Off of busy 11th Avenue S.E., in the historic sandstone building that houses the Cantos Music Foundation, a piano's keys are plinking somewhere up the winding cast-iron staircase.
Further up, behind bolted doors and a lone security guard, there are treasures that few Calgarians have seen: a white standup piano that Elton John once belted it out on, an organ the likes of which Dr. Seuss would perhaps ogle, and an instrument you can play without even touching it, among many others.
The Cantos Music Foundation is a repository of all things music, but more specifically things with keyboards. It's an amalgamation of two local organizations that came together in 2003, the Cantos Music Museum and TriumphEnt Foundation.
From education programs for kindergarten through post-secondary, to community outreach initiatives — like using music to lure out memories for those suffering with Alzheimer's — the umbrella of Cantos also houses a magnificent collection of musical artifacts and instruments. This impressive collection can be viewed by the public on tours that take place twice a week.
Kasia Borkowska, interpreter and guide to the Cantos collection, said the Foundation's mandate is really pretty simple.
"It's a place that amplifies the love, the sharing and the understanding of music. That's kind of it, and it transcends social and economic boundaries. That's the point," Borkowska said.
And it's hoped that in coming years, the collection will reach an even bigger audience.
The foundation is scheduled to move to a new location, the National Music Centre, in 2014 when the East Village redevelopment is slated to be finished. The King Eddy, a historic blues venue on 9th Avenue S.E., will be incorporated into the new building; restored to its former glory.
The centre will harbour a number of exciting collections in addition to the Cantos music collection, including the Canadian Music Hall of Fame Collection in partnership with the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Beginning the tour of the foundation's collection of all things keyboard and keyboard related, Borkowska noted that those on display now are only 200 of the 700 pieces that the foundation has in its collection. The new facilities will be adequate to showcase things like the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, which at this point sits unseen somewhere in Bearspaw.
The tour exhibits the Cantos collection in a loose timeline framework and everywhere one looks, from floor to ceiling, there are instruments on various shelves at various levels. Accordions, clavichords, wax cylinder players, you name it – or you learn the name as the tour progresses.
At first the visual bounty is a little much to take in — so many deep colours and textures, keys and hammers — but the guide quickly directs the tour group's attention to a Hammer Dulcimer that looked more like a mandolin than anything with a keyboard. The guide hits the strings with some mallets emitting some tinny tones and the group moves on.
The tour, $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors, is an hour and a half and there is far more to see.
One of the most engaging and unique aspects of the tour is that, though many of the instruments are more than 500 years old, it is very hands-on. The interpreter plays many of the instruments that they showcase.
The group moved fluidly along listening to Borkowska's knowledgeable explanations, the interpreter gingerly moved between history, context and music theory for the layman. As she played a jaunty bit on one of the earliest examples of a grand piano with mother of pearl and turtle shell keys, her enthusiasm was apparent and contagious.
Soon the onlookers came to one of the more unbelievable instruments, which had a deceivingly simple name: the theatre organ. This beast of a gizmo could easily fill a large-sized bedroom and looks like something inspired by Dr. Seuss. The organ was used in silent movie theatres and was the source of the cacophonous soundtracks that were played to accentuate the slapstick action.
The goers were invited to sit in front of the organ's various appendages — xylophones, drums, pipes, bells and whistles — as it filled with air the room filled with a high pitched screech until the instrument was seemingly pumped up enough to run. Borkowska played "Entry of the Gladiators" — better known as the circus theme song — and the full effect was dazzling: the true opposite of Dolby Digital.
Though there are certainly too many to mention, some of the highlights of the collection were a barrel organ that one might see in pre-world-war-era-Europe being cranked by an organ grinder while a monkey came around with a cup to collect coins.
There's a section that encapsulates the great European piano makers and another that chronicles the electronic keyboard evolution featuring early synthesizers that have cords of all shades coming and going from various sockets in a confusing rainbow spectrum of early technology. An ARP 2500, lit up with a flick, played the cheerful theme from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and is the very machine that the song was composed on.
The white standup piano that Elton John wrote his first five albums on, signed by the star and all, was an impressive bit of rock 'n' roll history.
Zach Howie, a production student who was on the tour, said he particularly liked the synthesizers and the theatre organ, and that Cantos is a sign of things to come in Calgary.
"I don't see a lot of musical culture in Calgary, but it's nice to see that this is here," said Howie. "I didn't know. It's nice to see that it's growing but I don't think that it's big in this city — yet."
With the Cantos Music Foundation poised to expand its resources, collection of artifacts and programs into the new 110,000-square-foot building, the city's cultural landscape will certainly look different in the near future.
Cantos also rents out venues for performances of all kinds. Stephen Van Kampen played a show with his band Savk at Cantos to raise money for a relief effort in Somalia. He said he thinks that Cantos is an important part of Calgary's cultural climate.
"To me Cantos is an island of free culture that exists in a sometimes culturally cold city, which has been getting warmer, I admit. It is a reminder of the small and dedicated group of Calgarians that are committed to music, the arts, and in my case, the artists."
- By Vanessa Gillard