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Music for ‘Merchant’ defies boundaries

Visionaries: Jocelyn Pook

Music has been written for film or TV adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays nearly 470 times since Erich Wolfgang Korngold arranged Mendelssohn for Max Reinhardt’s 1935 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And in that time, some pretty distinguished composers — everyone from William Walton and Nino Rota to Michael Nyman and Elliot Goldenthal — have lent their talents to evoke the Bard’s world.

Now Jocelyn Pook, best known for scoring Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” has joined the club, composing for Michael Radford’s sepulchral take on “The Merchant of Venice”: a pensive, Renaissance-inflected score rooted firmly in modern sonorities.

A 1983 graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music, where she studied viola, Pook has collaborated with Laurie Anderson, Massive Attack, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Peter Gabriel, forging a musical career that straddles boundaries — which was just what Radford was seeking. “In preparation, I immersed myself in Renaissance music,” Pook explains via email from London, “hoping to achieve music that was a kind of hybrid between my own contemporary style and early music.”

Glancing at the list of instruments Pook required for this score is like traveling through musical history, with the composer using everything from psaltery, theorbo and sackbut to guitar, snare drum and double basses. Pook herself was surprised by the options. “The recorder player,” she recalls, “came with two suitcases of recorders of different shapes and sizes, each with distinct sound.”

Yet Pook and Radford never let pedantry intrude on their larger purpose. “In a period drama such as this, there are a lot of scenes with court musicians playing or singing, but sometimes practical issues get in the way,” says the composer, “so one has to be flexible. We decided that we should make our choices for artistic reasons, rather than worrying too much about authenticity.”

Fans of early music may be most impressed by the presence of German countertenor Andreas Scholl on Pook’s soundtrack. She calls his singing “breathtaking” but confesses that he wasn’t the hardest performer to land. “There are many early music and Baroque musicians in England,” she says, “but finding a Yemenite Jewish singer in London proved to be quite a challenge!”

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