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Astrolabe taps into Britannia Beach history

Musicians play concert inside massive mine

- Astrolabe Musik Theatre NEWmatica: The Power of Percussion at Britannia Mine Museum (1 Forbes Way, Highway 99, Sea to Sky Highway, Britannia Beach, Saturday, May 25 at 7: 30 p.m. Tickets $25/$18. For more information visit newmatica.

WORKERS toiled to extract copper and ore from the mine for more than 50 years.

Three decades after its closure a small band is heading back into the gravity-fed concentrator mill to mine for music.

Heather Pawsey, the founder of Astrolabe Musik Theatre, has had audiences scour an aquarium for musicians the way a child might search for a cache of chocolate on Easter Sunday. She's burst from a grand piano during a funeral home performance, and now she's asking her audience to descend into one of the most acoustically unique sites in B.C.

Located just a little ways off the Sea to Sky highway in Britannia Beach, the Mill juts out of the ground as a reminder of the industries that dominated the province in the last century.

"It's like a cathedral," Pawsey explains. "There is not another acoustic like that in the Lower Mainland."

Serving as a museum today, the 90-year old Mill was built shortly after the First World War.

"You walk in and people always go 'Woah,' when they see these train tracks running up one side," she says.

The Mill has more than 14,000 windows as well as three steel walls connecting with a mountain.

"You have this massive rockface that has incredible colours and there's always water, sometimes it's like a waterfall that trickles down into the building depending on the amount of snow melt above," she says.

The waterfall ranges between a trickle and a torrent, but Pawsey says what really captured her about the "gargantuan space" was its sound.

"It's a very long acoustic, it's a very reverberant sound and it makes making music in there an incredible thrill."

The performance is set to feature a quartet with marimbas, vibraphones and bass drums augmented by a tap dancing duo, but what makes the concert unique is its attempt to turn the 26-storey structure into an instrument.

For Pawsey, the concert first began to take shape when she chose a piece by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.

"There are improvised sections . . . and it said other instruments could be added and I thought, 'Well, tap, tap is percussion,' and I love to work with dance," Pawsey says.

That idea brought contemporary tap dancers Danny Nielsen and Dayna Szyndrowski into the mine.

"It's very overpowering," Szyndrowski says of the Mill. "It seems like it goes up beyond what we can see.

As percussive dancers, Szyndrowski says she and Nielsen become part of the music, serving what she calls a rhythmic function as well as a visual responsibility.

However, while the other four percussion musicians will be faithfully interpreting the music of Schafer, John Cage, and B.C. composer Jocelyn Morlock, the tap dancers will be making it up as they go along.

"We're almost entirely improvisational," Szyndrowski says, explaining the jazz traditions of veering away from set melodies and rhythms that underpin her dancing technique.

For the audience, the experience will be something rarely captured in a concert hall, according to Szyndrowski.

"I think that they're going to feel immersed in the middle of it, as opposed to sitting on the other side and watching it like you would in a traditional space because the sound is going to travel so much it's going to be all around them and the performers will be all around them so I think they're going to feel right in the middle of the music," she says.

After adding the quartet and the tap dancing duo, Pawsey discussed the concert with a friend who suggested using the Mill as an instrument. But to accomplish that, she knew she needed more musicians.

"We made a call to the public for anybody who was interested to sign up for a series of four workshops," she says.

Held at the Canadian Music Centre, Pawsey and musician Jonathan Bernard walked a group of eager audience members through basic percussion and vocal techniques that will be utilized as transitions between set pieces in the concert.

"They'll actually be playing the building. They're going to be using steel girders, they're going to be finding objects in the building, they're going to be banging on the walls on some of the equipment," Pawsey says.

Audience participation is a mandate of Astrolabe, and Pawsey believes there is a hunger for a richer concert experience.

"There are lots of things about going into a theatre and sitting and having music wash over you that's really, really beautiful. But I think people are also craving something else, something different, something more," she says.

"My mission in life as a singer is to share the music. I don't sing for myself, I really want to share it with people," she says. "Audiences, don't realize, I think they underestimate how critical they are to a performance, because if they're not there and they're not sharing and they're not part of it and they're not involved in some way. . . I might as well just sit and sing to the plastic cows on my floor."

The music includes "Third Construction" by Cage, "Darwin's Walken Fish" by Morlock and "Tantrika" by Schafer.

"It's this whole tantric rite that's quite explicit," Pawsey says.

Sensible shoes and warm clothing are recommended.

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