) in France to become their composer in residence.

Gabriel explained his renewed interest in the orchestra. ‘Most contemporary composers were writing for chamber music because it is easier to find performances, but I thought that if I could get into orchestral music, it would be a more interesting career development, because you get to write bigger pieces, the commissions are better, and you can reach a bigger audience.’

OPPB was not a famous orchestra, but it provided Gabriel with a good opportunity to build up his repertoire and reputation, as well as a teaching ground for him to balance the commercial and musical aspects of composing. ‘The orchestra commissioned 5 pieces in total, and for each I am consciously making sure that my commissioned work will fit in the concert program in terms of mood and atmosphere. Even though I would sometimes like to write crazy, unpractical pieces, I refrained from putting those on concert, as otherwise you would be shooting yourself in the foot, disconnecting people from the full concert experience.’

Gabriel thought fondly of his time in Pau. ‘When I was at the Orchestra of Pau, they would need to do every concert four times in a row since their hall could only fit four hundred, and the demand was too high.’ The city of Pau didn’t have a theatre, so the symphony orchestra became the de facto cultural focus.

Gabriel was a francophone, and he would frequently hold pre-concert talks in Pau. ‘The people there are very positive and receptive to my work. My work was often performed alongside famous pieces, for example Dvorak’s cello concerto or Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, yet usually both halves of the concert would be well-received.’

The TimeCrafters, a Hong Kong-based classical chamber music group, aspires to cultivate classical music appreciation and rejuvenate chamber music performances. The TimeCrafters gives themed chamber concerts regularly and often collaborates with enthusiastic young musicians in town. Through light-hearted explanations and quality performances, members of the group are proud to provide intimate, informative and pleasant chamber music experiences to the audience.

Sharing the same philosophy of bringing excellent music to wider audiences, Gabriel and The TimeCrafters teamed up to present a selection of compositions by Gabriel, fusing string instrumental techniques and contemporary electronic music. Concerts took place at venues including Asia Society Hong Kong Center and at the first Fragrant Village Music Festival in Sha Tau Kok San Tsuen, New Territories.

Beyond music, Gabriel also shares another common interest with The TimeCrafters – the love of fine food. He was very glad to be led by the music group to explore a lot of wonderful cuisines during his visit in the metropolitan city.

Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra

Since the concerto for turntables, Gabriel has developed a name as a composer of concerti for unconventional instruments, including works such as the Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra (2013). Bass drum as a solo instrument was an intriguing choice, and Gabriel recounted how that came about.

‘I had been working with UK percussionist Joby Burgess back then, writing a percussion suite for global junk called Import/Export. It was a theatrical piece, each movement using accessible trash objects as the instrument in order to raise awareness of pollution on a global scale.’ Gabriel used the piece as an exploration of different timbres and percussive techniques, for example hitting different parts of an oil drum to produce distinct pitches, rubbing two soda bottles on each other in various angles, tapping on a blown-up plastic bag, and encasing a wooden pallet with felt to produce a rich, marimba-like sound.

The piece went well and Gabriel and Joby decided to collaborate further. ‘At that time, the London Contemporary Orchestra was commissioning a percussion concerto, and I talked at length with Joby about what he wanted.’ Gabriel noticed a lot of percussion concertos were like a showcase for the percussionist, where they had to juggle between a variety of percussion instruments on the stage, running back and forth every minute or two. This makes the concerto visually impressive, but the lack of focus means the composer cannot explore the full possibilities of all instruments as freely. ‘So I decided to focus on one instrument, and jokingly suggested the bass drum.’ Surprisingly, Joby was enthusiastic about the idea, and Gabriel, excited by the possibilities of the instrument, soon set to work.

So how does one compose a concerto for an unpitched instrument? Gabriel drew inspiration from his nonclassical nights. ‘I once heard a piece for bass drum and electronics performed by the American percussionist Jennifer Torrence. The piece was very avant-garde, and I remember a specific moment where she rubbed the bass drum with a rubber ball, producing a whale-like sound.’ Taking on the example, Gabriel employed a variety of extended techniques for the bass drum, creating interesting timbres and contours with the rim, lugs, and various beaters.


We also talked about Gabriel’s latest opera, Elizabetta (2019). Gabriel joked that it was a cliché for every composer to compose an opera, and the feeling of completing a checklist almost turned him away from the idea. On the other hand, however, the concept of an opera was alluring to Gabriel. ‘I used to write songs as a kid, and I wanted to come back to songwriting in the classical world also.’

As with most other pieces of Gabriel, Elizabetta came out of a commission from abroad. ‘It started with a ballet I had been doing with the Stuttgarter Ballet in 2016.’ The 25-minute ballet with full orchestra, electronics, and a big dance group attracted the attention of Regensburg Opera, who were looking for innovative ideas for operatic music. ‘The director was impressed by my ballet, so he flew to London and met me for lunch.’ Gabriel’s pitch convinced the director, and shortly afterwards, Gabriel was commissioned to write Elizabetta, an invigorating mix of classic operatic aria and recitative with techno and dance, TV-commercials, Congolese song, contemporary classical and electronic music.

Gabriel gave us a synopsis of Elizabetta. ‘The opera is in two acts, and the first act starts as a satire of the current obsession with wellness, health, and youth. The main character, Elizabetta, is a young female film star who is all into the new health trends. As time passes by, however, her career dried up. To restore her beauty and to save her career, her boyfriend, part of the wellness scene and an expert in genetic regeneration, suggested her to bathe in blood to restore her youth.’

In a bizarre twist of events, we discover that Elizabetta is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Bathory, an infamous countess who was rumored to have killed hundreds of young women in order to bathe in their blood and stay young. By invoking the same ritual, Elizabetta unwittingly unleashes her Dracula-like tendencies upon the world, and the second act devolves into a horror thriller, as Elizabetta slips deeper into her dark ancestral destiny.


The catchphrase ‘classical music is dying’ has been around for decades, but to musicians like Gabriel, the classical music scene is throbbing and as vibrant as ever. In fact, since 2012, they had been gathering in Rotterdam every year at a conference aptly named Classical:NEXT to discuss future happenings of the classical world.

Classical:NEXT started off as a European conference, but it quickly became international with orchestras, ensembles, presenters and programmers of concert halls and music societies from all around the world. ‘Panels and discussions would be held, and pitches were held where organizations would present their latest project, be it an innovative opera, or a concept for an alternative way of concertizing. People would also discuss new strategies for getting audiences, or how we could find new ways to help the record industry. It is a general get-together for people who wanted to move classical music forward.’

As a composer and representative of nonclassical, Gabriel has joined every Classical:NEXT conference since its inception. At the 2018 conference, Gabriel met the delegation from Hong Kong, Sze Ka Yan from the Fragrant Village. Sharing a highly similar philosophy and interest in classical music, the two got along quickly and Gabriel’s debut in Hong Kong was eventually arranged.

We asked Gabriel what he thought of Hong Kong. ‘I had wanted to come to Hong Kong for a long time. Over the years, I’ve encountered some good musicians from Hong Kong, and I heard there is a very good music scene here. Now that I’ve been here, I certainly agree – this place is quite special.’

Interview written by Chester Leung.