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Take Five: Local musician on scoring big in Shakespeare Festival's 'Twelfth Night'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Does the fact that it’s season 13 bode well for for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ “Twelfth Night?”

We’ll know more after the play opens May 24 in Forest Park, but it’s already clear this year’s production is a lucky one for a local orchestra ensemble. Shakespeare Festival chose the oddly named “The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra” to compose original music for the Shakespeare classic.

Rats & People typically creates and performs work to accompany silent films. Their first such project was Buster Keaton’s “Go West” in 2007. More recently, the group -- consisting of a string section, a brass section, piano and percussion -- wrote and performed to the film “Greed,” shown through the Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival.

It’s the first time live music will accompany the annual play in the park. “If music be the love of fools, play on,” begins the popular Shakespeare comedy, in which servants and masters participate in a gender-bending exchange of roles. The switch begins when the character of Viola disguises herself as a man to survive after washing up on the shores of Illyria, following a shipwreck.

Rats & People’s Matt Pace plays guitar, piano and trumpet. Like the ensemble's other five musicians, he has a day job: adjunct music professor at both Washington and Webster universities. Pace talked with the Beacon about the process of setting Shakespeare to music.

The Beacon: How did you connect with Shakespeare Festival?

Pace: We were approached by artistic director Rick Dildine last August. He was looking for some kind of local band, and luckily we have mutual friends who suggested us. We met, and we were what he was looking for -- a band that’s live and acoustic and could still handle a composer kind of role.

Does Rats & People have any involvement with “Twelfth Night” after the music’s finished?”

Pace: The actors will be performing our music. There are two court attendants who play guitar, and a clown character, who is the fool, who plays mandolin and sings. So those three will playing most of the music.

But our violin player Brien Seyle is going to be in the play as a violin player. He’s going to be shoved in there as an extra.

How did Rats & People prepare for this project?

Pace: As soon as we had a tentative agreement, Brien and I -- who are the main composers -- read the play and talked about it. We had a lot of meetings with Rick well before they started casting and rehearsing.

We met with the set designer and costume designer. We all kind of got our heads together about what this world was like. We were trying to all show different aspects of the same world. So if we have this shared idea then our job is to find what music works in this world. For the costume designer, it’s what did they wear in this world?

I would imagine there’s not a lot of work for you in composing for silent films.

Pace: Yeah, exactly. The way that started was that we had a rock band in the mid-2000s, and we knew a lot of people going to film school, and we would do music for their movies. One of those connections was a guy who ran the Webster theater, and he wanted us to score a Buster Keaton movie. At the reception afterward, everyone said they loved it.

Where did you get the name 'Rats & People?'

Pace: I don’t even remember. No one liked it. It was back when we were just forming the band. It was a big band: six to seven people, lots of them very opinionated. It’s very hard to get that many people to agree on a band’s name, I thinks this was the least-hated one. Over the years, a few people thought we should change it but we just stuck with it. It’s kind of a conversation piece.

I think we made this up after the fact: that the “People” part is about the more refined things we do, and the “Rats” part is more about the sloppy rock ‘n roll, the less refined. We do try to keep a balance between immediacy and refinement.

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