The House Andrew Built: Studio Bell’s opening a career high note for National Music Centre president & CEO

Monday 15th, August 2016 / 17:58
By B. Simm
Photo: Leblond Studio Inc.

Photo: Leblond Studio Inc.

CALGARY — On July 1st, Canada Day, Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, officially opened it doors to the public. The sun shone brightly, the lineup wrapped itself around the corner on Ninth Avenue SE, stretching down past the entire building edging towards the end of the block. People were curious, anxious and soon to be amazed by the truly majestic architecture, the striking displays and interactive exhibits they would find inside.

No doubt Andrew Mosker, president and CEO of the National Music Centre, was pleased as punch to see the ribbon cut and people pouring in. He’s been striving for 18 years to have his vision of a national centre dedicated to music “Made in Canada” erected on Calgarian soil. And there it was standing strong, gleaming in the sun looking more like a cathedral of creativity, which, perhaps more than anything else, Studio Bell really is. Within the shimmering, futuristic structure exists a vast array of precious artifacts, a wealth of educational and artist development programs along with its magnificient performance space. It houses many things to many artists for many audiences.

Mosker is pleased, but a bit exhausted after the opening ceremonies, a run of press conferences and non-stop whirlwind tours through out the sparkling new facility. But he’s certainly not complaining; that’s not the positive, uber-enthusiastic ethos he exudes and maintains. Nonetheless, he’s definitely looking forward to some vacation time taking his family to Quebec where he’s originally from.

Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World

Photo: Retrieved from Andrew Mosker's Twitter account

Photo: Retrieved from Andrew Mosker’s Twitter account

Mosker, who lived in Montreal for 24 years, speaks both English and French and still clings to and nurtures his roots in Quebec, has all the makings for someone to oversee and guide the cultural diversity embodied by Studio Bell. A staunch nationalist provides the right stuff. He touches briefly on the tension and divisions between English and French, but feels there’s only a small group of people responsible for creating the discordance. Instead, he would rather focus on a healthier, more optimistic sentiment that he embraces as a better, more promising reality.

“Our cottage is an hour north of downtown Montreal. My neighbour, he doesn’t speak English at all. Like zero. He speaks real Quebecois, slang. But we have no problem conversing. He calls me when he’s doing things at his cottage, he calls me when I’m out here (in Calgary). We laugh, we have a good relationship. When he first moved in he built himself a cottage, a dock and what does he put on his lawn? A big Canadian flag. On Canada Day he phones and asks if he can launch fireworks off my dock. So here’s this guy who speaks no English at all, but celebrates Canada Day with a massive Canadian flag up the pole. I love that,” chuckles Mosker. “When I found out that he was a proud Canadian but doesn’t speak a word of English, I thought, ‘Yup, that’s what’s great about Canada.’”

To see Studio Bell through to completion, Mosker has had to be both the accommodating optimist and the uncompromising visionary. He mentions his admiration for Pierre Trudeau referencing the former Prime Minster’s passion for paddling canoes — Trudeau’s iconic gesture for Canada and Canadians to row together, to move forward as one nation. But to move forward with Studio Bell, Mosker was presented with a flurry of challenges.

“When you’re doing anything that goes against the grain, that’s disruptive, that’s innovative, there’s going to be resistance and at times you feel that you don’t have all the support that you need, financial or other. And there are times when you doubt yourself, it’s normal.”

One of the biggest difficulties Mosker was presented with was being able to construct the type of building the National Music Centre needed not only to be recognized for its significance on a national level but on an international level as well. Mosker is a fierce believer that Canadian music and its level of quality belongs on the international stage, and we need the right kind of facility to reflect that notion and to attract the world’s attention.

“It’s easy to build a square box. Anybody can build a square box on time and on budget. That’s not hard to do. What’s hard to do, in our field, which is music, is to inspire people to become engaged. That’s a lot harder to do. And in order to do that you need to find ways to inspire people. Architecture does that. People go to visit buildings, cities and landmarks of all kinds in every part of the world because of things that have been designed to capture imaginations. It inspires them! Churches built in the 13th century or modern skyscrapers like the Empire State Building.”

Looking at the global horizon, and setting the bar intentionally high, Mosker was also driven by the unsettled sense that, in terms of music, we just weren’t registering on the global radar.

“This statement is controversial, and can bring about great debate, but I would argue that Canada and the world did not notice Calgary for music, necessarily. It’s fair to say that when Canadians and people around the world think of Calgary, they don’t think first and foremost about music. So I thought if we we’re going to be a catalyst for music and the aspiration to be the hub for Canada’s national music story, we needed to be serious about it, and the building needed to be commiserative with the quality of the music in this country.”

But as Mosher adopted the world-class view, another hurdle he had to overcome was selling it to the locals as a smart action plan.

“Cities are often provincial in their thinking,” states Mosker, when he sought to look far and wide for architectural talent. Those opposing his global search asked, “Why don’t you hire somebody from here instead of going internationally? We have great designers here, why do you have to go and hire somebody else?”

Mosker acknowledges that argument and empathizes with giving the project to a local artist is an opportunity to let them to shine. At same time, he held steadfast to his position that he wanted to hire the best person for the job that understood the greater vision.

Best Person For The Job

Photo: Brandon Wallis

Photo: Brandon Wallis

It’s too early for Studio Bell to gain recognition as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but a wonderment it is. Upon stepping into the building’s expansive sunlight lobby, the open interior arcs and unfolds upwards. Climbing the staircase from one level to the next you weave around different sized columns, ascending rapidly, passing through narrow corridors that suddenly open to various view points, the performance hall and exhibition areas. There’s a keen slice of adventure, a journey laced with enthusiasm simply because the architecture evokes anticipation, excitement, and a big dose of fantastic. Powerful stuff.

Brad Cloepfil, lead architect for the firm Allied Works Architecture based in Portland, Oregon and New York City, set out to incorporate the natural elements and landscape found in Alberta into Studio Bell’s design. While there’s certainly a strong connection to the physical environment, it also goes far beyond — the wavering, glazed walls made from bronze-coloured tiles lends to moving graciously through a golden, glacial palace that exists in some remote, exotic James Bond oceanic hideaway. The imagination unfolds in leaps and bounds. Transcendence runs parallel to inspiration.

During the development and construction phase, Mosker and the NMC board were faced with cost increases and, consequently, the potential to undermine the initial vision for the structure’s design. One particular issue they wrestled with was whether to cut costs and not use the glazed, terracotta tile system that allows for a remarkable spectrum of beautiful light to have an aurora-like effect inside and outside the building. Fortunately, they rejected the compromise and stuck with their creative gut instinct, which told them that the way the building looks and affects its users is absolutely paramount.

“Some of those struggles went on from five to 10 years,” says Mosker. “There were ups and downs, tough decisions, which required regrouping as a team and checking our vision to deliver what we promised. And I’m happy to say, we delivered what we promised… We built the square box on time and on budget, and it’s going to transform people’s lives.”

Give Me Three Good Reasons

Photo: Leblond Studio Inc.

Photo: Leblond Studio Inc.

Now that Studio Bell has arrived, and taken prominence in the city, the question circulating in the minds of many is how the facility will impact and benefit the community?

Mosker readily handles the inquiry: “Number one, I think there’s going to be an identity impact for those musicians that help tell stories about our city. Although they may not know it or see it yet, but the city’s musicians and those that move here will benefit tremendously from Studio Bell. We’ll give a lot of local and regional artists performing opportunities, recording opportunities and composition opportunities to help artists build confidence. And that kind of confidence is impacted across the musical spectrum.”

Mosker emphasizes that the focus is not just indie music. He cites classical music, hip hop, contemporary pop and world music as examples of endeavours Studio Bell is going to invest in and expand upon to build a broad foundation for local and regional artists to find support, grow and develop.

Secondly, Mosker feels Studio Bell will impact Calgarians and the city’s overall identity. “I’m very committed to building a music city. That doesn’t happen overnight. Austin, Nashville, it took decades for those places to realize their potential as music cities. But I’m committed to that. I really feel Calgarians have a chance here, particularly with the changing nature of the economy. I think we have an opportunity here to build a music city. And that could be felt across the province. I should call it a music province. We have already launched the Alberta Cities Initiative and are very committed to building a stronger, vibrant music industry in Alberta.”

Last on the list of potential benefits Studio Bell has to offer is tourism. While Mosker acknowledges that music enthusiasts flocking to the city is a long way off, he notes that Sled Island and the Calgary Folk Fest have had some success drawing interest from outside the city. “If there’s good programing, original music at an international level of quality, it will attract audiences. You’ll always get that. You’ll always attract music fans from around the world if you have that… The building will also do that in time. Architecturally, thrill seekers will want to come see this building. It’s already started.”

The Tide Is High

Photo: Leblond Studio

Photo: Leblond Studio

A small bone local of contention is the appropriation of the King Edward Hotel as both a performance space and watering hole. While it’s fine to restore and resurrect the revered establishment as a historic landmark, in some people’s view it’s not fine to make it a business operation that is seen to compete directly with other venues. Mosker is fully aware of the criticism that Studio Bell’s big operation and repurposing of the King Eddy is perceived as having an unfair advantage to some smaller businesses in the downtown area.

The underlying philosophy of Studio Bell for most, if not all, of its collections and initiatives is the creative engagement of its audience and users. Just like the vast majority of rare musical instruments and artifacts housed inside Studio Bell’s walls, the fabled King Eddy is also a prized acquisition that’s part of the “living collection” meant to be experienced, utilized and enjoyed. Accordingly, the Eddy was not rebuilt to be admired solely for its historic value and significance. Rather, the Eddy comes to life once more as a place where artists and audiences gather, engage and be inspired.

Mosker knows it will take time before the gravity of Studio Bell’s mission statement takes hold and that the prime mover behind its agenda is to give to the community, not take away from it.

“All of us, including the non-profit section are trying to support the cause of music in itself, which is not an easy cause to support. Artists can barely make a living, there’s no music in schools anymore, but all of us know that music is an important part of our civilization and our community.”

Whether it’s Studio Bell’s incubation programs for artist development, or repurposing the King Eddy as a bar open seven nights a week for live music, Mosker’s mandate is to foster engagement and inspiration in the community for the benefit of everyone. As such, instead of viewing the shimmering cathedral of creativity as some kind of overarching threat, the better, more promising reality, the one where we’re all paddling together, is when Mosker simply suggests, “High tides float all boats.”

The National Music Centre at Studio Bell is now open Wed. – Sun.

BeatRoute Magazine August 2016 Alberta print edition cover. Cover photo: Jodi Brak

BeatRoute Magazine August 2016 Alberta print edition cover.
Cover photo: Jodi Brak

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