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.
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 well-known 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.
John Dankworth's 1960s settings for Cleo Laine are the first that spring to my mind, and then a Shakespeare sonnet is the final setting in Britten's Nocturne, but after that the list starts to run out. Russian composers including Kabalevsky and Glinka seem to have been keen on them, but
their settings are hardly well known.
Some new settings were recorded by Rufus Wainwright and Bryan Ferry for a fundraising CD for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and since I began this article a leaflet has landed on my desk announcing the premiere of a setting by my near-neighbour John Joubert at the Celebrating English Song festival in Tardebigge in June.
But it's hardly a rich harvest, tending to confirm the opinion that the sonnets are "musical yet unsuited to musical setting".
But it's not an opinion that is shared by Gavin Bryars, who is familiar with the form through his many settings of Petrarch rather than Shakespeare.
"Surprisingly few composers have set Shakespeare to music, and I find it strange, because they do lend themselves well to musical setting." he says. "The couplet at the end is always a very neat rounding off which lends itself very well. One thing that occurs to me is maybe it's because you have the songs in the plays and people think that's the way Shakespeare has to be sung. But I'm not complaining – in some ways it makes it easier."
Those not familiar with Shakespeare statistics may well be surprised to learn that there are no fewer than 154 sonnets.
"The first 40 are the better-known, but some of the latter ones are more reflective and philosophical, and those are the ones I've chosen. I gave the other composers a free choice.
"Natalie Merchant was the first one to choose, and she chose number 73. If someone had chosen the same as someone else I would have accepted two different approaches to the same sonnet, but as it happens no one has chosen the same one."
It raises the intriguing possibility that this could be an open-ended project, with more settings being commissioned from across an ever more diverse musical landscape.
"This weekend we're in Stratford and we have four other performances in Nottingham, Gateshead and Leeds," says Bryars. "There's been some interest from abroad, and Opera North are interested in getting it into their main stage season, because they are planning a season of all-Shakespeare operas. We'll try to get a good recording and then we'll have something to reflect on."
Nothing Like the Sun has two performances at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on Saturday and Sunday at 7.30pm (Box office: 0870 609 1110).