For the National Music Centre in Calgary, Friday marks a significant construction milestone: The construction crew will install the final steel beam to its new, $168-million facility. The five-floor, 160,000-square-foot centre – inspired by the Canadian landscape and instrument design – is scheduled to open in 2016, bringing a jolt of architectural excitement to the city's East Village neighbourhood.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, a few blocks away at the NMC's current location, some programming is winding down – including one of the great Calgary cultural experiences: a public tour through the place. I'm partial to Elton John's piano. But TONTO – wow – this giant synthesizer, which kind of looks like a 1970s living room crossed with a space ship, is fast becoming a visitor favourite.
The National Music Centre, formerly the Cantos Music Foundation, began as a small museum of keyboard instruments, established as a complement to the Calgary International Organ Festival and the Honens International Piano Competition.
It has grown significantly, along the way attracting many artists (Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Arcade Fire, The Flaming Lips among them) through the doors to experiment and innovate – or just mess around. The NMC now boasts a collection of more than 2,000 artifacts, which in 2015 will begin preparations for the move.
Before they go, there are limited chances for the public to see them, on tours taking place each Sunday until Dec. 28. This will be the last chance to tinker with a barrel organ or try your hand at a harpsichord until the new NMC opens in spring 2016.
Each tour is different, but generally hits a few marks, among them an enormous 1924 Kimball theatre organ, stretching the full length of the wall at the current NMC. Used in the silent-movie era to improvise background music, the imposing instrument can blast out everything from a marimba to a bird whistle. "You see kids covering their ears because the sound is so massive," the NMC's Mary Kapusta says. "It makes everyone on the tour feel like a kid."
The theremin is enjoying a renaissance of sorts – including a great deal of interest prompted by Us Conductors, Sean Michaels' Giller Prize-winning fictionalized account of the life of its inventor, Lev Termen. The theremin is notoriously difficult to play; you do so by waving your hand – without touching the instrument – by disrupting radio frequencies flowing between the player and the instrument's antennae. "It's a really weird experience," Ms. Kapusta says. "Many ambitious people try it and we even make some of the more timid guests approach it."
The ARP 2500 is another big draw. It is believed to be the actual synthesizer used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, yes, you can hear it play that signature five-note riff used in the Steven Spielberg film to communicate with the aliens (and later turned into a disco song, but that's another story).
A recent stunning acquisition is The Original Timbral Orchestra – TONTO. Created in 1968, it was the first and remains the largest analog synthesizer in the world. It was revolutionary in that it was able to make different types of synthesizers from different manufacturers talk to each other to get the full range of sound. (Astronaut Chris Hadfield quipped during a visit that it has almost as many knobs as the space shuttle – the only difference being that the shuttle knobs are labelled.) Used on a bunch of Stevie Wonder albums, TONTO also figured prominently in Brian De Palma's cult film, Phantom of the Paradise. (Winslow Leach, the Phantom, is locked in a room and pumped up with a briefcase full of amphetamines so he can write all the music for the opening of the Paradise on this thing.)
But about that piano of Sir Elton's (which made its way by a circuitous route to the NMC). The British 1910 upright is fairly plain looking, but is distinguished by its history. This is the piano on which the pop star wrote more than 100 songs, including early hits such as Your Song and Tiny Dancer. In 1972, the future Sir Elton gave the piano to filmmaker Bryan Forbes, who made the documentary Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things, and signed it: "Original piano, lots of success with it." Mr. Taupin, his lyricist, showed him up with a most eloquent inscription: "Within this piano lays the ghost of a hundred songs. Take care of them, they love you. God Bless from the one who writes the words."
In the NMC collection:
Oldest instrument: The Bonafinis Virginal, dating back to 1560, is one of the oldest functioning keyboard instruments in Canada. It must be kept in a climate-controlled room to maintain its quality.
Largest instrument: The Kimball Theatre Organ stretches more than 10 metres and can replicate 25 different instruments.
Super rare international instrument: The Ondes Martenot was manufactured in France – one of only about 370 of the early electronic instrument produced since the 1920s. The sound it produces is similar to the theremin.
Super rare Canadian instrument: The Robb Wave Organ – which appears to be more tractor than instrument – is believed to be one of two in existence and the only complete specimen. Frank Morse Robb of Belleville, Ont., is credited with creating the first commercially available electric organ, obtaining a patent in 1928 – six years before Hammond. Only about 20 of these were ever made; 13 sold.