Why you should visit the National Music Centre in Calgary

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The National Music Centre is set to become a massive cultural institution

The National Music Centre, located in Calgary’s downtown area, is home to some of the country’s oldest musical instruments. The best part? You can actually play some of them.

The Centre is a one-of-a-kind space that tells the story of Canadian music through its collection, covering a diverse range of genres such as classical to rock to hip-hop and everything in between.

The mission of the institution is to foster an appreciation of all things music. And there is plenty to love. Like the massive vintage synthesizer consoles that look like they have been ripped out of the hub of a spaceship. Or the piano that Elton John wrote some of best-known songs on. Or the Winnipeg-built Garnet amp, which possesses a driving, dirty rock sound popularized by the likes of Randy Bachman and The Guess Who.

Or the theremin. When do you ever get to play a theremin anyway?

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“We do have a huge range of instruments on hand including a 450-year old stringed keyboard,” says Tyler Stewart, a director with the NMC. “There are guitars and wind instruments and recording consoles. It helps to highlight how that technology has changed throughout the years and how our cultural relationship has changed to music as well.”

Stewart, who also plays bass with the indie folk rock group Jesse and the Dandelions, says that the Centre helps to illustrate how music is a social construct.

But it’s not a museum, at least in the traditional sense. There is also a performance space as well as an artist-in-residency program, something that Stewart encourages musicians of all genres to apply to.

“In the past we’ve had artists such as Shout Out Out Out Out, Kid Koala, Kinnie Star and Cris Derksen come in,” he says. “Artists can send in a proposal for how they would access the instruments or technology piece or sound equipment from our collection. And they would work on artist project. For example, Shout Out Out Out Out proposed to write and record a five song EP in one week using only analog synthesizers.

“They came on Monday morning with a list of specific gear and started composing music and recording it as they went through, layering tracks and adding beats until Sunday night when they had an album’s worth of material to mix and finish off into a final product.”

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The NMC also hosts performances and lectures. Last weekend during BreakOut West, the space was transformed into a giant party, a place where artists rubbed elbows with industry types while musicians played in the background.

The space also doubles as a venue during festivals such as Sled Island. Although flooding earlier this year had forced the NMC to shut down – Stewart says that staff and volunteers moved 143 pianos over the course of six days – the building will soon be getting a much-deserved facelift.

The NMC, the city’s first national cultural institution, is set to become a major piece of contemporary architecture that’s set to open in 2015. It’s a major coup for both the city and music lovers, says Stewart.

“I am currently focusing on developing the larger exhibition program for the new facility that we are currently building. Part of that program will be five floors of exhibitions among 21,000 square feet that will focus on the history of music in Canada. There will be stories on the different regions of the country and recognizing Canadian icons, events and objects.

“We take a lot of music technology for granted now that even 100 years ago was quite mind-blowing in that period of time.”

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