Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra No.1 (2006)

Turntables and symphony orchestra (chamber version with single wind available)) // 21 mins
Chamber version: 1(afl).1(ca).1(bcl).0 / 1.2.1.btrbn.0 – perc(3)/ Ttbles/str.
Symphonic version: 2(pic)+afl.2+ca.2+bcl.2+cbn/
(Double wind version also available).
[Commissioned by Will Dutta, Chimera Productions, symphonic version commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 2011]


Programme Note

When Will Dutta first approached me with the idea of composing a ‘concerto’ for DJ, my immediate reaction was negative. Though I had composed a classical piece which incorporated a DJ for the Bath Festival one year earlier (Three Dances for Bass Clarinet, String Trio & DJ, 2004), the idea of an actual DJ concerto sounded too grandiose and gimmicky to me: I was concerned it would seem like another PR exercise in trying to make modern classical music ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’, but Mr Dutta insisted that there was serious artistic potential to the project and as it was inevitable that a concerto for turntable would emerge sooner or a later; why not let us be the team to do it right. Will explained that we would have the highly skilled turntablist, DJ Yoda as the soloist, and once I properly considered the musical possibilities of such a project, I soon found myself sketching out different concepts for each of the movements, and was keen to get started.

What makes the turntable different to any other instrument is that it uses pre-recorded sounds, but that is actually nothing new to classical music. From the Musique Concrète of Pierre Schaeffer’s studios and the Poème électronique of Varèse in the 1950s, which used reel to reel tape, through to the current digital world of electroacoustic music; classical composers were manipulating recorded sounds long before Grandmaster Flash made his first scratch using a record. However, once hip-hop culture discovered that a DJ can do so much more than just ‘play records’ with a turntable, their DIY approach led to the evolution of a very exciting new instrument. That instrument has somehow stayed within the world of hip-hop and dance, never venturing into the classical world, despite the incredible expressive potential it has. Having previously composed and studied electroacoustic music, I am aware of the search for more expressive ways of performing electronic music, as unfortunately many concerts just consist of the playback of DAT tape or CD. So could it be possible that this instrument, that first came to life at Block Parties in the Bronx, bring that expressivity?

But, seeing as it was developed for hip-hop music, would it work in the context of a classical form such as a concerto? Well, hip-hop music has frequently sampled orchestral sounds and textures with great success, so why not the other way round? Plus, an experienced DJ can produce such a wide range of sounds that it must be possible for them to sit within the orchestra in some way. Furthermore, as a composer I have a genuine interest in contemporary urban music styles such as hip-hop, so I knew that I can incorporate certain rhythms and musical ideas into the work that can bring the world of the DJ and the world of the orchestra closer together. (In this concerto you can hear traces of hip-hop drum patterns, a Reggaeton beat, Grime, and even disco-house.)

The central inspiration guiding the composition of this work was of course the instrument itself, the turntable. After a meeting with DJ Yoda, where he demonstrated the range of techniques on offer, I decided that the concerto would aim to explore all the main DJing techniques, with each movement focusing on a certain technique. The concerto would explore:

  1. The most basic DJ technique of all: just playing back a bit of music, and the progressions from that; stopping the record, interrupting it, reversing it, slowing it down, and cutting it up.
  2. The earliest DJ technique; ‘mixing’. One of the most interesting mixing techniques is Beat juggling. It is when a DJ ‘juggles’ with two identical records, placing them slightly out of time with each other, to create interesting new rhythms. This is usually done with two records, but in this case we have one record and an orchestra.
  3. Scratching is the most famous DJ technique and in the right hands can be extremely expressive and musical. DJ Yoda showed me a wide range of scratch techniques that include Scribbling, Planing, Hydraplaning, The Transformer, Echoes, The Crab and The Baby. Once we had started rehearsing I think Yoda even came up with some new scratch techniques, inspired by the left-field flavour of this work.
  4. Playing a melody with the turntable. Perhaps surprisingly, melodic playing is possible, as the Technics 1200 turntable that all DJs use has a slider and button for altering the playback speed (and therefore pitch) of a record. DJ Yoda explained that one particular DJ from San Francisco often plays nursery rhymes using a test-tone as a joke in his DJ-set. Yoda explained that there were 6 notes that could quite easily be played on the turntable (3 positions of the pitch control, in 33 or 45 rpm), and it turned out these pitches make up the first 6 notes of a minor scale, but some of the notes are very tricky to play after one another, so the turntable is not at its most flexible as a melody instrument.

The final and most defining choice for the piece was the subject of what sounds the DJ should use. Yoda explained that for scratching there are certain classic samples that work best, such as a gasping “ahhhh” sampled from “Change The Beat” by Fab Freddy Five. He also showed me drum hits and patterns that are good for scratching. However, if we put these classic ‘DJ sounds’ over a live orchestra I had a feeling that the concerto would sound forced and not the organic composition I was striving for. What seemed the most natural solution was that the DJ should scratch and play with sounds that were generated by the chamber orchestra themselves so that no foreign sounds would ever enter the piece. For the necessary gasping sounds I could record the woodwind players and for the drum sounds record the orchestral percussion section playing passages from the concerto itself. Instead of the test-tone we would sample a flute note for the melodic section.

Apart from the composing of the score, the final challenge was how to notate the DJ part. We found that simplicity was the key, as DJs are not used to following scores. I prepared skeleton guide parts for Yoda but most was learnt during rehearsals, and a lot of the detail & ornamentation is improvised. This characteristic of the instrument allowed the piece to give a nod to the early days of the concerto when soloists were given a lot more freedom to improvise. So in one way, this new instrument is bringing the concerto back to its roots.

© Gabriel Prokofiev, March 2006

The first performance was given by DJ Switch and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 3rd August 2011.

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