Interview: Mike Mattson – Collections, Digital Content Coordinator at NMC

The Arnold Dolmetsch Clavichord. Credit: Don Kennedy.

Accessibility is a big part of NMC and we pride ourselves on maintaining a living collection that people can interact with in multiple ways.
Instruments allow us to explore sound and tell stories, so to keep them behind glass in a museum seems unnatural. Our team works hard to maintain a living collection that can be played and programs like Artist-in-Residence attract musicians from around the world to do just that. But how do we share the richness of our collection with a wider audience?
Through the support of TransCanada, NMC is putting our extensive collection on display online. Soon online visitors can begin browsing through our collection, learning the story behind each object, listening to audio samples and seeing shots from every angle.
The project is a daunting one that will take a few years, but Mike Mattson, Digital Content Coordinator for the Collections Department, is up to the challenge. Mike was able to answer a few questions for the NMC blog:

What do you do at NMC?

The focus of my role at NMC is on developing standards and procedures for the creation of online Audio and Video content. As part of this process we will be recording and sampling key examples from the extensive collection. I am also involved in the planning and design of the new building to help ensure that all audio and video recording meets the standards we are developing.
What is the collection database and what are some of its features?
The collections database is the essential source of information about the specific pieces in the collection. The database can provide detailed information including the origin, when it was built and unique aspects of the artifact such as who used it and it’s importance in musical history. The collections database also provides crucial information in regards to loans in and out of the collections so NMC staff can track the usage and effectively manage the care and preservation of this valuable collection.
Who will use NMC’s Collections database? Is it only for musicians or academics?
The collections database will be a source of information designed to support activities at NMC. Certainly researches and academics will find it invaluable as a trusted source of research data. Musicians will be able to discover new instruments or usage of those instruments. The database will serve as a primary source of object related content in NMC’s exhibits, as well providing digital audio and video resources to help tell the stories of Music in Canada. NMC’s education activities can also utilize these resources to build strong educational content for delivery in face-to-face classes as well as distance education, and the online will gain access to NMC extensive collections through the database and website. 
What is TransCanada’s gift being used for?
The gift from TransCanada is helping to provide depth and breadth to the information about NMC’s collection. This will include in-depth text content and descriptions about individual pieces as well as audio and video examples of the collection. The standards and procedures established through this project will give NMC a strong foundation to build the collection and provide effective digital access for the growing community of NMC users.  
Will this be an ongoing project?
Currently this is a two-year project but it is important to see how this integrates into the strategic plan of NMC. This is not a tangential project but a project that will help integrate the activities of NMC around a central repository of knowledge. This repository of knowledge is not a one-way street that is just for search and retrieval. As an example, when Exhibitions develop new content on a specific instrument, that content, once approved, will then become part of the database. When a Distance Education class is discussing the same instrument, they will have access to both the Collections data and the Exhibition content. This integrated workflow will minimize duplication and maximize efficiency.
How important is this work and the funding that supports it?
This work is essential to build a strong foundation for growth. NMC is unique in that the collection is a living entity. The Artists in Residence program provides controlled access to the collection for musicians and artists to create new works. The collections database and the sample recordings will help us build towards a Digital Preview. This Digital Preview will allow musicians to discover and audition the instruments before they arrive at NMC. They can make informed decisions and the Collection team can then effectively manage the use of the collection.
What is your favorite object in our collection and why?
Don’t get me started talking about the collection. I can’t just single out one favorite object so I have to go with two, from opposite ends of the spectrum.
The first is the Clavichord. I knew of this instrument but I had never had a chance to record it. I am also an instructor at SAIT Polytechnic and over the past few summers we teach an Audio Production class where we partner with NMC and are able to come down and record some of the instruments. The students obviously love this and we had an exercise where we were recording a very loud piano and the Clavichord, which was our quiet instrument. This was not in a pristine studio environment so we decided to use extremely close mic’ing techniques to minimize the external sounds and give us some volume to work with. Basically this turned the microphone into a microscope. The Clavichord is a beautiful and delicate instrument. What we discovered was there are sympathetic strings that vibrate like a Sitar, resonate chambers that output bass frequencies at the bottom, and when the key strikes the string it can also bend the string up like a modern blues guitarist would. When these microphone positions were combined we were able to really bring out the subtleties of this instrument. Playing the Clavichord under headphones was an amazing experience.
The other end of the spectrum is The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO). When I heard that we had a chance to obtain TONTO I could not believe it. For anyone involved with synthesizers and electronic music, this is the Holy Grail. It is the first synthesizer orchestra and has paved the way for so much of the music and production techniques of today. It was built in 1968, one year before man landed on the moon. When you watch the videos of Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” in front of TONTO your jaw drops. The sound of TONTO is just unbelievable.
Then there is the Rolling Stones Mobile, the Ondes Mertenot, the Kimball Theatre Organ, and the list goes on.

Mike Mattson is the Digital Content Coordinator for the NMC Collections Department.

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