Nonclassical: Gabriel Prokofiev and Nathan Fake In Conversation

An adventurous composer and an electronic music outsider discuss differences and similarities in their two worlds.

Introductory bios don’t get much more interesting than Gabriel Prokofiev’s. The grandson of legendarily innovative Russian composer Sergei Profokiev (its his ‘No.13 Dance of the Knights‘ which soundtracks the endless procession of idiots on ‘The Apprentice’), Gabriel was naturally a student of composition – although like his grandfather and father before him, his interest has always been in subverting convention. He produced electronic music under a variety of aliases and in 2003 he founded independent label and club night Nonclassical, a venture with an ethos of disrupting classical music tradition that has attracted the likes of Thom Yorke, Hot Chip and Gorillaz’ Simon Tong to remix.

A fixture on James Holden’s Border Community since the first half of the last decade, Nathan Fake has maintained a long run of brilliance  at the periphery of electronic music. Variously ambient, psychedelic and deconstructionist, his music has grown over the course of a three album cycle that most recently delivered us 2012’s excellent ‘Steam Days’.

Saturday evening finds Gabriel and Nathan working side by side as Nonclassical takes over Bloc at Autumn Street Studios in Hackney Wick-the latter performing with the perenially exciting Multi-Storey Orchestra in what is sure to be a rare and capitvating spectacle. Looking to probe further on the exciting collision between electronic and classical music set to take place this weekend, we put Gabriel and Nathan together for a conversation between two artists that have much more in common than one may first think…

Gabriel Prokofiev: I guess a nice way to start getting to know someone with interviews about music is to ask what early stuff got you into music. I read somewhere Nathan that you were into Orbital – which is funny because I used to listen to their first new albums and I saw them at Glastonbury years ago and they were a lot of fun. I heard some of the stuff more recently though and it didn’t sound as amazing now as it did back in the day – which is weird. Its interesting how music ages and dates. What I wanted to ask you I guess is what the other music inspired you to go out and make your own stuff?

Nathan Fake: Its a pretty sort of obvious list really. Orbital was probably the first thing I got into, then stuff like The Prodigy. Later on I got into Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada – a pretty sort of uninteresting list of artists (laughs) I grew up in rural Norfolk so there wasn’t much music about, I listened to Radio 1 and that was the only place I could hear alternative music.

G: Its really interesting how where you live can make a massive difference – cos I grew up in London. As a teenager there were just hundreds of pirate radio stations – they’re all gone now which is a real shame. I was listening to Hardcore and Acid House and stuff and it opened up this whole world which was just amazing.

N: I remember I had a friend who’s family were originally from London and his older brother used to send him tapes of pirate radio which he leant to me and they blew my mind with this amazing music.

G: There was a period when there was so much new music being made in the electronic field and a few producers now stand as the benchmark, but there were a lot of great producers being very creative at the time. I wanted to ask what keyboard you used at the beginning?

N: Well back then it was just like a Casio Keyboard.

G: Which one?

N: I can’t remember, but it was a tiny little one . Later I got a Roland Groovebox then I started off making stuff on that when I was like 18.

G: Well because we’re going to be working on this big night at Bloc where we’re bringing together contemporary classical music with electronic music, I’d like to ask have you listened to much classical music in the past – are there any pieces that you know and like?

N: When I was at school I used to study music, I remember being very into Phillip Glass.

G: People like Aphex Twin and 80’s synth artists are very inspired by him becuase it still has kind of a sweetness of sound and is very atmospheric.

N: Yeah and some of it is quite loop based which is quite relateable to electronic music. I’ve got be honest though, that’s pretty much it. Like I said I grew up without access to that much music. In more recent times I’ve listened to is some of the stuff Brian Eno’s worked on. I mean I’m pretty ignorant to it, which is why I’m really interested in this project because its something really new and exciting to work on so its great meeting guys like you.

G: I think the two worlds have a lot to offer each other. In classical music I’m doing orchestral music but I’m really inspired by electronic music and dance music. It gives me ideas on timbre and tone that are completely foreign to the classical world and bring in something new that I find really exciting. I think for people doing electronic music, they can hear new textures and often new approaches to the structure of a piece and things develop and go way beyond where they started – whereas Electronic music tends to set something up and move away from it a bit but always stay close to home.

N: That’s one thing I sort of wondered or wanted to ask you: Obviously you grew up with classical music and electronic music, but I think some people in the classical world might turn their noses up at electronic music- do you listen to both in the same way or do you feel like you have to get in separate mindsets for each style? I mean a lot of electronic music, arrangement-wise – especially House and Techno, is just the same thing the whole way through…

G: That’s going for a different effect – but I know what you mean. Mainly I’m more likely to listen to electronic music in a club or a party when I’m dancing – which I really like as its physically engaging and you can get inside the music and its just as valid as sitting down and listening. I kind of prefer it. Repetitive music is obviously done partly for the benefit of the DJ so they can mix it in with other tracks.

N: I guess some classical music is quite based on repetition – there’s stuff like Gavin Bryars’ albums which go through the same thing in that style.

G: The minimalist thing is very similar and that’s about getting you into a trance state and your perception of time changes and your thoughts are moving slower and you start to notice really subtle nuances in the transitions. When I was a kid my dad got into Philip Glass and he used to play ‘Einstein On The Beach’ for hours and just drive everyone crazy (laughs) I can get into it but I always find after an hour or so of a certain type of music I like to have a break.

N: Yeah I think an hour is the ideal length for a performance really and you don’t sort of bore people.

G: Sure, its important to enjoy the listening experience and stay focussed. I’ve been getting back into electronic music actually, I was doing electro-acoustic music which is quite out there – almost like sound poetry I would say, then in the last couple of years I started getting back into electronic music as part of some pieces I helped put together to do with contemporary dance. I did a piece called ‘Howl’ which was all done with an ARP Odyssey synthesizer that I’d bought off eBay a few years ago – that actually references some more Techno type approaches which I was quite interested in, and I’d be keen to actually release some of the stuff because its all been done for theatres so far.

N: That’s cool. I think the thing with repetition in classical music is that its generally a much more considered decision whereas I think a lot of people who make Techno and those kinds of styles might hide behind the minimalism.

G: Well its part of the style isn’t it, and you kind of take it for granted. You don’t really worry about the fact that its repetitive, you’re more about looking for how you can make it interesting. I think the problem with classical music sometimes is that everyone – the critics and composers, get too self-conscious, everyone gets too critical at times and that can stifle having a simple and beautiful idea. It can’t settle anywhere too familiar or easy. There’s plusses and minuses of being really analytical about what you’re doing. Do you find when you’ve got a loop going that you’re happy just to let it lie?

N: With my live performance stuff it is very loop based – eight or sixteen bar loops. I like to keep it interesting but I also like to mine that loop for everything it has and really get into it. Compared to when you’re doing in the studio to when you’re doing it on the stage, its a completely different end product. You’re kind of feeding off the crowd and changing it a lot more than I would working in the studio.

G: I think that’s really cool because you’re kind of improvising the structure, but the musical material is all laid out. Often in traditional improvisation – whether its free Jazz or classical, they tend to fall into structural cliches unless they’re really experienced and often it becomes more about the details as opposed to the overall work. You’re composing on a much larger scale and I think that’s more pleasing for the public as they get a bigger compositional journey.

N: I think people notice arrangement more-so than composition. Obviously if you’re an accomplished musician yourself you’d understand it watching people compose, but if you did that to a club crowd – some people might get it, others might not care…

G: But they’ll be reacting to it though one way or another.

N: Yeah sure. With an arrangement thing I think people can appreciate a lot more easily.

G: So I noticed on your new album ‘Steam Days’, that although the record is loop based it feels more irregular, more broken than your previous stuff. That really appeals to me and I think some of the pieces even sound like they’re not in 4/4 but they are – you’ve got this kind of ‘falling down’ feel. Why did you adopt this approach?

N: When I started writing ‘Steam Days’ compared to the previous record – which was a very straight up dancefloor piece, I was working on it from a live standpoint, where they were all kind of very free long live jams. I’d chop them down to little pieces but from a compositional standpoint instead of using four bar sequences I was using seven bar or nine bar sequences. When you listen to club music, 99% of it is all four bar or eight bar sequences and I really like the very simple idea of playing with that.

G: I totally agree with you – its so effective. There is this instinct once you set something up that’s regular that you want then next thing to happen at the right time, but its amazing how you can adjust to it. When stuff is four square suddenly it feels really predictable.

N: I think a lot of Techno or club music is almost arbitrary or functional in the fact that DJ’s feel like they need to know what’s coming. Not in all cases, but I think definitely in the mainstream of it, so I’m just trying to do something a bit different to that.

Gabriel Profokiev and Nathan Fake are both appearing as part of Nonclassical at Bloc/Autumn Street Studios tomorrow Saturday 15th November. For Hyponik readers there’s an exclusive offer of 20% off tickets to the first 50 people to use the promo code HYPNC at this link

Interview: Christian Murphy