When imagining the music of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, it is likely the gentle lilt of a lute that comes to mind: the world’s most famous playwright believed the instrument had the power to transport listeners into another world. That’s according to the Lute Society, an international organization that might be a little bit biased when it comes these matters.
Nothing against the lute, but director Christopher Brauer went in a different direction for the soundtrack of Shakespeare in the Ruins’ upcoming run of the Bard’s beloved farce, which begins with Duke Orsino declaring, “If music be the food of love, play on.”
“It was always clear in original Shakespearean productions that despite the historic nature of the story being told, it’s still happening here and now,” says Brauer, 55, the chair of the University of Winnipeg’s department of theatre and film.
Twelfth Night centres on twins Viola (Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu) and Sebastian (Elio Zarrillo). After being separated in a shipwreck, the siblings become embroiled in a love triangle that revolves around mistaken identities.
When it came to the agony, and especially the ecstasy, of young love, Brauer felt electronic dance music (EDM) was a better fit than madrigals.
When the director considered the role of a contemporary Shakespeare company, he recognized the value of keeping the centuries-old work vital and current. EDM’s most popular practitioners — from Avicii to Daft Punk to Skrillex — are among the most successful recording artists of modern times; it is a borderless genre, perfectly suited for an era of online music consumption.
“The best EDM tells a story,” says Brauer, who usually listens to “old man music” such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. “The best of EDM, like any well-made music, is wonderful.”
It’s also a genre that makes sense in the context of the Trappist Monastery Ruins, which, when not being used for Shakespeare productions, are often a hangout for what Brauer calls “rogue youths.”
“I’ve encountered the real people who use the ruins, and they aren’t the theatre people or the artsy people,” he says. “They’re the teenagers who live around here and come to party, do drugs, drink a little, or get over a breakup.”
Those teens inspired Brauer, who directed a gender-swapped Twelfth Night at the U of W in 2015, to skew the story young, making Orsino a wannabe DJ and fashioning another character as an indie-pop songwriter.
Brauer couldn’t compose the soundtrack himself, so he gave a pair of old friends a call.
Now based in Los Angeles, Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg are members of the critically acclaimed local indie band Royal Canoe who also comprise the producing duo Deadmen, a project that has paired them with singers such as Emily Wells, Begonia and Dan Mangan. Normally, Deadmen lean into hip-hop and neo-soul, not sonnets and iambs.
But they’re no strangers to Shakespeare: Royal Canoe collaborated with Brauer on a production of Richard II, and Peters worked on a 2009 take on The Winter’s Tale with SiR artistic director Rodrigo Beilfuss, Brauer and actor Tom Keenan (who plays Malvolio in Twelfth Night).
Peters and Schellenberg both hold English degrees, which served them well as they discussed with Brauer the emotional context for the EDM interludes, which come during moments of getting pumped up and of being in love. In a matter of three weeks, the pair had to come up with not only three EDM tracks to be spun by Darren Martens as Orsino, but four singer-songwriter tracks to be sung by Hera Nalam, who will play Feste, Antonio and the Captain.
For inspiration, Deadmen listened to a lot of Fred Again, a British artist who just released a joint LP with Brian Eno, the father of ambient music, also known for his time in the glam rock group Roxy Music. Using their extensive library of drums, droning synths and keyboards, plus their “bag of tricks,” the producers came up with a trio of beats that will shake the ruins in new and exciting ways.
“Even if EDM isn’t our go-to, we were really happy with the final result,” says Peters. “We learned quite a bit from this process, and it’s a great example of immersing ourselves in the task at hand to come out the other side with a greater appreciation for a genre.”
Asked if the songs will be available to listen to or purchase, Schellenberg says that he’d like them to be.
But if not, he offers an easy solution for those interested.
“All the songs will be available to you if you buy a ticket and come to the show,” he says.
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