Sun, Sonnets and Song; CULTURE an Eclectic Mix of Pop Talent Has Come Together to Set Shakespeare's Sonnets to Music for the RSC's Complete Works Festival, Writes Terry Grimley

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Byline: Terry Grimley

Every so often you come across an idea that seems so good and so obvious that you can't quite believe it hasn't been done before.

And so it is with Nothing Like the Sun, the project which has two performances at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, this weekend as part of the RSC's Complete Works festival.

A collaboration between the RSC and Opera North, it will unveil 14 new musical settings of Shakespeare sonnets. Eight of them are included in an extended work, with the title Nothing Like the Sun, by Gavin Bryars. The other five are individual settings commissioned from composers selected by Bryars.

As you might expect from a composer noted for a celebrated collaboration with Tom Waits, the five composers are an eclectic bunch.

There's violinist Alexander Balanescu, founder of the Balanescu Quartet, who is wellknown for his work with Michael Nyman, but the other four come from various different parts of the popular music field.

Antony Hegerty, leader of Mercury Prizewinners Antony and the Johnsons, has written his setting with his regular collaborator Nico Muhly. Then there's Irish singer-songwriter Gavin Friday, former DJ and electronic musician Mira Calix and American singer Natalie Merchant, former frontperson of 10,000 Maniacs.

All the settings are performed by soprano Anna Maria Friman and tenor John Potter (with the possible exception of Gavin Friday's which, depending on a late decision, he might sing himself), with an eight-strong ensemble featuring Bryars on double bass, plus two violas and cello, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, acoustic and electric guitar, piano and percussion. Bryars' piece also features a video projection by Danish architect Pippa Nissen.

"Originally I thought of having a whole mixture of people, but in the end I thought it was better to have more of a concentration of people who were in the so-called pop world," says Bryars.

"A lot of people working in pop are very intelligent musicians who feel constrained by the medium. Tom Waits, for example, is a very intelligent person with wide-ranging interests and Antony Hegerty is a very thoughtful composer."

When we spoke during rehearsals in Leeds earlier this week Bryars had still to hear all the settings, but he had a positive feeling about how the project would sound.

"I think it's going to be absolutely astounding. I heard my stuff last week for the first time and it sounds just as I hoped it would. The advantage of this format is that none is going to be more than five or six minutes long, so if we had a dud - and I don't think we will - you wouldn't have to wait long for the next one."

One of the surprising aspects of this project is that it highlights the relative neglect of Shakespeare's sonnets as material for musical settings. …