Truly Nonclassical: Gabriel Prokofiev and Peter Gregson’s Cello Multitracks

Nonclassical are an organisation with big plans for music’s future, intent on taking the “classical” out of “classical music” – declassifying it, perhaps. But while their events and their music (they organize clubnights as well as CDs) have always been enjoyable, I think that their new CD Cello Multitracks is as close as they’ve really come to living up to the “nonclassical” name.

Cello Multitracks is a four-part suite by Gabriel Prokofiev for nine cellos – or rather, for one cello, nine times, as it’s part of the concept that all nine parts are played by the same person, Peter Gregson. Depsite the say-what-you-see work title, the movements have fanciful names – “Outta Pulsor,” “Jerk Driver,” “Float Dance,” “Tuff Strum” – and after the suite, which lasts around 17 minutes, the CD contains nine remixes of the various movements. It might sound slightly meagre for a full album’s worth, but there’s plenty to enjoy; it’s conceptually tight as an album but still varied enough to be engaging.

Gabriel Prokofiev

Gabriel Prokofiev

The suite itself is Prokofiev’s trademark mix of dance rhythms and compositional neatness, and it’s an excellent listen. Unlike so many “classical” treatments of pop rhythms (Stravinsky doing jazz, etc.), the many syncopations are allowed to retain their sense of pulse, so all the movements zip along with a real immediacy, from the aloof, soft moanings of “Outta Pulsor” to the jungly, hip “Tuff Strum.”

But while the four tracks are winningly listenable like pop music, their engagement with the classical is never far away. The four-movement structure is essentially that of the classical symphony, with the scherzo second. This scherzo (“Jerk Driver”) even has a quaint, Haydnesque trio, in fact, and the following track, “Float Dance,” is a delicate, slow-ish, slightly introspective number. And it’s not just the traditional classical canon that Prokofiev alludes to; the whole thing is very close in layout to Steve Reich’s Counterpoint pieces, after all, and the intelligently dealt-with repetitions which pervade the work make it clear that the kinship to Reich runs deeper than this too.

When I heard this piece live a few months ago, I found the Reich similarity slightly disconcerting, and though I enjoyed the performance I did wonder if I wouldn’t just have enjoyed hearing Cello Counterpoint a little bit more. But on CD this problem ceases to exist, beacuse Cello Multitracks does work on its own terms, and when heard outside of a setup forever to be associated with Reich this is a lot easier to hear. And the other reason it works so well as a CD is because it’s basically the same as pop music. You can nod your head to it. You can stick it on shuffle. You can (whisper it) let your attention wander, and do other things while you’re listening to it. It’s pop music. It’s just classical music too, more or less.

Peter Gregson

Peter Gregson

Out of the remixes, a standout moment is the juxtaposition of two new versions of “Float Dance,” from Home Loner and Tim Exile. They basically have no similarities with each other at all; Home Loner’s uncompromisingly morphs the material completely, adding his own ideas so comprehensively as to make an entirely new piece out of it, while Tim Exile’s rather respectfully adds twiddles and beats but lets the original keep its shape. Old hand DJ Spooky’s take on “Jerk Driver” is one of the more straightforward efforts, while Heavy Deviance’s “Outta Pulsor” is maybe the most imaginative reinterpretation, transforming the piece into a dark, pretty, ambient mesh. It’s an eclectic bunch, and they complement each other well.

While all the remixes are absorbing, though, Cello Multitracks itself flies by faster than it might have done, always excellently realised by all nine Peter Gregsons. The pieces’ brevity is a great thing in some ways, but I did feel they could have said more; as it stands, the movements seem a little like snapshots, single moments – vignettes, to use perhaps the least pop-music word imaginable. Longer pieces would have offered the work the chance to engage a little more with the intensity of the night-long clubbing session – surely as much a source of inspiration as the quick-fix hit single.

But that said, there’s something of the “small but perfectly formed” about Cello Multitracks, and its scale fits well with the concept of the disc. Nonclassical have released “Jerk Driver” as a single already, and this album really is a pop disc as much as a classical one. It’s a big step in Nonclassical’s important and absorbing journey, and well worth a listen.

Gabriel Prokofiev, Cello Multitracks (NONCLASSICAL, 2012) | Buy it on Amazon.com

Paul Kilbey writes on music and culture for publications including Culture Wars, Huffington Post and Bachtrack. Follow him on Twitter @paulkilbey.