Astrolabe Musik Theatre makes music in a mine shaft

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      For 70 years, the Britannia Mine was one of the West Coast’s most productive sources of copper—but it’s sonic gold that Astrolabe Musik Theatre is hoping to find during its third venture into the towering structure, now the Britannia Mine Museum, located just a short Sea-to-Sky drive north of West Vancouver.

      “Hoping”, though, is an understatement. Astrolabe’s artistic director, Heather Pawsey, knew she’d hit the audio motherlode the moment she walked into the historic structure on the shores of Howe Sound.

      “The first time I saw the space, my niece and nephew were visiting from the Prairies when they were kids, and we took them up to see the mining museum,” she tells the Straight, in a telephone interview from her Vancouver home. “I walked into that space and went, ‘Oh, my God! This acoustic is to die for.’

      “It’s gargantuan,” the soprano continues. “They say it’s 26 storeys high, and it’s at least that. And it’s built right into the rock, so one whole wall is rock face, and there’s always water trickling through. Sometimes it’s like a waterfall, depending on the snowmelt. So it’s just this huge industrial space with girders and old equipment and three gigantic wooden platforms, and a train… I mean, there’s just so much stuff in this building, and over 14,000 windows, so it’s all glass, concrete, wood, and rock.”

      Given Astrolabe’s mandate—to develop new audiences for contemporary music through innovative programming in unusual locations—it seemed a natural site for a concert. And with the help of museum executive director Kirstin Clausen and her staff, the company has already presented two well-received programs at the mine. During those shows, it learned a few things about what will and won’t work in this uniquely resonant space—including the need to keep things simple.

      “You have to choose carefully, especially if you’re doing vocal music, so that the text remains intelligible,” Pawsey reports. “Obviously, you’ve got to take the length of the reverb into account!”

      But there’s more than sensitive programming behind Astrolabe’s upcoming NEWmatica show, which will find Pawsey joining forces with Vancouver’s all-star Fringe Percussion quartet, led by the acclaimed Jonathan Bernard. Spare, serene, and quirkily beautiful pieces from R. Murray Schafer, John Cage, and local luminary Jocelyn Morlock will complement the Britannia Mine Museum’s cathedral-like sound stage, but this is far from a minimalist’s dream: also on the bill will be tap-dancing from professionals Danny Nielsen and Dayna Szyndrowski, as well as musical interludes performed by a team of community volunteers.

      “Jonathan and I have been teaching them some basic vocal things, and some basic percussive techniques, and a series of motifs,” Pawsey explains. “And then everybody—percussion, me, tap dancers, audience, workshop participants—will join together in an improvised finale.

      “I love contemporary music and Canadian music, but it scares people who aren’t in the contemporary-music club,” she adds. “So I wanted to find ways of bringing audiences through the doors. One way of doing that is by using an interesting venue, and another is actively involving the audience. If they’re doing something other than sitting in a chair and receiving, which I’m kind of bored with, they’ll come back.”