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A daytime aerial rendering for Calgary's National Music Centre.
A daytime aerial rendering for Calgary's National Music Centre.

Calgary’s National Music Centre plans to wow both inside and out Add to ...

In its current lovely, if nondescript, heritage building, the National Music Centre in Calgary offers no hint of the treasures it houses: among them, a 1679 harpsichord, early synthesizers, and the piano on which Elton John composed his first four albums. In recent years, the place has seen everyone from Brian Eno and Philip Glass to Billy Corgan and Gotye drop by to ooh and ah and sometimes even experiment with the instruments and sound equipment.

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But the NMC’s volume – at least architecturally – is about to be turned up to 11. Friday, it broke ground on what promises to be an eye-popping, $135-million facility, set to open in 2015. “We travelled around the world looking at different music institutions,” says architect Brad Cloepfil. “We looked and looked for precedents and models. And we learned bits and pieces from things, but there’s nothing like it.”

It’s a big moment for Calgary. Not only will the NMC be the city’s first national cultural institution. As a major new work of contemporary architecture, it’s hoped that it will serve as a catalyst for an urban neighbourhood – once rundown and neglected – now being rebranded as the East Village. “The building requires a certain sense of monumentality,” says Cloepfil. “You want it to embody a sense of wonder and awe and mystery.”

The NMC – an organization that until last year went by the name of the Cantos Music Foundation – was born out of a relationship between the Calgary International Organ Festival and the Honens International Piano Competition. Operating out of the same space, and with a common interest – keyboard instruments – in the 1990s they created a small museum as an ancillary to their festivals. Musician and musicologist Andrew Mosker was hired to build and manage the collection, which over time evolved into the Cantos. In 2006, the foundation began considering a move, and started, as well, a strategic-planning process.

“Then suddenly I realized: Wait a second, there is no national music museum in Canada,” recalls Mosker, now president and CEO of the NMC. “We have Glenn Gould, we have Oscar Peterson, we have Anton Kuerti, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Arcade Fire, Ginette Reno … I mean wow, man, we have an amazing story and nobody knows about it. Or not enough people know about it. … And, boom! A light went on: Let’s build a national music centre, and let’s do it in the West. But let’s build a storyline that’s inclusive of all of Canada.”

Portland, Ore.-based Allied Works Architecture, where Cloepfil is founding principal, has designed a five-storey facility that the architect describes as a series of intertwining towers – he calls them resonant vessels – that will integrate the restored King Edward Hotel, built in 1905. Cloepfil talks about the new building as an “instrument” that can hold its own against – and complement – the Alberta landscape: the hoodoos, the grain elevators, the Rockies.

The NMC’s flagship permanent exhibition will tell the story of Canadian music – as well as how that story intersects with global music technology. It will be the home to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and to the collection of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. There will be space for travelling exhibitions, recording studios, education facilities, and artist-in-residence live-work spaces. It will also become the Calgary home of Alberta-wide CKUA Radio.

As well, there will be two official performance spaces: the restored, legendary blues club at the King Eddy; and a new 300-seat venue that can be expanded by merging with an adjoining lobby. In-between spaces – hallways, foyers and the like – can become spots for pop-up performances. Throughout, visitors will be able to hear music filtering up through stairwells and walkways. “The whole place,” says Cloepfil, “should just resonate with music.”

All the new room to groove means that important artifacts can emerge from storage. Among them: the Rolling Stones’ legendary mobile studio – acquired by Cantos more than a decade ago – in which the Stones recorded Exile on Main St., Led Zeppelin cut the demo for Stairway to Heaven, and Deep Purple recorded Smoke on the Water. The truck will be restored and built into the facility, and parked adjacent to the King Eddy venue, so that artists who play there can capture their live performance with an old-school analog recording.

Beyond the music itself, the NMC hopes to become a landmark in the developing East Village. Arts and culture have been identified as important elements of the new area – Calgary’s new central library is also slated for the neighbourhood. With an above-ground walkway that will span 4th St. S.E., the NMC will be not only a key element in the district’s revitalization but a literal bridge to it as well – attracting Calgarians to the East Village, if all goes as planned, even as it draws tourists to Calgary and makes what Mosker hopes will be “a meaningful contribution to music.”

Editors note: Ginette Reno's name was misspelled in an earlier version.

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