'If music be the food of love, play on, Cocteau Twins'

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The Independent Culture

They are regarded by their fans as modern poets but artists from the Cocteau Twins to Antony and the Johnsons will soon set their music to the words of the greatest bard of them all.

Antony Hegarty, lead singer from the Mercury Prize-winning Californian band, Antony and the Johnsons; Liz Fraser, a member of the 1980s post-punk cult act, Cocteau Twins and Natalie Merchant, from 10000 Maniacs, will feature among more-classical music acts which have been selected to compose contemporary sounds to run alongside a Shakespearean sonnet.

The artists are picking their favourite sonnets to set against the music of a chamber orchestra, the soprano, Anna-Maria Friedmann, and the tenor, John Potter. But Shakespearean purists should be braced for innovative "re-workings"of the poems, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Opera North, which commissioned the work.

Liz Fraser, who is known as much for her shyness as her ethereal compositions, has remained elusive about her offering. Organisers say that she may well "turn up with her sonnet on the day".

Hegarty has narrowed his choice down to five favourite sonnets set against a gospel choir, including sonnet 23 which reflects on "an imperfect actor on the stage" to number 71, which begins by telling a lover "no longer mourn for me when I am dead".

The sonnets - chosen from a total of 154 14-line poems - will be spoken to the audience by a RSC actor followed by the artist's "response" to the sonnet. Deborah Shaw, the director of the Complete Works festival, said the artists had received a "free brief" to do as they saw fit. "They can either set their response to music or they are free to rework aspects of the overall piece.

"I started off thinking it was just going to be a sort of cabaret and started asking various artists and then discovered the Opera North had been thinking of a similar project. The artists will not definitively be performing on the evenings but will be writing for the orchestra and singers," she said.

Merchant, the lead singer from the iconic US Indie act, has picked sonnet 73, which begins, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold, When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold", and is traditionally linked to a series of other sonnets in which Shakespeare reflects on his own mortality and the ravages of time. The Romanian violinist, Alexander Balanescu, has opted for sonnet 43, which reflects on the poet's disturbed mind after the anguish of betrayal, while Gavin Friday, the Irish film score composer, also intends to participate.

The results of Shakespeare "re-mixed" will be showcased in a production called Nothing Like the Sun at Stratford-upon-Avon's Courtyard Theatre on 24 and 25 February before it tours across the regions in March 2007.

The initiative is part of the Complete Works festival, launched this year, in which companies from almost every continent will perform every Shakespeare play. It will travel to Nottingham, Manchester, Gateshead and Leeds in March next year after its two-day performance in Shakespeare's birthplace.

The original concept behind the project came from the renowned British composer and curator of the project, Gavin Bryars, who will lead the second part of the event after the compositions of the "guest" artists have been performed, by setting a series of seven sonnets to music.

Bryars, who was born in Yorkshire, began as a jazz bassist before working with John Cage in the United States, and subsequently collaborating with several composers. His first major work as a composer was The Sinking of the Titanic, in 1969, originally released on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975.

Dominic Gray, curator for Opera North, said the artists were free to choose to work with only a limited number of instruments such as the guitar and percussion, but hoped they would also utilise the classic ensemble instruments including the violin, cello, and clarinet.

"They will be very identifiable from their styles but we must remember they are writing for a classical ensemble. There has been a crossover of serious musicians who work at the pop end to also work at the classical end. For example, Johnny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, is the composer in residence for the London Sinfonieta, and Gavin Bryars collaborated with Tom Waits some time ago.

"The brief is to set the sonnets to music, whether they will repeat lines or take some out we will have to wait and see," he said.

The five guest composers have all worked with Bryars before and the end result is intended to straddle the pop, contemporary and classical music genres.

The project was announced as Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, spoke of future plans for the company, including the possibility of taking the Complete Works to the United States.

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