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Pastoral 21

UNLTD Collective, Gabriel Prokofiev (synthesizers)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: October 2022
Masterchord Studio, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Gabriel Prokofiev
Engineered by Ronan Phelan
Release date: February 2024
Total duration: 61 minutes 20 seconds

Throbbing electronic bass, angular beats, classical string sextet and recordings made in the field: together they explore what 'pastoral' may have left to mean in a time of climate crisis.

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This album journeys through three contrasting musical landscapes. Our starting point is the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a joyful escape to the countryside, performed in this more intimate version for string sextet. We are taken back in time with Beethoven’s idyllic images of nature of the pre-industrial era; barely any pollution, and certainly no aircraft or electricity cables over-head, or plastic bags in sight.

Then we are transported into the 21st century with seven pieces from Breaking screens, a work that explores life in the digital age—where we spend more time looking at screens than the real world. Excitement at the possibilities of new technologies sits alongside the anxieties that they also bring. Urban bass synths, and electronic beats in irregular time signatures (such as 5 in ‘Fivatak’) point to our often aggressive relationship with the planet.

The two-part ‘1 2 3 4 5 6’ & ‘Change Up’ starts with the ensemble simply counting—we seem to be doing a lot of counting these days: counting carbon emissions, sea-levels, temperature changes, de-forestation, population … And we are hoping that will inspire us to change our behaviours, but sometimes it just feels like a game!

‘Memory Fields’ remembers distant nature from towers of a modern megacity. ‘Relfessivo’ is a lament, with a sense of nostalgic longing, which leads us back to the dreams of the unspoilt landscapes—conjured up by the final movement Beethoven’s Pastoral, which gives a momentary hope that we can one day recreate the natural world of the past.

Then we re-awaken in the 21st century, for the central work of the album: Pastoral reflections, a direct response to the Pastoral Symphony, which explores what the concept of ‘Pastoral’ means to us today in this time of climate crisis. As we know, Beethoven was inspired by his treasured escapes into the countryside around Vienna—where he discovered beautiful brooks, meadows, woodland, and idyllic images of village life, as well as experiencing the awesome power of nature in thunder storms.

Imagine if Beethoven came back to the same locations outside Vienna in the 21st century … Though he would still find some beautiful scenes of nature, he would certainly be shocked by the omnipresence of modern industrial life: the inescapable background noise of motorways, aeroplanes overhead, insistent signs of human presence in plastic waste, metal fences, concrete-bordered streams, tarmac roads. And the modern farms, that often resemble factories rather than idyllic places of cultivation and live-stock. Then if he looked at the bigger picture of our natural environment in the 2020s, beyond Austria, he would find even more serious and existential devastation.

For Pastoral reflections I decided to follow most of the tempi of Beethoven’s original, and focus on the same themes for each movement, but with a contemporary view. In addition to the string sextet I have used field recordings that illustrate humankind’s omnipresence: the distant hum of traffic that I recorded high up in the hills of Verbier, traffic in the suburbs of Vienna where Beethoven used to enjoy silent walks, the Stadtpark in Vienna, alpine streams processed to reflect pollution, and finally raw electronics to illustrate our continual interference with nature.

Fortunately for us, in the 2020s nature’s beauty is still very evident; Europe has not yet been too badly affected by floods or forest fires, but at the same time none of our nature is as untouched and idyllic as it was in Beethoven’s time. So each movement begins with a similar mood to LvB’s original: there is an initial, beautiful pastoral scene; but then traces of destruction and environmental damage are revealed. This sense of dread and sadness returns in each movement; the unavoidable presence of the climate crisis finds its way into each pastoral scene.

Gabriel Prokofiev © 2023

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