Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev detested sentimentality. He rejected the languorous, hothouse romanticism that defined most early 20th century Russian works. Instead, he filled his music with propulsive rhythms and biting dissonance, and in the process created a glistening soundtrack of musical steel for an emerging industrial age.
Gabriel Prokofiev, the 35-year-old British-born grandson of the legendary Russian composer, is equally suspicious of convention. Instead of serving as an ivory-tower classical composer, the younger Prokofiev has spent the past decade working as a DJ. Not surprisingly, his classical music often reflects the rhythmic and melodic sensibilities of rap.
"I see electronic dance music and hip-hop as the urban folk music of our time," wrote Prokofiev in a recent email. "I think classical composers should find inspiration from those genres, just as Chopin, Mussorgsky and Bartók found inspiration in the dance and folk music of their times."
This weekend, Nashville's Alias Chamber Ensemble will perform the music of both Sergei and Gabriel Prokofiev at the Blair School of Music's Turner Recital Hall. The program will include two seldom-heard works of Sergei Prokofiev — the Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova for soprano and piano, Op. 27, and the Overture on Hebrew Themes for clarinet, string quartet and piano, Op. 34. Alias will also play Gabriel Prokofiev's hip-hop-influenced String Quartet No. 1.
Prokofiev composed this piece in 2003 for the Elysian Quartet, which later recorded the music on Prokofiev's own independent label, the aptly named Nonclassical. The music is an eclectic blend of styles.
"I was keen to compose a classical string quartet that would reflect the musical world I was living in at the time, which included producing electronic dance music and hip-hop, and also listening to classical music," Prokofiev says. "So the music has strong influences of syncopated dance rhythms as well as references to classical music of the past."
Actually, this piece mostly comes across as a traditional string quartet — so don't expect to hear Prokofiev's music on some future 50 Cent anger-management tour. The quartet is dissonant but tonal (in that respect, Prokofiev's music is much like his grandfather's) and makes overt references to hip-hop and dance music only in the finale.
The opening movement is a brief (about 90 seconds) introduction that sets the mood — stark, dark and foreboding — while also supplying much of the motivic material that will be heard elsewhere in the four-movement quartet. The most prominent feature in the introduction is a descending chromatic scale that accompanies a sinuous solo violin melody. Prokofiev uses fragments of the chromatic scale in his hip-hop dance in the finale.
The second movement is an upbeat and energetic piece — full of scratching, plucking pizzicatos — that serves as a kind of humorous scherzo. In contrast, the third movement is dark and urgent. "It has a strong Soviet/Russian feel to it," wrote Prokofiev of the third movement. "That was unintentional and was just how it came out."
The finale's tribute to hip-hop, on the other hand, is quite deliberate. Prokofiev fragments the first-movement scale into descending two-note sighs. Over time, this motif evolves into a herky-jerky pattern that sounds much like a full-fledged turntable dance song.
It's worth noting that Prokofiev is in the vanguard of a new generation of artists who believe classical music must be repackaged if it is to survive in the age of pop. These musicians have traded in their white-tie-and-tails for T-shirts and blue jeans, and they're more likely to appear in nightclubs than concert halls.
Just last March, Prokofiev performed both at Austin's South By Southwest festival and at Nashville's Mercy Lounge. He has also appeared at New York City's La Poisson Rouge, a venue where classical fans can munch on nachos while listening to Liszt.
It's anyone's guess whether the club scene can ultimately save classical music. What's certain is that Gabriel Prokofiev, like his grandfather, is a talent who needs no gimmicks.