Turntables, String Quartets at Present Music Saturday
Music lovers, I have a quiz for you: helicopter; scribble; baby. Define those words as musical terms.
Hint: You’ll hear them all at Present Music‘s concert Saturday night (Sept. 18).
British composer Gabriel Prokofiev, 35, learned all about such things in the process of writing his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. The Present Music ensemble will play the concerto Saturday, with Kevin Stalheim conducting and Milwaukee’s own Jordan Lee (aka DJ Madhatter) as soloist.
“Turntablists have their own language and a whole system of ornamentaion,” Prokofiev said, in an interview Thursday, over post-rehearsal coffee. “I could say, do a helicopter here, and they’d know what I want.”
In Prokofiev’s case, the learning has been two-way.
“Very few skilled DJs can read music,” he said. “Jordan’s been the best at it. I’ve always sat and coached the DJs, but the Present Music guys had a chance to rehearse before I got here.”
The Technics turntable that Madhatter is using has a slide and setting that alter pitch, in an approximate way, of the source material on the recording. DJs can also alter pitch by setting rotation at 45 or 33 rpm and by manually hastening or slowing rotation. Prokofiev took advantage of that by placing his notes on the staff lines to show relative, rather than absolute, pitch. His written rhythms look very specific; but I noticed, while looking over Stalheim’s shoulder during a rehearsal, that Madhatter wasn’t adhering to them strictly.
That’s OK with the composer. He meant some of those written rhythms to approximate typical of turntabling. And he intended to give his soloist a good deal of rhythmic leeway; that’s just part of DJ practice. But during rehearsal, he did point out the places where Madhatter had to hit rhythms precisely, to match up with key bits in the orchestra. The DJ has to count, like everyone else, not merely wing it.
“I wanted to show people in the orchestra world, this is the turntable and this is what it can do,” he said.
Prokofiev isn’t slumming in writing for an instrument that rose out of hip-hop. He helped form and spent time touring with Spektrum (that’s Gabriel on keyboard), a disco-punk band. He still produces hip-hop and dance music. But he is also a classically trained (University of Birmingham, University of York) musician. (And yes, Gabriel is the grandson of that Prokofiev, as unlikely as the chronology might seem.) Present Music will also play two movements from G. Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 and another from his String Quartet No. 2 Saturday.
“All my music shows an interest in pop and vernacular,” Prokofiev said. “My pet theory is that rock and hip-hop is the folk music of our time. I like its interesting rhythms and its energy. I can take elements of it and use it in music that develops more. Dance music has rhythm and energy, but it’s very repetitive. It’s about getting into a groove. It’s exciting to draw from it. It’s great to have music to play in your car or in the background, but it’s also great to have music that is more demanding and maybe a little longer.”
The composer arrived at his present philosophy after completing a master’s degree focused on electro-acoustic music at the University of York.
“I felt a little disillusioned and cut off from the wider public,” he said. “After that, I just played in the band (Spektrum). But ultimately, that wasn’t enough. I bumped into a friend who had a string quartet, and I just started writing intuitively. I had a day job programming beats and making dance music. I didn’t force that element in, but I did let it happen.”
Since then, Prokofiev’s mission in life appears to be reconciling — even merging — his two musical personalities. In London, his hometown, he commandeers a pub one night a month and mixes dance tunes with live performance of his own music and music by composer friends.
“If you keep it snappy, everyone stays quiet for the live stuff,” he said. “It’s great fun.”
He’ll be doing something like that in Madison’s Magnus restaurant Friday night; so Prokofiev is getting the most out of his Wisconsin trip. (Madison details here.)
Present Music concerts, especially those at Turner Hall, typically blend fun — sometimes very silly fun — with serious music. That fits Prokofiev’s aesthetic neatly.
The second movement of the concerto, he said, has a contemporary high-art sound. The third “has a nice, slow beat directly from hip-hop culture.” For structural integrity and to avoid DJ cliché, he made the vinyl source material from a recording of the orchestra part. For fun, he compromised when DJ Yoda begged him to add some vocal sounds, because they tend to be so scratchable.
So he added conductor’s throat-clearing to the score, along with yawning noises, general murmuring in the orchestra, the whoosh of a can of Coke being popped, and a satisfied ahhhh after a long drink of cola.
“So there’s humor in it,” he said. “There’s not enough humor in new music.”
Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Turner Hall, 1032 N. 4th St. Tickets are $20 and $30, $5 for students (ordered in advance before noon Friday, Sept. 17). Call Present Music at 414-271-0711, or click here.
PS: This will likely be the last Present Music concert for Philip Bush, long-time PM pianist. He’s going out with a bang: Ligeti’s monstrously difficult Piano Concerto. We wish Phil the best; he’s a fine musician and a good guy.