GEORGE WEBBER

The New National Music Centre

Calgary’s beacon to music lovers across the country

By Glenn Dixon

I’ve known about the National Music Centre for a long time. I helped dig pianos out of the mud there after the flood of 2013. Their old building hosted a collection of odd but memorable musical instruments, but their new building, towering over the East Village is, as CEO and president Andrew Mosker says, a “game changer.” Studio Bell, as it’s called, is a remarkable piece of architecture and will be home to much more than musical instruments.

“2016,” Mayor Nenshi told me, “will be the year of music in Calgary. Canada and the whole world will be casting a glance at the fantastic scene here, and the National Music Centre is here to nurture that.”

I met with Mosker late last year just outside the new building and found him in a hardhat, his suit pants tucked into work boots, ready to show me the place before it opens. He handed me a hardhat and we clumped up a set of temporary wooden steps into the building.

Inside, construction workers were still scouring the place, many of them calling out a good morning to us. A “soft opening” will take place during the Juno Awards in Calgary from March 28 to April 3, but the full opening has been pushed back to the summer.

The first place Mosker led me to was the performance space. It’s stunning—a small concert hall that made me feel like I was sitting inside the sound box of a violin. “This,” Mosker said, “is the heart and soul of Studio Bell. It’ll seat 300 but that’s just the beginning. When we open the wall at the back, the stage opens to the entire building.”

“That wall opens?”

“Retractable, at the flick of a switch. And when it’s open, this whole building will feel like a music festival.”

I followed him down to the stage and through a door into what you might call the lobby. Two elegant oblong staircases bracket the retractable stage wall, now closed, and in front of us a large space opened up. Light filtered down from skylights and the walls swept up like shards of glass, like icebergs.

“Wow,” I said. “What will this cost?”

Residencies will be not just for musicians but technicians, audio designers and recording engineers. “We want to build the future here.”

The National Music Centre itself is a public not-for-profit organization, but the funding for this building has come from a wide range of public and private sources. The name Studio Bell is part of a $10-million partnership with Bell Media. The federal government kicked in another $25-million through the New Building Canada Fund—a fund for infrastructure projects—and both Alberta and Calgary have committed funds to match that. The building, which sits on both sides of 4th Street SE, is joined by a spectacular bridge and will be literally and figuratively the gateway to Calgary’s East Village. The brand-new community of chic condo towers, cafes and pedestrian malls, even an island, was all planned to rise up at more or less the same time and replaces an old neighbourhood known for dive bars and seedy hotels.

“This has been 10 years in the planning,” said Mosker, “and we’re almost there.” The costs have been rising too. The price for just this building is set now at $191-million. Private donations from Coril Holdings—run by the philanthropist Mannix family—amount to millions. Dozens of others, including the Taylor family and ATB Financial, are also involved, and the funding is not yet complete. Nevertheless, once the building is finished the maintenance costs will be fully covered by admission fees (to be determined) and rentals on various parts of the facility.

Mosker is philosophical. “I know people will ask, Why Calgary? Why should the National Music Centre be in Calgary? There’s a sense here that Calgary has come of age. It was all in the timing. We have the Alberta Ballet doing pieces with k.d. lang and Sarah McLachlan. We have the Bow Building and the Peace Bridge. And now there’s the East Village. Everything was in place.”

“But why music?” I said.

“We saw a gap,” Mosker said. “Canada needed a national centre to show our musical place in the world. But we also knew that if we wanted to do this, we had to show the rest of Canada that we were serious. Not any building would do. We had to deliver something extraordinary, something of international quality.”

Next we crossed the lobby and entered a passageway leading to one of several galleries at the back. Mosker swept his hand around its bare walls. “We looked at a lot of models from around the world, but we knew we didn’t want this to be just a museum. We’ll have the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in one gallery and Innovations in another [which will feature things done first in Canada]. Twenty-one galleries in all.”

“Storytelling is the idea we keep coming back to,” he said. “But this isn’t about the past. This is about the future. There’ll be artist residencies here and not just for musicians. We’ll have residencies for technicians too, audio design, recording engineers. We want to build the future here. What will not change from the early Cantos days is the educational programs.”

The National Music Centre grew out of the Cantos Music Foundation, which itself had its roots in the installation of the pipe organ at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in time for the Winter Olympics in 1988. That instrument spawned an organ festival and the Cantos Music Museum, a collection of ancient keyboard instruments, later expanded into a private foundation with educational programs. Teachers brought their students down to the building on tours, and the instrument collection, items from all over the world, continued to grow.

“We still have classrooms on the other side,” said Mosker. “That’s not going to change.”

“I like the idea,” I said, “of a kid coming down here, and seeing all this and having that ‘wow’ moment. The idea that that kid will be the new Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or something beyond our imagining now.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Exactly.”

nmc5

The King Eddy, built in 1905, was a beloved blues bar in a crumbling hotel slate for demolition. (George Webber)

We stepped out onto the bridge over 4th Street. “This is one of my favourite parts of the building,” Mosker said, stopping there, leaning on the handrail. The bridge is two full storeys above the street. The sun was shining in through a triangular window the size of a billboard. From windows in the bridge, we could see south to the Saddledome and north over the East Village towards the Bow River and St. Patrick’s Island.

“We’re going over now,” he said, “into the west part of the building and…”

I knew what was coming. One of the hallmarks of this project was that it would include, envelop really, the old King Eddy. The Eddy, built in 1905, was a beloved blues bar in a crumbling hotel. The hotel had been slated for demolition, and in some ways, saving it was the catalyst for this whole new building.

The Eddy was legendary. Muddy Waters’s band played there. B.B. King and Buddy Guy. All the greats. “We had to take the whole building apart, brick by brick,” said Mosker, “We did a full laser scan so we could put it all back together again exactly. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. And now we think the King Eddy will become one of the most important music venues in Canada. Touring bands will come through—even big names—and want to play here, just for the sheer honour of playing in these old walls.”

The recording console is a massive board of faders, dials and blinking lights. It’s the unit that Queen recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody” on.

We descended into the old brick building, bare as yet of tables or a real bar. They’re selling some of the bricks now. Funders can get their name engraved on one and have it put back into the wall, so they can be a part of history too.

I followed Mosker again and we entered a garage-sized room at the back of the Eddy. “This will be the new broadcast studio for CKUA radio. They’re thrilled. They can’t wait to move in.”

A radio station, performance halls, exhibition rooms, rare instruments. “What’s your favorite acquisition?” I asked him. “What’s the one thing you got to hold in your hands that really impressed you?”

“Well,” he began, “I studied jazz piano. That’s what I wanted to do at first, so for me it’s Elton John’s piano.”

I had seen this upright piano at the Cantos building. It seemed like nothing special then, except that it was painted white and was in Elton John’s apartment all through the writing of his first five albums. It’s what he used to write “Rocket Man.” “For me,” Mosker said, “it was when I got to play ‘Tiny Dancer,’ playing the same chords that Elton John played for the first time on that piano.”

“And it will be here in NMC, that piano?”

“Absolutely. We have a harpsichord from 1591. We have the TONTO synthesizer that Stevie Wonder used. And here’s the thing: It’s not hands off. These things are not only for researchers in white gloves. A person can come here and record on them. That’s the whole idea. It’s living history. They’re meant to be played, to be heard.”

We headed up another set of stairs. “This side of Studio Bell will have three recording studios. All the electronics are state of the art, but the consoles are—well, come and see.”

He edged into a room on the second floor, somewhere now above the King Eddy. The recording console was a massive board of faders and dials and blinking lights not unlike others I had seen. “This one,” he said, “is the Trident A-Range. This is the same console that Queen recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on. Down the hall, we have another that was used by the Sex Pistols. But the third one is the big one.”

“The Rolling Stones,” I said. “You have the Rolling Stones mobile unit.”

“Exactly. We knew it was coming up for sale and we jumped on it.”

The Rolling Stones mobile unit is actually a whole truck, like a food truck except that it has a recording console and chairs and speakers. The Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main Street on it, and Sticky Fingers and loads of other things. Led Zeppelin recorded parts of the Stairway to Heaven album on it. Bob Marley recorded his live version of “No Woman, No Cry.” The mobile unit is even immortalized in Deep Purple’s iconic “Smoke on the Water.” The truck was in Geneva in 1971 when the band’s studio space burned down and Deep Purple had to turn to the unit to finish the album. “Make records with a mobile,” is one of the lyrics.

“The point is,” said Mosker, “young bands from Calgary, from Alberta, from Canada, they can come and record on it.” His voice stepped down to a whisper. “And under the console, we found this hidden drawer. You know, maybe a place for Keith Richards’s stash.”

He swung open one last door and we came out on the rooftop of the King Eddy. Above us the bridge swung out over 4th Street, clad in silver-blue terra cotta tiles.

“The building will reflect the environment,” said Mosker. “The tiles change colour with the time of the day, even the time of the year. There are five different parts, vessels we call them. They’re like hoodoos and glaciers and mountains. We worked very closely with Brad Cloepfil, the architect, right from the beginning.”

I remembered an earlier comment Mosker had made when I’d asked him on the phone about the origins of the project. “This could only happen in Alberta,” he’d told me. When I’d asked him why, he’d paused. “Because we put up our hand and said we could do it. We want this to be a place of pride for Calgarians and Albertans.”

By the end of the tour, I was in agreement. The NMC building is spectacular. The project is a bold venture, unprecedented in the province. It is about the music, yes, but it is more. As Mayor Nenshi said, it will draw attention from across the country, from around the world, and stand as a Calgary landmark for decades to come.

Calgary’s Glenn Dixon is the author of Tripping the World Fantastic: A Journey through the Music of Our Planet.

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