Music, arts and Canadian culture, amplified

Calgary’s National Music Centre offers a one-of-a-kind experience

A look inside the National Music Centre in Calgary on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. (Photo by Nikolai Cuthill/SAIT)

A look inside the National Music Centre in Calgary on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. (Photo by Nikolai Cuthill/SAIT)

If you happened to be cruising around the East Village this past Canada Day, you would have noticed a lengthy line-up of people queuing around the block, just outside of the stunning new building across the street from the King Eddy, Calgary’s legendary blues bar.

Sadly, Justin Bieber was not in town, but tourists and Calgarians alike were now officially being offered the chance to interact with something significantly more engaging, Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (NMC).

How did such a world-class institution end up in Calgary of all places?

Adam Fox, director of programs at NMC, attributes the drive and determination to undertake a project of this scale to “the western entrepreneurial spirit.”

“Calgary’s got it because Calgary made it,” said Fox. “Calgary had the appetite and the desire to do it.”

The opening of Studio Bell coincides with 2016 being Calgary’s “Year of Music” with the JUNO Awards taking place in the city this past April, and JUNO attendees being granted a sneak peak at the exhibits.

Though the plan is to continue expanding, as of today, Studio Bell encompasses several distinct parts: The National Music Centre, five floors of interactive music-inspired exhibits; the newly revamped King Eddy Hotel, which serves as a bar and live music venue; the nearly completed CKUA radio broadcast facilities; and Rosso Coffee Roasters, home to Studio Bell’s small gift shop.

The architecture of the building itself is an award-winning design by Brad Cloepfil, who was inspired by the geometry and flow of the natural Canadian landscape, and the resonance and design of musical instruments.

Sightlines to the 300-seat concert hall are available from all five floors, influenced by the dips and arcs of Alberta’s hoodoos.

Organ pipes are hung from the ceiling of the concert hall, representing the Rocky Mountains, as well as clusters of clouds over the prairies.

The interior of the building itself is meant to be musically resonant, with over 220,000 hand-painted terra cotta tiles lining the walls. They give a satisfying low ping or gong sound when tapped, depending on the location.

Each floor of the NMC is dedicated to a different aspect of music culture, science, and history.

The first floor and lobby, called Canada Music Square, is expansive, and echoes in the way one might imagine the belly of a guitar or cello might. Despite the openness of the space, and the constructive use of natural light, the room feels warm and much more intimate than it appears.

The second floor, Music Mosaic, houses the above-mentioned concert hall, which can be transformed from an intimate space holding a few dozen people, to a 300-seat theatre.

Music Mosaic houses one of the most inspiring and moving “stages” within the NMC, Soundscapes, an inspiring audio visual experience that spans the country, with use of music, animation, film and photo archival footage. The full experience takes about 10 minutes, and includes seminal Canadian artists and performers.

From The Weakerthans’ “I Hate Winnipeg,” to Bob and Doug McKenzie singing Great White North’s unmistakable “Coo loo coo coo, coo coo coo coo” theme song, Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” and of course, “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” everything that is great about Canadian music is encompassed here.

Other artists like Kardinal Offishall, Metric, Arcade Fire, and D.O.A. merge with traditional Inuk throat singers, Acadian folk songs, and more. You will leave with goose bumps, and an overwhelming sense of national pride.

The second floor also includes an exhibit called Made in Canada, which isn’t dedicated solely to Canadian artists, but to how Canada has contributed to music around the world.

Julijana Capone, a publicity coordinator with the NMC, said that this allowed the centre to be “more flexible with storytelling.”

A timeline runs throughout the room, beginning in 1617, and includes such notable stories such as Canadian country legend, Hank Snow, introducing Elvis Presley to the notorious Colonel Tom Parker, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s infamous 1969 “bed-in for peace” in Montreal.

The third floor, themed after The Power of Music, encourages visitors to think about not only how sound is made, but what power those sounds hold.

It is home to the Kimball Theatre organ, which was once used as the score and sound effects for silent films. The organ can emulate a dozen different instruments and sounds – remarkable for its time.

Organists perform at 2 p.m. daily, with a repertoire of songs from classical genres to the Game of Thrones theme song.

Another one of the most visually moving exhibits in Studio Bell is a stage called Speak Up with two walls covered in post-it notes. One wall asks, “What makes you speak up?” with answers both profound and comical posted by visitors from around the world.

The second wall features a Venn diagram, asking, “Can music change the world?” Visitors could explain why, or why not, with yes, no, or maybe post-its to be placed on the chart.

While all of the floors have interactive touchscreens and hands-on displays, the fourth floor, Making Music, features stages that will get visitors really excited about creating their own sounds.

Body Phonic allows you to stand on a small platform, while moving your fists in the air. The movement creates tones and a visual interpretation of the sound on large screens throughout the stage.

Two sound booths allow you to record yourself singing a Canadian tune, but beware; you’ll be graded on your performance. Tutorials are also available to teach yourself both acoustic and electric instruments.

The Sound Box lets visitors create new sounds and instruments from everyday items like slinkies, elastics and pegboards, and even a 3D printer. An educator is on hand to show you how instruments work, both inside and out.

The fourth floor is also home to “Tonto,” the world’s largest synthesizer. It is being restored, and like most of the equipment housed by the NMC, it was donated with the implicit instruction that it be part of a “living collection artists can use to create new music,” said Capone.

The top floor of the NMC, or Celebrating Music stage, houses several Canadian music halls of fame artifacts, from Corey Hart’s sunglasses, to Shania Twain’s bedazzled Maple Leafs jersey.

The Sky Bridge connecting Studio Bell and the King Eddy building, houses an art installation called Solar Drones by artist Patrick Marold.

During the flood of 2013, several pianos from the NMC collection were destroyed. Marold used pieces of these instruments to create an electromagnetic system that creates sound tones when powered by the sun.

Apart from the hands-on and engaging atmosphere Studio Bell offers, it is also excited to launch its first artists-in-residence program this fall, a pilot project and “self-directed creative residency, defined by the artist’s themselves,” said Fox.

Artists selected for the program will have unfettered access to the collection, and the public will have “opportunities to engage with a diverse group of talent.” The program will also feature a notable “Master-in-Residence.”

Fox said that the NMC has gained many partners throughout the community, and looks forward to participating in the Honens Festival, Beakerhead, and the Calgary International Film Festival.

Education programs for students from kindergarten to grade six also begin in the fall, creating new opportunities for kids to learn about, and love making music.

“We don’t want to just reflect on culture,” said Fox. “We want to instigate and inspire culture.”

Studio Bell is open Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is $14 with student ID. For more information, please visit www.studiobell.ca


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