Switched On – Gabriel Prokofiev: Howl! (Oscillations)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The roots of Howl lie in the ‘Arab Spring’, and also Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name from the mid-1950s. It is a five-part composition exploring the use of recent technological forms for protest and expression, and has already made itself a history in terms of real life protests.

Gabriel Prokofiev originally conceived the piece as a score for the choreographer Maurice Causey, and its first performance in Hong Kong was sadly adjacent to the independence protests. Now it has a raw significance in opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially with protesting forbidden in Russia.

Prokofiev uses the rich tones of an ARP Odyssey synthesizer, filtering and layering its sounds to produce a wide variety of tones. Complementing these are the clarinet of Linus YS Fung, who took part in that first Hong Kong performance, and Yury Revich, whose violin adds a sensitive, songful treble to the wrought second part, Separation.

What’s the music like?

There is a great deal of first-hand angst in this music, and Prokofiev makes his protest in the strongest possible musical way.  The synthesizer tones fulfil several functions here – first of all to confront, which they do from the outset, but also to provide unexpected comfort when the sounds swell and get warmer.

Howl springs forward with purpose, its first section (Agitprop) crackling with serrated figures that ricochet across the stereo picture. The all-encompassing synth tone dominates to start with, on occasion sounding like the malfunctioning of a big machine or a computer program gone wrong.

Linus YS Fung makes striking contributions to the Separation section, where the interference from the electronics contrasts with the clarinet’s probing, sonorous tones. The following Swarm section is extremely descriptive, painting the assembling of an ominous army like the Martians in War Of The Worlds.

Pulse presents a bleak picture in response, with harmonies that are watchful and fearful but then grow in timbre and intensity. Finally Afterlude feels like an injection of positive energy, offering a step out of trouble.

Does it all work?

Yes, emphatically. This is uncompromising music, facing its problems with unwavering surety. It certainly isn’t for every moment in the day, but Prokofiev offers enough light amongst the shade to make an effective five-part suite.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and with a little necessary caution due to its intensity, volume and frequency. What is beyond doubt is that Howl – sadly – is music of necessity, made for these inhumane times.