Nestled among the congregation of glassy skyscrapers which are home to some of theworld’s largest oil and gas companies, the weathered sandstone exterior of the National Music Centre in downtown Calgary is unassuming, to say the least. The modest old building blends in enough so that any passerby would have no clue as to the incredible trove of musical artifacts housed within its walls: a Virginal Harpsichord from the 16th century (which is possibly the oldest functioning keyboard in the country); TONTO, a giant modular synth used by legends like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones on a plethora of classic albums; and even Elton John’s former personal piano which you may recognize from the Empty Sky album jacket are just a few of the collection’s 2,000 total treasures. Over the years, everyone from The Flaming Lips to A-Trak to The Beach Boys has come to marvel at the magnificent collection of instruments from the past six centuries that quietly live here.
Of the 2,000 pieces in the NMC’s collection, only a small selection is on display in the current location. When the Centre moves to their fancy new digs in the redeveloped East Village in a few years, they’ll finally have the room to display all of them, including the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio where they recorded both Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St., and Bob Marley and the Wailers cut “No Woman No Cry.”
Okay let’s stop for a second. If your initial reaction is anything like ours, you’re probably scratching your head saying – “This exists…in Calgary…how?!”
Programs Assistant Brandon Smith, who has been with the NMC for almost 8 years, had a similar reaction himself when he, as a high school student obsessed with vintage synth equipment, first heard of the place: “My dad and I were visiting relatives in Edmonton when we heard a feature on CKUA radio about a ‘synth museum’ in Calgary. I nearly drove off the road – I was so pumped just to know such a thing even existed.” Back then, the museum was called the Cantos Music Foundation and, despite being a small operation in terms of manpower, already had an extensive collection of rare instruments. Under its original name, Chinook Keyboard Centre, the organization had begun developing a collection of keyboards in mid-1996. After being renamed, Cantos expanded the scope of its collection beyond keyboards to include electronic instruments and sound equipment. In February 2012, Cantos became the National Music Centre, with the mission to give “Canada a place that amplifies the love, the sharing and the understanding of music.”
Like the NMC, Brandon himself has a long history with all things music: “For some reason I really enjoyed taking apart old VCRs and stuff as a kid, so I guess it was only a matter of time before my interests in technology and music would collide. I was about 9 years old and taking piano lessons from a guy named Andrew. He taught me the usual piano lesson stuff, but when I kept asking questions about how all his music gear worked our lessons became half playing and half learning MIDI and how synths and samplers worked.” His passion for synthesizers has grown into a full-time job and then some: in addition to his work at the NMC, Brandon also teaches courses on synthesis and sound design at local production school Beat Drop, as well as doing freelance work as both a sound guy and keyboardist.
While his current position at the NMC requires him to do anything from setting up equipment to designing school programming, its leading tours where Brandon shines. Part tour, part history lesson and part private keyboard concert, it’s hard not to get as excited as Brandon about these instruments that he’s dedicated most of his life to learning about. He takes tour groups through the entire collection, sharing his endless and impressive knowledge on all things synth. Perhaps what is most extraordinary though, is that because the instruments are meticulously maintained by on-site engineers and staff to be in perfect working condition, Brandon will actually play many of the instruments that are on display, despite the fact some are hundreds of years old: “Having a museum full of musical instruments behind glass would be a little like having a museum full of paint brushes. While you can give a description of what they’re for, they’re really tools for creating art – despite the fact that some of NMC’s artifacts are pieces of art themselves.”
In an age where so much music is created digitally, sometimes entirely from software without a single live instrument present, Brandon believes that the intrinsic value in the NMC is in remembering and rediscovering where we’ve come from, and sharing with others the appreciation and respect for these artifacts that the Centre itself is built upon. “Even though we have plenty of software to imitate the instruments of the past, there’s still quite a difference,” he says. “Playing a real Minimoog from 1971 forces you to play a little differently than using a virtual Minimoog program and a MIDI controller would. [There’s an] instability, un-predictability and sheer quirky character that a lot of modern instruments simply don’t have.”
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