Celebrities join in unveiling Studio Bell, a long-awaited musical landmark in Calgary

A lot of buzz has been circulating throughout Calgary’s music community in the months leading up to July 1, Canada Day, when Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, opens to the public.

Construction began on the mammoth $191-million project in early 2013, and now the National Music Centre (NMC) is heralded as a new landmark on the map of Canadian music. It is a museum, concert space, recording facility, workshop and gathering place all in one five-floor, 160,000 square foot building.

The facility, which envelopes the remnants of the King Eddy, a renowned Calgary blues bar, places Western Canada, and Calgary in particular, as an integral part of the national music scene. Many of the displays within the building not only celebrate the achievements of a variety of artists covering all kinds of musical genres, but it also highlights the work of Western artists like k.d lang, Ian Tyson and Tom Phillips.

Andrew Mosker, president of the National Music Centre and a former musician, has spent many years spearheading the project. He hopes the facility puts Calgary on the map as a centre for music in Canada. Photo by Jodi Brak During a sneak preview inside the nearly-finished halls of Studio Bell on June 29, many of those involved in the project, including Andrew Mosker, president of the NMC, and Brad Cloepfil, chief architect, spoke about what it means to have worked on a truly unique institution and see it come to completion.

“The opening of Studio Bell is a momentous occasion for Canada and for Alberta,” Mosker said. “I look forward to welcoming the world to Calgary to experience the wealth of Canada’s music story and the incredible future potential it holds.”

Mosker also remarked that, although the process to build and fund the NMC has been long and rife with challenges and obstacles, it was a pleasure to work with a passionate team of people, including more than 400 volunteers, dedicated to seeing the job completed.

“The passion is the medium that motivates you,” Mosker said. “The Alberta spirit of hard work and entrepeneurship allowed this dream to become a reality.”

Alan Doyle, Canadian songwriter and frontman of the East Coast folk group Great Big Sea, said he was “so glad to be here representing Newfoundland and to see firsthand how the National Music Centre is honouring the icons and pioneers of Canadian music.” Photo by Jodi BrakCanadian musical icons Jim Cuddy, of Blue Rodeo fame, and Alan Doyle, frontman for the Maritime folk group Great Big Sea, attended the unveiling and each artist performed. The acoustics in the concert hall lived up to what might be expected from a National Music Centre, with every note ringing crisp and clear through the air.

The first official note of music in the halls of the NMC, however, came from the championship drum group Eya Hey Nakoda. It seemed fitting that the music of Canada’s First Nation’s people, the first music to ever echo across this land, was also the first to grace the halls of Canada’s National Music Centre.

In addition, indigenous philanthropist and mentor Casey Eagle Speaker gave Studio Bell and the NMC a blessing in the Blackfoot language.

Other guests included Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell and Ricardo Miranda, the provincial culture and tourism minister. Mayor Naheed Nenshi also gave a lengthy speech on what he feels the project means for Calgary.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was on hand to talk about the city’s proclamation that 2016 is the year of music in this city, and how proud he is to see the National Music Centre project come to completion. Photo by Jodi Brak“The opening of Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, is the culmination of a lot of hard work and dreams of so many in our community and beyond,” Nenshi said. “It’s my hope that this special place will truly become the centre of music in Canada.”

The City of Calgary’s declaration of 2016 as the year of music in Calgary seems to have been an accurate description so far. Between hosting the 2016 JUNO Awards, the opening of the National Music Centre and the myriad of music festivals throughout the summer in Calgary, there has been a constant ebb and flow of artists and events reverberating across the city this year. And it’s only the beginning of July.

Calgary has, in fact, had a very strong live music scene for decades. Cuddy said Calgary is “one of the most important cities to hit when touring the country” because there never seemed to be a shortage of music lovers.

Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo had some great things to say about Calgary during his performance. He described the city as an important stop-over for any touring band — the city has no shortage of music lovers and boasts a bustling live music scene. Photo by Jodi Brak With three recording studios, and an already established artist-in-residence program, the NMC aims to become a hub for both local, national and international artists to write, record, play, experiment and host workshops. The program has been populated by artists such as Shout Out Out Out Out and Gotye, giving artists access to the vast library of recording equipment and instruments situated throughout the building.

Aside from the recording studios, the NMC has over 300 instruments ready to be played, as well as the latest in digital production technology and some old-school analog mixers for artists seeking a classic sound.

The goal of letting old-school and cutting-edge technology mingle, according to NMC president Mosker, is to not separate music based on genre, age or sound, but to promote an environment where all types of sounds can be explored and shared. State-of-the-art recording equipment sits side-by-side with painstakingly restored instruments that are extremely rare or hold a special place in Canadian musical history.

Many of the displays throughout the five floors of the National Music Centre are home to painstakingly restored vintage instruments. Some of these instruments can be used by artists in residence, while others are there to remind fans of simpler times. Photo by Jodi Brak For example, the Gibson Les Paul guitar that Randy Bachman, then of the Guess Who, used to write the classic tune “American Woman” rests in a glass display on the fifth floor. Another piece, the Kimball Theatre Organ, was said to “put the power of an orchestra in the hands of one player” and can be heard on many film soundtracks recorded in Canada.

Throughout the five floors of the building are displays that educate viewers about the intricacies of making music and recording, as well as celebrating the achievements of prolific Canadian artists while marking milestones in the music industry.

Among these are a few interactive displays, including a fully functional drum kit and piano that invite patrons to sit down and thump out a few beats or tinkle a soothing melody. On-screen tutorials instruct new players, or veteran artists can simply play away to their heart’s content. There is also a small soundboard that allows a user to adjust the mixing of a song to experience the job of a sound engineer.

While some exhibits are still under construction, what was open contained eye-catching visuals, rich stories of Canadian musical history, unique instruments and, of course, plenty of music to listen to on headphones scattered throughout the exhibits.

The official opening of the National Music Centre is on July 1, when admission is free. The NMC will be open seven days a week throughout July, before beginning regular hours in August. Admission to the NMC will be between $11-18 depending on age, with youth, students and seniors getting a discounted rate.

One of the first concert series hosted by Studio Bell and the NMCis the Bell Live Series at the King Eddy. This concert series will be held during Stampede week from July 8-17, with live music being performed in the newly restored space that once housed the old King Edward hotel.

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Thumbnail photo by Jodi Brak 

jbrak@cjournal.ca