A national treasure

By Taylor McKee

With the advancement of modern recording technology, there is now an overabundance of ways for musicians to make an album. For instance, if a band wants to select a keyboard sound, there are thousands of choices between the different effects and tones to properly suit their recordings. However, the choice is less clear cut when trying to decide on a recording space — what separates one from another? In the case of the National Music Centre, it is quite easy to see what makes their recording space special.

There is no way to properly replicate the sounds produced by classic instruments, something that the NMC has in spades. During a visit to Calgary, members of the Flaming Lips, including lead singer Wayne Coyne, paid a visit to the collections at the NMC to see their instrument collection before playing a show just to have to opportunity to see their classic instrument collection. With such an impressive reputation, it is easy to see why the opportunity presented by NMC’s artist in residence program is drawing attention from artists all over the country.

The NMC — formerly the Cantos Music Foundation — offers an artist in residency program designed to allow artists that have displayed creative proficiency in their genre the chance to create and record with the immense selection of instruments in the NMC collection. The idea is that truly unique projects can be created if artists are allowed to immerse themselves among the collections. 

The program is open to any type of musician from anywhere in Canada. Selected artists are flown to Calgary with accommodation provided throughout the duration of the residency, the length of which depends on the scope of the musician’s project. 

“The residency program came to be out of countless musicians saying that they would love to come in and record,” says Brandon Smith, the programming assistant for the NMC. “What we offer that is different from everybody else is the sheer variety of equipment. Many of the instruments we have here are exceedingly rare. Some of them are one of a kind.” 

Currently, there have been four artists in residence, each one from distinctly different musical backgrounds, from electronic music to jazz. As far as electronic music is concerned, NMC is home to one of the most diverse and extensive collections of keyboards and synthesizers in the world. NMC also possesses a remarkable compendium of musical artifacts, including a Dolmetsch clavichord and the synthesizer used to speak to alien life forms in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

The very first artist in residence was Toronto’s Kurt Swinghammer, a singer-songwriter and visual artist.

“It was jaw-dropping to walk in there for the first time,” says Swinghammer. “It was astounding, I had never seen so many instruments in one place. What was on the main floor was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Initially, Swinghammer’s intentions were modest in the face of NMC’s vast collection. The NMC boasts an extensive list of instruments available to artists to select from when they apply for the residency, allowing them to have an idea of what they would like to create before they arrive.

“My first proposal was to work with one piece of gear and just to explore it . . . but I shifted my proposal,” says Swinghammer. “It really was a unique opportunity to record with truly legendary and rare instruments.” 

Swinghammer also noted that being the first artist in residence meant that he was more or less a guinea pig that allowed the NMC to work out how to record with musicians while integrating the collection of vintage instruments. 

“What also makes this experience special is that this is a living museum,” says Jason Troock of Shout Out Out Out Out in a video produced by the NMC describing the band’s experiences there.

The members of SOOOO are one of the most recent participants in the artist in residency program, and had a public performance displaying their creations on August 30. SOOOO are an Edmonton electronic-rock band that have released three studio albums — their most recent, Spanish Moss and Total Loss, was released this summer. 

“Our proposal was essentially to come in and make a record of some kind that was based entirely around the collection at the NMC,” says SOOOO lead singer Nik Kozub in the video. “Whichever instrument I sit down in front of ends up being one of the most inspiring instruments I have ever played.” 

There is little doubt that the NMC is one of Calgary’s most renowned cultural institutions, even if the public may not be completely aware of the depth of its collections. The NMC’s goal is to expand the residency program to attract more artists, eventually from all over the world. 

“The idea is that our instruments will inspire creativity,” says Smith. “If you have never sat down in front of a real Wurlitzer electric piano — you have only ever played imitations of it — it will inspire you to come up with ideas. That’s when the magic happens.” 

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