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Recording 2 km beneath the earth's surface a mystical experience, says composer

He teamed up with a poet and saxophone duo to produce 'Fragments noirs,' which may be the world’s deepest artistic composition
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SUDBURY — Robert Lemay is known for his classical music, but his most recent work is a little more underground.

The Sudbury composer released "Fragments noirs" this month, and the nine-track, 12-minute classical mini-disc of saxophone music was recorded two kilometres underground in Sudbury’s SNOLAB.

“I always say, it’s the real underground music,” laughed Lemay. 

SNOLAB is a research facility located in Vale’s Creighton Mine that usually produces research on neutrinos, and Nobel-prize winners like Arthur B. MacDonald. But, thanks to a project coined “2000 metres underground” by Lemay and Thierry Dimanche, both Laurentian University professors, SNOLAB may make a name for itself producing music.

The project began when Dimanche decided to write a series of poems inspired by being underground, capturing the uniquely Sudbury mining culture, to share on a universal, international level.

“I’d know Thierry for a long time and wanted to collaborate on a project with him,” explained Lemay. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to SNOLAB with me and we’ll compose something?’ ”

They took a tour and did a soundcheck in the summer of 2016 and realized the space was perfect. 

“We found a very big dome that was very resonant, and there was a very special echo … so I played with this idea of echo,” said Lemay. “Thierry wrote certain texts when we came back to the surface, and he sent me those texts inspired by SNOLAB, and I wrote musical commentary on his texts.”

He decided to compose his pieces for saxophone because despite the space having the perfect acoustics, it had some pretty severe limitations. For one, everything that went in had to be washed, completely.

“I couldn’t write a piece for cello because we cannot put a cello in water!” said Lemay.

Saxophones on the other hand can be completely submerged, so Lemay and the two musicians wound up bathing the saxophones caringly with soap and water to remove all the dust and grease before taking them down.

“Still, we had to wait for an hour for them to check everything when we got there, including our lunch,” said Lemay.

The saxophone duo — who go by Stereoscope —collaborated with Lemay in the past, and he chose them especially because one of them, Olivia Short, was from North Bay and he wanted it to be a truly Northern Ontario project.

“My first question was, ‘Are you claustrophobic?’ ” said Lemay. Fortunately, Short and the other saxophonist, Jacob Armstrong, aren’t.

Once underground, they only had an hour to record because the air vents had to be turned off to minimize background noise, and an hour was about all SNOLAB could do.

They recorded each piece on the album three times to make sure they got it right, and then headed back up to the surface to put it all together.

“It’s a mystic experience, it’s very particular, when you come back to surface … I had a strange feeling I was coming back to life,” Lemay said. “It was very interesting both times.”

They didn’t edit the pieces because they wanted the experience to be that of a live performance.

“The idea of recording there was to produce something very Sudburian,” said Lemay. “To me, when you think about Sudbury, you think about mines. We knew we could bring it to an artistic level, and this is what Thierry did with his texts, and I did with the music.”

Lemay and Dimanche hope “2000 metres underground” will act as a bridge between Sudbury and the world. 

“There is this connection between local and universal,” Lemay said. “This research centre cannot be anywhere other than Sudbury, and it could not be here if it was not a mining city. It’s very specific to the territory, but from there, we can go to the other level, to the universal, to the international.”

The album was released by Centretracks and the digital CD is also distributed internationally by NAXOS. It’s available on iTunes and digital streaming services like Spotify.

Dimanches poetry will be released in March, so Sudburians can look forward to a launch with a live performance of Fragments noirs in the new year.

Ella Jane Myers is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury.

— Sudbury.com