Disappointing musical texture stunts

August 4th, 2011  |  Tags: ,

A few months ago, I purchased a download of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra. (The preceding link is to Amazon.com). What follows is a brief review, although careful readers may be able to infer the general verdict from the title of this post.

Mr. Prokofiev was a prolific dance music producer in the UK before branching out into concert music. Unfortunately, this piece, which combines a live orchestra with a turntablist scratching records of a recorded orchestra, relies too heavily on gimmicks to be really effective. Some parts are more successful than others (there are some sections which would make excellent film cues or incidental music for the theatre). However, it really seems that the most interesting thing about this piece is the central idea — “let’s combine some contemporary orchestral music with turntable scratching” — which is insufficiently clever to carry a whole recording by itself. (Some gimmicks, like the Hilliard Ensemble’s musical palimpsest, are clever enough to make the merely excellent sublime, but I suspect we’re past the era in which novel instrumentation alone can make a piece of concert music interesting.)

The failure of Mr. Prokofiev’s Concerto comes from what I believe is a common problem with compositions adopting unorthodox musical textures: all too often, the textural innovations merely crowd out and smother any good musical ideas in the piece. When there are few good ideas to begin with, as in Uri Caine’s bizarre free-jazz take on Mahler, the Hilliard Ensemble’s execrable Machaut-meets-Kenny-G collaboration with Jan Garbarek, any student composition ever scored for “X and tape,” or this Concerto, the gimmicks become truly oppressive. It needn’t have been this way: so many people have made great music by reworking other music (in general) and by repurposing and rearranging recordings of other music (in particular). Still worse, Mr. Prokofiev apparently has some talent for composition and facility with contemporary music production; he is precisely the sort of person who should have been able to do something special with this technique.

Instead, this pretentiously-titled work suffocates a few mildly interesting moments in a sonic tarpit. It tries to make art solely from debatable mechanical novelty and Mr. Prokofiev’s surname (his grandfather is rather famous). After listening for a few minutes, I began wondering about whether or not DJ Shadow has a dog, what kind of a record DJ Shadow’s dog might make, and how much more I might enjoy that record.