Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Music is never far from me. It’s a source of joy, an inspiration for much of my work, a complement to my daily routines, and a central part of many of the most important moments of my life. Plenty of Canadians have a similar relationship with the music they love.
And I expect many of them will have the same sense of delight and elation I did when I stepped into Studio Bell, the new home of the National Music Centre. The $191-million facility opens on July 1, providing a beautiful Canada Day gift to the nation’s citizens.
Architect Brad Cloepfil of Portland, Oregon designed the building to match the landscape of Western Canada while incorporating one of Calgary’s iconic music venues, the revered King Edward Hotel, a home to the city’s blues scene for decades. Studio Bell dominates the skyline in Calgary’s East Village, which has quickly emerged as one of the most exciting districts of the city. Much more than a museum, Studio Bell includes a 300-seat theatre, educational facilities, and a residency program that allows musicians to write, record and produce their work in state-of-the-art spaces.
For the public, though, the attraction will be the 22,000 square feet of exhibits — and they’re well worth the visit.
The interactive displays are phenomenal. They include the opportunity to be a mix master in the “Plugged-In” exhibit hall that features a station where you can rework a popular hit song to your satisfaction by adjusting controls and adding effects. In the Vocal Booth, you can attempt to be the next Sarah McLachlan or Burton Cummings, recording your singing voice and then hearing it played back. You can even take your turn at playing Neil Peart as a drum kit is set up for visitors to beat.
Less stimulating but still fascinating are the exhibits that explore Canada’s place in music — from the influence of our home-grown artists to the impact made by foreigners whose associations with the nation had a broader impact. For example, there’s a plaque about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s sleep-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in 1969. An exhibit called “Voice” gives you a chance to listen to and explore the diverse vocal styles of Canadian musicians, including Nelson Tagoona, an Inuit artist who is a leader in the “throat boxer” genre — a mix of aboriginal throat singing and urban beat-boxing.
For Adam Fox, the director of programming at Studio Bell, the facility is a long-overdue celebration of Canada’s importance in the world of contemporary music.
“For a country with its population size, Canada has an incredible legacy of creating some of the best music in the world,” says Fox, who is also a music journalist. “Our goal is to reflect the past of music in Canada, not so much to propel it forward.”
The “Made in Canada” feature explores — through a captivating timeline — the musical milestones that have taken place in the nation, including Fox’s favourite display — the one celebrating Rush.
“Rush was a gateway drug for me to the rest of Canadian music,” he says. “It was incredible to see these three geeks from Ontario rise to prominence and make the global impact they have.”
Studio Bell also provides a home for some important content, including plaques honouring the inductees of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and a range of artifacts that previously did not have a home within the nation’s borders. These include Randy Bachman’s guitar that he used to record many of The Guess Who’s hits. It was at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio before finding a home in Calgary.
While Toronto and Montreal are the cities most associated with Canada’s music scene, Fox says Calgary is a worthy spot for the National Music Centre because of its emerging artists, the popularity of its festivals, and the continued evolution of its cultural attractions. Beyond that, it’s the location that had the drive to bring a project of this scope into being.
“The building has the audacious aspiration of being the home to music in Canada,” Fox notes. “It took a lot of meetings and diplomacy to get this project off the ground. Now that it’s here, we are looking forward to opening the doors and engaging in dialogue to see how we can continue to evolve what has started.”
MORE ABOUT VISITING STUDIO BELL AND THE NATIONAL MUSIC CENTRE
Location: 850 4 St SE, Calgary, Alberta (see map below)
Admission: $18 for adults; $14 for seniors and students; $11 for youth (ages 3-12); free for children under 3.
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am-5 pm