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Earth harp to bring Strings home

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A lush lawn at the new Strings in the Mountains Music Festival Park is freshly mowed.

Flowers are planted. Elegant walkways are lined with quiet benches. A waterfall is set to flow over carefully laid driftwood and stones. The park is an oasis of peace and serenity.

What: MASS Ensemble and the opening of Strings in the Mountains Festival Park When: 4 to 7:30 p.m. today at Music Festival Park, in the "golden triangle" between Pine Grove Road and Mount Werner Road Cost: Free

And for a brief moment in time today, Strings in the Mountains will achieve its ultimate incarnation. With the help of MASS Ensemble, Strings in the Mountains has transformed its signature white tent into actual strings in the mountains.

The Music Architecture Sonic Sculpture has installed a 360-degree "earth harp" inside the Strings tent. It is all encompassing. From a floor-level base of resonating chambers, 32 brass strings extend more than 40 feet up to the tent's structural wires overhead. It looks a bit like a sun spewing its golden rays. The artists will play it by running their hands along the strings wearing cotton gloves coated with resin. In the scope of this architectural orchestra, this is the equivalent of their cello.

Along one side of the tent is a suspended collection of drums arranged to resemble the silhouette of a mountain. When they are played with rubber mallets, their quality is "moon-like," said the MASS Ensemble artists.

A lightweight, aluminum "wing harp," shaped like a butterfly's wing, flies above it all. It is the ensemble's soprano, high pitched like the sound of an insect.

Together, these large-scale instruments will be played by musicians who move about the room like dancers. The artists will be accompanied by an extra drum kit, guitar and vocalist. There will be no seats, but there also will be no limits to where the audience can move about to explore the resonance of the gigantic earth harp.

"Being under the strings you will really feel the event, not just hear the event. You will hear the notes and the harmonies of the notes," said MASS Ensemble performer and Associate Director Andrea Brook. "The whole idea is to be as kinetic as possible."

Each installation of the earth harp ends up being site-specific. For the Steamboat performance, the ensemble has composed new songs, as well.

Billy Close, MASS Ensemble's artistic director and inventor of the earth harp, came to Steamboat to visit the structural skeleton of the tent in March. Initially, Close envisioned stringing one of his harps on the outside of the tent, more like installations the ensemble has done from Seattle's Space Needle or from mountain tops.

But when Close saw the Strings tent, he said he knew he wanted to use his 360-degree harp instead. This harp has only been installed once before, and that was in a train station in Philadelphia.

The earth harp's sound in the Strings tent is sure to sound differently than it did in the train station, because every installation has its variables.

"It's never quite what you imagined. It's always different, but that's part of the fun," Close said.

This is a free performance. Strings in the Mountains is hosting this unique performance as a community celebration. The evening's agenda offers something for everyone, including an opportunity to try your hand at playing the enormous harp.

"Playing the earth harp is a simple process, but it has a lot of subtlety," Brook said. "The first time you play it, you get it. It's rhythmic."

Between MASS Ensemble's four 20-minute performances, a carnival-like atmosphere will take over the festival grounds from 4 to 7:30 p.m. We're Not Clowns will juggle on a stage outside the tent. The Afro Dance and Drum Ensemble will perform on the grass. Musicians Randy Kelly and John Gibbs will play on stage before the official ribbon cutting, and the band Clear Creek, with Steve Boynton, Deanna Webb-Koebnick and Chris Koebnick, will play afterward.

Outside, there will be face painting, hair braiding, temporary tattoos and clowns. The Routt County CattleWomen are grilling beef kebabs, the figure skating club is cooking pizzas, Steamboat Springs Rotary Club is serving bratwurst and hot dogs and the girls hockey club is dishing up root beer floats and shave ice.

All of the event parking is across the street in the Meadows parking lot and visitors should follow the balloons into the park.

"We are very proud of our new location. We just want everyone to see it and we want to share this with the community," Strings board member Gloria Smith said. "It will be a good opportunity to come see our new location, enjoy it and hopefully come back and see our concerts."

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