The grandson of composer Sergei Prokofiev is already one of Britain's hottest producers of garage music. Now he's written a string quartet to be premiered in a nightclub. He talks to Russ Coffey
Outside the window, through the fog, you can make out a gas tower. Sitting at the desk of the tiny Bethnal Green recording studio is a man once described as London's hottest new producer of garage music. Packed like sardines in the room are the Elysian String Quartet and myself.
The man at the desk is Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei. The quartet is recording the third movement of his first string quartet. The Soviet feel of the music seems apt for the half-derelict former factory we are in. With only an hour left of studio time, there is conspicuous tension in the room.
The recording is to have its official launch later this month at an unusual night at an East End nightclub.
Prokofiev intends to persuade 300 or so clubbers to listen to the Elysians play a set of contemporary and classical music, building up to his own piece, which he admits people might find "quite challenging". More familiar listening will come in the form of a DJ playing dance remixes of the piece, also included on the record.
"I guess it's really going to be an evening of chamber music," Prokofiev later tells me in his local greasy spoon, "but I'm not sure I am happy with calling it that. It sounds alienating. I think all sorts of people want to experience all sorts of music. The problem is in how it is packaged."
The belief that any good music of any genre can and should be enjoyed by anyone unites composer and quartet.
Prokofiev, 29, tall and blond, has looks reminiscent of a Russian aristocrat. His father Oleg, an artist, was a Soviet defector. Although not a musician, he filled his house in Greenwich with music, particularly that of his father. Gabriel Prokofiev says growing up in this environment must have had its effect.
As we sip mugs of tea, a hip-looking girl approaches and asks Prokofiev about club nights. He explains to me that for the past five years he has been producing and performing assorted dance, "sonic art", and African music - all under various aliases.
The business of his pseudonyms dates to a bad experience he had when he was 13.
"I'd started a pop band with some friends," he says, "and was extremely proud of the songs I'd written. The local paper heard about it and wrote a piece, the gist being 'classical grandson goes pop'.
"Now, I prefer my music to stand up on its own without the name getting in the way. This piece, however, is different in that it's a more ostensibly classical piece."
Although he was always praised for his musical talent, it wasn't until his teachers began to be as interested in his composition as his instruments that he realised music was going to be his life. Before university, however, he travelled to Tanzania, learning to speak fluent Swahili and making perhaps the most comprehensive recording of Masai music in existence.
It was while studying for his MA at York that he met Laura Moody, now cellist in the Elysian Quartet. A year ago, he received a call from her asking him to write a piece for this "amazing quartet" she had just joined.
Based at the Trinity College of Music in Blackheath, the Elysian Quartet are recipients of the Bulldog scholarship, which gives financial support during the first year of a quartet's professional career.
The Elysians, all in their early twenties, have embraced this opportunity in the most extraordinary way. Their relentless pursuit of the finest repertoire has taken them on a journey from baroque, through Classical and contemporary, to new commissions and collaborations.
They have played with folk, jazz and hip hop stars, and recently appeared on Radio 1 Extra with Killa Kela, the so-called "human beatbox".
The quartet consists of Emma Smith (first violin), Jennymay Logan (second violin), Vincent Sipprell (viola) and Laura Moody (cello). All were gifted players as children.
Smith, for instance, claims to have been playing since she "was practically an egg". She was trained in the Suzuki method, where children are encouraged to play as soon as they can hold the instrument, and entirely by ear. The emphasis on improvisation she attributes to her later jazz leanings.
Moody was given a cello to curb her hyperactivity. She was immediately transfixed. At the age of 13, she won the Yamaha national rock and pop awards for her song, Patterns on my Mind.
Sipprell's first love was for the jazz that his mother used to sing in a Greek nightclub. Then his stepfather introduced him to the piano and to classical music. Soon he was Grade 8 at violin, viola and cello, and had taught himself guitar. Outside the quartet he plays in jazz and rock bands.
Logan's talent was discovered at primary school in Essex when teachers noticed her astonishing aptitude for the recorder. Soon put on to violin and piano, at 11 she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music junior department.
With their diversity of interests and refusal to allow music to be pigeonholed, it was perhaps inevitable that they should want to expand the possibilities of what and where they play.
Over the past six months they have played Shostakovich in a Soho bar, Stravinsky in the Tate, and George Crumb's experimental masterpiece on the Vietnam War, Black Angels, at Ronnie Scott's.
They also play the Crumb piece, sometimes said to be the bleakest music ever written, in their outreach work in local primary schools. Logan delights in telling people that "one little girl thought it was most probably about a badger".
Superficially, the works of American avant-gardists such as Crumb or John Cage seem to provide a context in which to see Prokofiev's quartet. One is initially struck, for instance, by the use of a range of bowing techniques, adventurous dissonances and complex rhythms. Close listening, however, reveals that it largely defies comparison.
Prokofiev says he hadn't got round to refamiliarising himself with contemporary quartet music when he started, and soon decided not to bother. He thought it would be more interesting for the music just to be the product of his life experience.
Much of it came to him as he cycled down the towpath from home to his studio. Since it was written, it has evolved organically through the quartet's interpretation.
The first movement is short and mournful, with the violins playing a cascading theme leading into a sad viola melody. The second has a busy, flowing, gypsy-like tune, which is passed between the instruments, set against syncopated staccato rhythms. The third is heavy, with a distinct Eastern Bloc feel, and the last is the favourite of both Prokofiev and the quartet. With its complex broken rhythms and repeated motif, it is clearly inspired by some of the dance music that Prokofiev has worked on over the years.
The remixes by Max de Wardener, David Schweitzer, Boxsaga and Ed Laliq may respectively be described as mellow, groove, chill, and art-punk. Perhaps most interesting is Prokofiev's own remix, where he uses the spiralling theme from the first movement and speeds it up over a bass line sampled from the cello.
An e-mail has just appeared in my inbox. It is from Prokofiev. It contains an attachment that is going to be the flyer for his and the quartet's launch party. It says: "You are invited to an evening of Chamber Music."
Maybe he has decided that it isn't too alienating, after all.
Gabriel Prokofiev's String Quartet No 1, performed by the Elysian Quartet, will be launched at Cargo, 83 Rivington St, London EC2, on March 17. It will be released on Non-Stop Records on May 3.