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A living, breathing Prokofiev comes to town – as classical composer and dance-club DJ

Gabriel Prokofiev is a composer and performer based in England, and the grandson of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.

Alicia Clarke

The Art of Time Ensemble
Gabriel Prokofiev
Harbourfront Centre

Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of famed Russian composer Sergei, spent the earlier part of Saturday night performing his classical/electronic compositions with the Art of Time Ensemble at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, to an enthusiastic audience. Later, he performed for another, much different audience, this one at Queen West's Nocturne Club, where he DJ'ed until the wee hours of the morning.

For the past 10 years, Prokofiev has been attempting to navigate the road between the classical and the club scene, between metronome markings and beats per minute. Although not the first by a long shot to combine the two (Karlheinz Stockhausen, prince of the classical avant-garde, had an honoured place on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album cover), Prokofiev may be the first to entwine the human spirit of the classics with the beat-oriented, mechanical world of electronic dance music. And based on the enthusiastic reception he received from Saturday's Art of Time audience, the combination seems to be working.

Three of Prokofiev's compositions were performed on Saturday, including two which involved electronics along with live performance. The first movement, Outta Pulsor, of his Cello Multitracks, combined live cellist Thomas Wiebe along with eight pre-recorded cello colleagues (actually one cellist recorded eight times), with Prokofiev mediating the mix between the participants live from his laptop. His Silentefor String Trio, Piano, Bass Clarinet and Scratch DJ had Prokofiev adding the scratches and clicks off a typical vinyl record to his instrumentalists as an equal participant in a musical performance – one player among many.

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And that equality was the key to the success of these works. Mixed-media genres can so easily descend into novelty and empty effect, but Prokofiev never fell into that trap. His music is relatively conservative, respectful of the lyrical tradition of classical music and of the need for music to be accessible and clear, even when the methods by which it is being made are new. This is an aesthetic stance could have been picked up from his club experience, where the audience you are trying to move is standing right in front of you. That connection with an audience is wonderful when earned, and Prokofiev's classical compositions share some of the same desire for response.

They are also influenced by the powerful reliance on rhythm that lies at the soul of all electronic dance music. That rhythmic texture was especially obvious in the major work on the program, Prokofiev's First String Quartet, which has no electronic component at all, only traditional instruments. Yet throughout the work, the world of dance music kept insistently insinuating itself – through bows struck on strings, pizzicato pluckings, constantly repeating figures, complex interrelated rhythms– the world that dance music creates with its turntables, mixing boards and sampling machines.

But the acoustic version had one thing no dance music has – and that was the human element. The true nature of the open-ended freedom of classical music, compared to the tight, formulaic world of mechanized pop, came into view when Gabriel Prokofiev created laptop remixes on the spot of the pieces we had just heard performed live. In each case, the sprightly, quirky, open world of live performance was overwhelmed by the beat-oriented, reductive power of trance-like dance rhythms. It was like the Transformers in reverse – humans being forced into a mechanical, machine-like imprisonment. The mixes were powerful, and even beautiful, but reduced in some way by their need for repetitive continuity – not as satisfying as the earlier live performances of the same works had been.

Prokofiev loves his electronics, but he finds them at their most creative when conjoined with live musicians. And his audience responded to this mixture, especially as the performances by the Art of Time Ensemble were so excellent, in the Prokofiev works as well as the two non-Prokofiev pieces which began and ended the program. Robert Carli's soprano sax was the highlight of Jonathan Goldsmith's Camera Obscura, and the Quartet assembled for the Prokofiev also shone in Gavin Bryars's A Man in a Room Gambling.

The Art of Time Ensemble keeps pushing the boundaries for us of what is and isn't "classical" music. This time out, they provided much food for thought and fine music-making at the same time.

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