Back in 2005, pianist & events producer, Will Dutta approached me with the idea of composing a ‘concerto’ for ‘DJ’. But my immediate reaction was negative. Although I had just composed a classical piece which incorporated a DJ (Three Dances for Bass Clarinet, String Trio & DJ, 2004), the idea of an actual ‘DJ concerto’ sounded too gimmicky to me: I was concerned it would seem like another PR exercise to get classical music ‘down with the kids’, but Mr Dutta insisted that there was serious potential to the project and as it was inevitable that a concerto for turntables would emerge sooner or later; why not let us be the team to do it right. Will explained that we would have top turntablist, DJ Yoda, as the soloist, and once I properly considered the musical possibilities, I soon started sketching out different concepts for each of the movements, and then I was hooked.
What makes the turntable different to any other instrument is that it uses pre-recorded sounds; This is actually nothing new in classical music. From the Musique Concrète of Pierre Schaeffer’s studios, Poème électronique of Varèse in the 1950s, and John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (from 1939, the first composition with turntables), 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 compositions, as unfortunately many concerts just consist of the playback of digital files. So could it be possible that this instrument, that first came to life at Block Parties in the Bronx, could 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? 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 and experience in contemporary urban music styles such as hip-hop, so I knew that I could incorporate certain rhythms and musical ideas into the work that brought the worlds of the DJ and the orchestra closer together. (In this concerto you can hear traces of hip-hop drum patterns, a reggaeton beat, grime, and house.)
The central inspiration guiding the composition of this work was 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 explores:
1. The most basic DJ technique of all: playing a phrase 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 to create loops or putting them out of sync with each other, to create interesting new rhythms. In the concerto this is done with two records in the cadenzas, and with just one record against an orchestra.
3. Scratching: the most famous DJ technique and in the right hands it can be extremely expressive and musical. The concerto features a wide range of scratch techniques: scribbling, planing, hydroplaning, the transformer, echoes, the crab and the baby.
4. Playing a melody with the turntable. Perhaps surprisingly, melodic playing is possible, as the Technics 1200 (the Steinway of turntables) has a slider and button for altering the playback speed (and therefore pitch) of a record. There is a DJ from San Francisco who often plays nursery rhymes using a test-tone in his DJ-sets. There are 6 notes that can quite easily be played on the turntable (3 positions of the pitch control, in 33 or 45 rpm), and it turns out these pitches make up the first 6 notes of a minor scale. But some of the notes are very tricky to play one after another, so the turntable is not very flexible as a melody instrument.
The final and most defining choice for the piece was the subject of what sounds the DJ should use. Through the evolution of turntablism there are certain classic samples that have become the main tools of most scratch-DJs, such as a gasping “ahhhh” sampled from Change The Beat by Fab Freddy Five, and funk breaks and drum hits 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 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. I found that simplicity was the key, as DJs are not used to following scores. So I made a simple score that marks all the entries, the main rhythms and the sounds to use, but much of the details & ornamentation is open for improvisation, and is discussed in rehearsals. This characteristic gives this work to give a nod to the early days of the concerto when soloists were given more freedom to improvise. So in one way, this new instrument is bringing the concerto form back to its roots.
– Gabriel Prokofiev (March 2006)