'Beat Box Bard': World premiere will give Shakespeare a contemporary beat

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Blending urban music beatboxing -- vocal percussion -- and the words of William Shakespeare, the world premiere of "The Beat Box Bard" will run Jan. 31-Feb. 11 at Cornell's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Directed by Cornell theater professor Bruce Levitt, the show will put a new spin on the bard's sonnets and soliloquies by setting them to an eclectic blend of contemporary beats.

The project took root after Levitt saw a New York City performance by beatboxer Adam Matta, whose vocal music imitates everything from drums and brass to turntablism. Levitt believed the sound would make an unusual accompaniment to classical works.

"I met with Adam in a coffee shop in New York and brought some sonnets," Levitt says. "I read them while he started beatboxing, unamplified, and very quickly, the text and the beats began to form an identity together."

Last semester, Levitt invited Matta to Cornell as an artist-in-residence, where, with students from Levitt's Alternative Shakespeare class, he began to combine beats and words. The result of the collaboration is part theater, part concert and part improvisational performance art, with theater students and actors reading the works while Matta accompanies them.

"I've become very aware of the two worlds being juxtaposed," says Matta. "The beats add emphasis to parts of phrases. Especially when I add in a break, suddenly the drama and importance of the words themselves get amplified." Matta adds that despite the formal nature of the texts, there is room for performers to respond to one another onstage. "Even though the texts are in the format they are, they can still be read in a playful, irreverent or experimental style."

A video of Matta performing is available on his Web site.

In a separate performance, Matta will join violinist Julianne Carney, singer/songwriter Danielle DuClos and cellist Erin Hall for a Beat Box Extravaganza (minus Shakespeare) Jan. 19 at the Appel Commons at 8 p.m. and Jan. 20 at Schwartz Center at 8 p.m.