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by Steve Koenig

I've been having fun all week, telling friends that I just got a new string quartet by Prokofiev. When they get all excited about the new discovery, I set the record straight that it is indeed a new discovery, but of Sergei's grandson Gabriel, composer and founder of the new nonClassical label.

Musically somewhere between Bang On A Can and Thirsty Ear, nonClassical's m. o. is to present a brief work, then add a bunch of remixes. Generally, the idea of remixes of classical (or even nonClassical) works fills me with dread. I aurally conjure up sounds of electronica and Muzak with beats. I confess my own prejudice: I almost always dislike beat-driven drum'n'bass remixes.

nonClassical has beat the system by adding remixes which (for the most part) actually utilize the original work, and have musical merits of their own so nearly each one is enjoyable in its own right. The most effective of the remixes, for my taste, use a lot of the original acoustic material with dub effects, noise-music processing, or spacious soundscapes.

John Matthias and Nick Ryan
Cortical Songs

Nick Ryan, violin; Trinity College of Music String Ensemble.
Remixes by Thom Yorke, Neil Grant and John Fisher, Gabriel Prokofiev, Jem Finer, Marcas Lancaster, David Prior, John Maclean, Simon Tony, Dominic Murcott, Andrew Prior, and Marcus Coates
NONCLSS004, 55:06.

Cortical Songs is a gripping fifteen-minute work for solo violin and string orchestra, which opens with a folkloric lead for the violin and droning sustain underneath it. The second movement has a more intense violin line, and sawing strings propelled incrementally forward by acoustic bass. Movement three is more static, with little pizzicato rodent-scurrying; then the strings, solo and ensemble, get very intense. The final movement opens louder and more vehemently but is less effective than the prior sections, even when it softens to a fade. Fans of the work of Arvo Pärt, or even Dvorák, should find Cortical Songs to their liking. Regarding its construction, I'll simply adapt the explanation from the liner notes:

"Cortical Songs consists of four movements composed for a solo violin and 24-piece string ensemble in which the orchestra is partially controlled by a tiny computer brain. Each player follows a written score and flashing LED light, connected to a small computer 'brain' consisting of a software network of 24 simulated neurons-one for each member of the orchestra.

"When a neuron in the computer brain fires the LED light to which it is connected flashes once, and the instrumentalist, following that particular light, responds according to a written instruction. Additionally, the notes played by the orchestra are fixed in the score, but the times at which they are played are controlled by the flashing of the lights, which in turn are controlled by the firing times of the neurons. These firing times are indeterminate; the piece will never be the same twice."

The remixes, in part: Thom Yorke's "Neuron Trigger mx" is mildly intriguing, but its pluck/percussion and backwards-sounding strings are on the simplistic side. Neal Grant and John Fisher's "Electronic water Feature!" despite its exclamation mark is low-key drone-based, and makes one long for Aube's water-based compositions. Jeb Finer's "The Squid's Terror of Dry Land" is a wonderful piece, as curious as its name. (I could easily imagine this as a 7" on Drone Records.)

Gabriel Prokofiev's "Brain Bumper remix" is just stop-and-start beats with some semi-interesting cut-ups. Marcus Lancaster's 2nd Mvt. Remix, once it gets underway, makes an excellent electronic, string-driven house-style dance work. On the other hand, Dominic Murcott's "The Bipolar Shuffle" is just hokey beats and samples. The sequencing of these remixes is as random as their originality.

The triple-fold digipak is beautifully and neuron-ically designed, and in a good move, the individual musicians of the string ensemble are names. In a trendy move, the back cover lists the remixes in an unreadable dark grey over black.

Gabriel Prokofiev
Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra

Heritage Orchestra featuring DJ Yoda
Remixes by Medasyn, Li'll Bo Tweak, Monster Bobby, Heavy Deviance, Cerebral Productions, David Schweizer, Gabriel Prokofiev, Kreepa, Radioproof Tivannagh L'Abbé, Kat! Heath!
NONCLSS005, 68:44.

Five movements, twenty-one minutes plus eleven remixes. It starts with low brass, then turntable stuff, then the strings, and so on. The work itself is clever, well-orchestrated, and uses twentieth century idioms: film noir, jazz-inflections, pizzicato, low-bass lurches, French-flavored winds, but it's the turntabling that puts on the kabosh. The third movement made me think as much of Federico Fellini's style as that of his partner-in-crime Nino Rota.

Instead of the improvisatory kind of turntabling you'd get from Otomo Yoshihide, Christian Marclay or Martin Tétrault, we get mere scratching, and not very good scratching at that. To use the verbal equivalent of this music, because of the turntable component, I'd have to say this piece is played out. The producer's notes mention the use of popular dance music by J. S. Bach and Bartók, but unfortunately the concerto works neither as club nor concert music, and it easily could have. How about a "de-mix" without the turntabling?

A great deal of the remixes, however, are wonderful: clever (poly)rhythms, great sampling of the strings, intelligent use of brass, and wit. One could easily start with the remixes and enjoy forty-seven minutes of music. The booklet credits each musician by name, and tiny reproductions of pages of the score decorate the bottom of the inner pages.

Gabriel Prokofiev: String Quartet No. 1
The Elysian Quartet

Remixes by Edwin Laliq, Boxsaga, David Schweitzer and Max de Wardener
NONCLSSCD001 or vinyl NONCLSS, 27:30

I have the vinyl edition, pressed on a thick slab, with excellent sonics. Oddly, only two (of four?) movements are offered; the rest is a quartet (sorry!) of remixes. In those, all the percussion "is made from the original string quartet recording," except for Laliq. Let's go in sequence.

A1. G Prokofiev Hip-Hop Mix, Mvt. 2. Pluck pluck pluck, shard string slash. One thinks of Piazzola. Slinkily danceable. Down in the mix is barely discernable scratching. Strings are oddly akin to classic late '70s disco strings.
A2. Ed Laliq Mix, Mvt. 4. Drum'n'bass for a bit. Strings sampled and buzzing around. Then, pure Romantic string quartet, followed by intently drummed forward motion. The rest seems like cut-ups.
A3. Original SQ, Mvt. 2. Percussion from pizzicato and slapping wood against a low cello grind.

B1. Boxsaga Mix, Mvt 2. Pizzacato, beats, claps, feels like Appalachian fiddle music set to slow funkbeats.
B2. David Schweitzer Mix, Mvt. 4. Do you remember Hot Butter's 1972 instrumental hit "Popcorn" (not to be confused with the James Brown jam)? Metallic sounding beats percolating, intriguing rhythmically, but leaving little lasting impression. Nice Eastern-sounding strings, and a bit of wah-wah.
B3. Original SQ, Mvt 4. Again we're in Astor Piazzola territory, a body-moving imperative to romantic interlude to silence and back. Very nice.
B4. Max de Wardener Mix, Mvts 2 & 3. Woozy, sighing, slowly cycling patterns owing more to Branca than Glass, yet more to Pärt's kind of stasis. Yearning; lovely.

Now, to figure whether to file this with my dance 12-inchers or in classical under Prokofiev, G.

If you've read this far, you already know whether this might be your thing. I look forward to hearing more from nonClassical, and would especially enjoy the chance to hear, on its own, Gabriel Prokofiev's complete, unmixed String Quartet No. 1.,

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