Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra II (2016)

Turntables and symphony orchestra // 24 mins
Orchestration: 2(2pic).2(ca).2(bcl).2(cbn)/
[Commissioned by Casa da Musica, Porto]

Programme Note

I think that the Turntables are one of the most exciting and truly contemporary instruments to emerge in recent years. They present an interesting challenge to any composer in that they have no immediate sounds of their own, and therefore need to be given a carefully chosen set of sounds for each performance.

For many people they are the embodiment of the post-modern sample-culture attitude to music, as they mainly play back recordings of other music and instruments; they are often seen as musical magpies, incomplete instruments. But I believe the potential of the Turntables are far greater than they are given credit for; their sonic possibilities are almost limitless – in that we can give them any sounds we like which they can in turn manipulate in many creative and virtuosic ways. Furthermore they can actually create their own sounds without sampling other source, by directly manipulating the needle itself.

The history of the Turntables as a musical instrument is quite remarkable. Two Turntables were first used in a scored musical performance back in 1939 in John Cage’s I’maginary Landscape No.1′. He wanted to control electronic sounds in a live performance, and at that time Turntables were the most available technology able to do that (though they were soon superseded by Tape machines). Also, John Cage was also the first composer to use Turntable needles as musical instruments in his work ‘Cartridge Music‘ (1960). But Turntables weren’t used as musical instruments again until the 1970s when DJs (in particular Grand Wizard Theodore and Grand Master Flash) invented scratching in the Bronx, New York, and kick-started the ‘Turntablism’ movement, in which the Turntables eventually became a very expressive instrument capable of great virtuosity. At the same time Christian Marclay, sound-artist / composer, starting using turntables to create sound collages, opening up a more sound-art-based approach to Turntablism. New Turntablism techniques have continued to develop since then, but the Turntables have only entered the classical orchestra in the twenty-first century…

I composed my first Concerto for Turntables just over 10 years ago (not long after DJ Radar & Raul Yanez performed the first Concerto for Turntables in New York). In that time I’ve become much more familiar with both the Turntables, and composing for orchestra (as my first Concerto for Turntables was also my first composition for full orchestra). I’ve continued to learn more about the Turntables through the journey that the first Concerto has made. It has been performed over 30 times, by 19 different orchestras and by 7 different Turntablists, most of whom I’ve workshopped the piece with & each time I’ve discovered more about the capabilities of the instrument.

Though at first I was apprehensive about composing a 2nd Concerto for Turntables, as soon as I started sketching ideas for it I remembered what an inspiring instrument it was to compose for, and especially inspiring when I knew the soloist would be Mr Switch and the orchestra: Porto Symphony with Baldur Brönnimann.

As it was concerto no2, I felt some pressure to include some new techniques that hadn’t been used in the first concerto, and perhaps even try to develop some new approaches for Turntablism as a whole. But ultimately what I felt was most important, was to compose a concerto that would make musical sense and let the Turntables shine as an expressive and virtuosic instrument. So I was also keen to use classic scratch techniques, and refine my approaches to composing for Turntables with orchestra, as well as look for innovation.

So, this concerto showcases what I think are the strengths of the Turntables; it’s rhythmic dexterity, it’s ability to effortlessly transform sounds, and also it introduces techniques that weren’t used in my first concerto: in particular Needle Percussion (when the needle and cartridge are as a percussion instrument rather than to read vinyl).

It also explores the relationship between the orchestra and the turntables. As in my first concerto, all the sounds that the Turntablist plays from the vinyl are recorded from musical phrases performed by the orchestra in the concerto, rather than use the classic scratch samples that are used on most hip-hop. This approach creates a direct relationship between Turntables and Orchestra and allows for a close and sometimes surprising dialogue between the two,

Below is a brief description of each movement of the concerto, outlining some of the techniques used by the Turntables:

The 1st movement begins with a surprise, which immediately demonstrates how easily the Turntables can transform a sound created by the orchestra (I don’t won’t to spoil the surprise, so won’t say anymore than that).

We then enter a dark, urban mood in five beats to the bar, with the Turntables exploiting the deep bass that it can create bringing a normally unavailable ‘sub-bass’ power to the orchestra. (It’s important to note that through-out the concerto the Turntales play various melodic patterns by changing the speed of the vinyl with the pitch control slider and the 33-45 switch). The music then climaxes into a Shostakovich influence groove in which the Turntables juxtapose the theme in reverse against the orchestra, and later introduce a very difficult two-turntable technique of scratching on one turntable while pitching & cutting a bass-line on the other.

The 2nd movement, is by contrast much calmer and in a gentle 3 beats to the bar. Partly influenced by downbeat electronica, and 1980s synth music, but with in a classical form. The turntables ‘phase’ with the repeated solo clarinet notes, and then juxtapose and pitch-shift the orchestra accompaniment over the orchestra. The middle section of the movement would probably be called a ‘bass-drop’ in electronic dance music, and the Turntables reverse the double basses to provide a growling bass-line. At the same time introducing the first instance of Needle Percussion on the Right-hand Turntable; tapping the needle against the central spindle and flicking the cartridge casing.

Structurally, this concerto is envisaged as a hybrid between classical concerto form and a DJ battle performance and so, the 2nd movement mixes directly intro the 3rd movement, as a DJ would seamlessly mix from track to track. The timpani introduce the opening motif of the 3rd movement over a looped phrase from the previous movement.

The Turntables have the chance to explore one of their strongest features in the 3rd movement: dextrous rhythmic stretching with drum samples. In this case using Timpani, Snare drum & Tam-tam samples. And in the middle of the movement (which has an unusual 15 beat groove), it drives the whole rhythmic energy of the orchestra with very fast snare scratching. The 3rd movement closes with half-tempo contrapuntal texture in six beats to the bar, over which the Turntables add an erratic needle percussion solo.

The 4th movement, opens with once of my favourite Turntablist techniques: the ‘transform’ (a fast cutting technique), using a sample of the  trombone at the beginning of the movement, which the Turntablist further modifies with a distortion effect and a filter. Then for the central theme, the turntables rhythmically lead the orchestra with a syncopated ‘baby’ scratch pattern in seven beats to the bar, before answering the rapid-fire melody of the trumpets and violins with fast ‘transforms’. Before the climactic coda, there is another ‘bass drop’ this time with the turntables warping the bass clarinet arpeggiated pattern with reverses and filtering.

Stylistically, this Concerto follows my continuing interest in composing classical music that engages with contemporary culture, which includes incorporating rhythms and textures from contemporary dance-music into a classical form; so that elements of styles such as Electronica, Funk, Hip-hop, Grime, Dub-step, become part of a bigger classical orchestral landscape.

In terms of themes, this work explores the relationship between the modern, streetwise instrument that are the Turntables, and the remarkable, and historic world that is the symphony orchestra. This concerto reflects on the modern urban experience: the intensity & speed of city life, the ever growing presence of technology, the special moments of calm,  the dangers and the excitement.

© Gabriel Prokofiev, July 2016

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