Bringing Western Classical and Indian Carnatic Music Together


Adithya and I have been friends since grade 5. But it is only recently that we have started to talk about and share our experiences in two distinct classical music traditions—those of the West and India. Even though we had heard each other perform many times, it was not until last fall that we decided to learn about each other’s music. Music Without Borders provides us the opportunity to learn, explore and even create something that is rooted in, yet transcends the boundaries of both our respective traditions. Below are a few blog posts that capture a part this exploratory process. We’ll begin with identifying some of the fundamental elements of Indian and Western Classical music.



Carnatic Music

Carnatic Music is an ancient system of music originating from Southern India. It is one of the main genres of Indian classical music that evolved from ancient Hindu traditions. The main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; compositions are almost always written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed by voice.

There are a number of aspects of Carnatic Music that make it a unique art form. For one, it is one of the few genres of music that place almost an equal emphasis on written composition and extemporaneous music. Almost all other music forms place a heavier emphasis on one or the other: Jazz, for example, places a very heavy emphasis on extemporaneous music, whereas Classical music, focuses almost exclusively on pre-composed songs. Carnatic Music strikes a balance between these two aspects, which makes it incredibly unique. 

In addition, many elements of music that are considered as staples in Classical Music do not exist in Carnatic Music and vice versa. For instance, there is no harmony in Carnatic, only melody. There is a main artist (often a singer) who is accompanied by instrumentalists who simply follow along. On the flip side, Carnatic Music gets its unique sound from "gamakam", meaning "oscillation" or "glide". Oscillations are used quite heavily in Carnatic Music, whereas in Classical Music, they are used sparingly and only in certain instances. 

That was a sneak peek at some of the main features of this art form. Come and catch some Carnatic Music live in action at the MWB concert on April 2nd, 2016!



Western Classical Music

Let’s try to break down this large question into smaller parts. What is its history? What distinguishes Western classical music from other traditions? Classical music originated in the holy chant of European monks around the 7th century. With there originally being only one line of melody sung at a time, more voices were slowly added and a distinct notation system developed to keep track of all these extra parts. This system is one distinguishing feature of classical music.

By the end of the 17th century, a unique process of “harmony” had evolved, along with many new musical instruments, “forms” and genres. Aside from the fact that classical music is mostly written out (not improvised), the idea of harmony and functionality is another distinguishing element in traditional western classical music and has been carried into jazz, rock, and pop music. You can think of harmony as a progression of “chords”—combinations of notes all derived from one larger set (“scale”) of notes. Each chord made up of different notes from the same scale can have a “function,” describing where the chord should move next. This creates movement direction in the music.

However, if we take a step back, we can notice that harmony is derived from all the different parts in a composition. “Polyphony”—many different voices playing simultaneously—is even more central to western classical music. Most classical music is written for multiple instruments playing multiple parts or one instrument that can play multiple parts. An orchestra is a great example of the former, with the unique sounds (“timbre”) of each instrument blending together and creating a texture that still has movement, direction and depth even when there is no clear system of harmony. This combination of polyphony and harmony, lying at the heart of Western classical music, has a potential for huge expressive power.

Interview with OMNI News

Following Ernest's advice, we reached out to OMNI News and various other media outlets—and we got an interview! Here are two clips of our interview, broadcasted on OMNI News Cantonese and OMNI News Mandarin.



5 Steps to Make your Voice be Heard

So you’ve decided that you want to help out your community or even the world as a whole. That’s awesome! Unfortunately, helping out the world isn’t really a piece of cake and can be sometimes quite tough. So I’ve prepared a brief 5 step guide to steer you in the right direction.



1. What are you passionate about? What problem do you wish to combat?

Really? I didn’t have to read this to find out that I need a problem to solve!

While this may seem easy and completely obvious, this step is by far the most important. You need to be so passionate about your chosen issue that you are willing to dedicate countless hours to improve it. Choose an on-going problem which involves long term commitment: for instance, raising money or books for your local library. With that being said, don’t choose an incredibly complex problem such as combating world hunger. Try to break complex issues into smaller issues.

Fighting world hunger -> Raising money for Action Against Hunger or a related charity.
Saving refugees -> Informing the public about the terrible condition of the refugees OR raising money for Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières or a similar charity.


2. Raise Awareness in your School

Put posters up. Speak at assemblies. Tell your friends to spread the word. Use the PA system (ask before you use it though!). Honestly, the message can be spread in any effective manner.

Your school is also a wonderful environment to find a dedicated group of people with whom you can work with. Even though some of you may not believe it, all of your schools are filled with A LOT of talented people who are willing to help your cause; all you have to do is find them.

And almost everything is easier when you have more people helping. 160 doughnuts seems like a daunting task for you to bake, but with a group of ten people everyone only has to bake sixteen of them.  Organizing a fundraiser seems nigh impossible if you are the only person doing so, but with a small committee, it turns into a very challenging—but not impossible—task.


3. Organize an Event

Usually figuring out what exactly you wish to do is the best first step. Obviously, planning for a concert will be very different from planning for a 5K run. Once you’ve decided on an event, then you can work out the little things. Asking questions like:

"Where do you want to hold it? Who do you want to be there? When do you want it to happen? Are you selling anything (Tickets, t-shirts, food, etc.)? How many people will be in attendance?" 

...can really help you iron out the details. If you’re hosting a film festival, selling popcorn may be one of the things you should consider. If you’re organizing a 5K run, selling popcorn shouldn’t be something you consider. 

After you’ve mapped out exactly what will happen start contacting people. Venues don’t find themselves!


4. Raise Awareness on Social Media

Information travels at light-speed thanks to social media, and you should take advantage of that. Create official Twitter / Facebook accounts to quickly reach out to millions of people in a professional manner and to spread your message outside of your local community.


5. Reach out to Local Dignitaries and Media

Isn’t that a bit ambitious? Why would politicians or newspapers care about my little actions?

While the New York Times or the National Post may not be willing to report on your first event, local newspapers will. Reach out to ALL of the newspapers in your area - it doesn't matter whether the newspaper is in Korean, English, or any other language - as long as you or one of your group members can communicate with the paper go for it!

For politicians use the same strategy. Contact your local municipal/provincial/federal politicians. Justin Trudeau may not be able to present at your event, but a local city councillor or a local MPP might be able to.


5.5. Reach out to Local Dignitaries and Media

Run your event!


6. —

Wow a step six? I thought this was 5 steps?

—Have Fun!

As incredibly cliché as it sounds, make sure you’re having fun.

Good luck and make sure you’re having a blast!

—by Ernest

Visions of Humanitarianism

What do you think it means to be a humanitarian? What qualities do humanitarians have? Problem solving? Kindness? Truthfulness? Knowledge? Willfulness? 

The works of art showcased here are responses to our call to explore these questions through drawing or other visual media.

Should we be humanitarians?

What does being a humanitarian mean? Why should we be humanitarians? What forces are for or against humanitarians? 

A recent report issued by the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC) highlights the complexity of these questions. The report indicates that doctors who provide medical aid to wounded enemies now face prosecution. This raises a question—is there a general humanitarian principle that we should commit to above all else?

At the Music Without Borders 2016 Toronto ConcertDr. James Orbinski will speak to us about why youth should be humanitarians. But we are also interested in your thoughts on these questions. So we invite you to submit posts (max 500 words, could also be multi-media) to start a conversation about humanitarianism on our blog. 

USMC Archives, “Navy Corpsman Rendering Aid, Tarawa, November 1943,”  Flickr ,   CC BY 2.0.

USMC Archives, “Navy Corpsman Rendering Aid, Tarawa, November 1943,” FlickrCC BY 2.0.

Support MSF to Help the Displaced!

            The migrant crisis in the Middle East, specifically Syria, has become a worldwide issue.  No longer can we say, “Oh, I can’t do anything about that because it is far, far away from here.”  The world has become smaller, and more and more now, others’ troubles and sufferings have become our troubles and sufferings.  The people of Europe, though they used to think they were far away from and detached from the issues in the Middle East, now realize that the problems and troubles of the area of the Fertile Crescent are much closer to them than they thought.  The Syrian refugees, migrating and flooding up through Turkey and southern Europe, are desperate for a chance to escape the conflict happening near their homes.  According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), there are at least 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria, as of July 2015.  Consider the fact that this information is already a few months old, and that the conflict in this area has probably escalated.  More and more of these IDP’s will want to come to the West, to Europe.  This issue has become worldwide, and humanity has to work together to solve it, because if we don’t, millions of people will not only be let down, but also they will either die or be hurt in a conflict that they did nothing to provoke.  We HAVE to work together, wherever we live, because soon this issue will spread to near us.  MSF (Doctors Without Borders) is aiding in the effort to help refugees find shelter and temporary housing. If not actively helping, we should raise awareness and money for organizations fighting on the front lines of this battle.  But this is also a global conflict, with many refugees fleeing from different places all around the world. We have to take action.  —N.B.M.


"Thank You!" - from MSF Canada

Thanks to the great contributions from the community, Music Without Borders raised over $13,000 in support of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.

We are so grateful for the support of the students of University of Toronto Schools, Bayview Glen, Claude Watson School for the Arts, Upper Canada College, Etobicoke School for the Arts, Stratford Hall School in Vancouver, the St. Margaret's school in Victoria, the Cambridge Friends School in Massachusetts, and the Longfellow Middle School in Virginia. They have contributed so much with their hard work and dedication. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and commitment!

For a glimpse of how your support has made an impact, take a look at some stories from the field:

Ebola: It's Not Finished Yet

Thank you for your support

Please consider supporting us with a monthly donation - 2014 was marked by an unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but other crises elsewhere also pushed our medical teams to the limit. Thanks to your generosity Doctors Without Borders medics were able to respond.

Thank you for a successful concert!

Music Without Borders Concert was a huge success, raising over $13,000 for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. We would like to thank everyone who supported and was involved in the event: the students from 10 different schools located in Vancouver, Toronto, Victoria, Washington DC, and Boston, all the donors and the 300 people who were at the concert.


From the ancient tradition of Indian Carnatic chanting to the world premiere of the jazzy "La Musique Sans Frontières," along with the romantic "Meditation from Thaïs" and the thrilling "Shiraume" performed by the University of Toronto Schools' Taiko drumming group, the Music Without Borders Concert featured many talented young performers in a variety of musical genres and styles. Special performances included UTS' String Orchestra and the Upper Canada College Community Band. Check out the performances of the evening below. 

Featured Performer—Emma Meinrenken

Emma Carina Meinrenken is a scholarship student ofAtis Bankas in the Young Artist Performance Academy of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. Since she started playing the violin at the age of 4, Emma has won top awards in many competitions, including 1st place in the Canadian Music Competitions (CMC) for four consecutive years. She is the Grand Prize winner of the CMC National Finals in 2012 and is also a three-time winner of the Sid Oue Memorial Scholarship for ‘Most Promising Student. , At age 10, Emma made her debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and has since performed as a soloist with many other professional orchestras across the province and in Montreal. Most recently, Emma was awarded the Jury’s Prize at the 4th International Jascha Heifetz Violin Competition in Lithuania. Emma has, in the past, performed in master classes with some of the most well known world class violinists including Leonidas Kavakos, Maxim Vengerov, Jennifer Koh and Victor Danchenko. Emma plays on the Jamieson-Ivey Amati violin from 1670, on loan from Royal Conservatory of Music.


Featured Performer—Adithya Chakravarthy

Adithya Chakravarthy will open the Music Without Borders concert with a chant from the ancient Carnatic music tradition. He has won many Carnatic music competitions throughout North America. Most recently he placed first in both the 2014 Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, and the 2013 Carnatic Music Idol USA. Here is what he said about why he is helping Music Without Borders:

"The Ebola Crisis has claimed over 10,000 African lives. I have always believed that when people are suffering, we should do all that we can to alleviate their suffering in whatever way we can. This concert provides me with an opportunity to contribute to this cause. I will share a song from the ancient Carnatic Music tradition. Carnatic Music is an ancient Indian Classical art form that is deeply rooted in Indian culture and heritage. The great Carnatic composers used music as a vehicle to express their thoughts and as a result, many of these songs can contain some very profound messages. By sharing some of India’s rich heritage with you through Carnatic Music, I hope to spread love, so that we can all reach out and help those who are in need. By being a part of Music Without Borders’ concert, I hope to contribute by raising awareness and funds to help fight for this noble cause."

Here is a clip of him chanting.

Designing the MWB Logo

Over the years, I have been interested in graphic design and I have learned a lot from many people, including my mother who is a graphic designer. I have learned that a good design needs to be interesting but simple. With time and practice I have become very passionate about design in general and graphic design in particular. My goal is to make websites visually appealing, accessible, and easy to use.

A few months ago my friend Benn, whom I have known for many years, contacted me about a project he was doing called “Music Without Borders”. It is a fundraising project in support of the organization Doctors Without Borders in its fight against the current Ebola Crisis in West Africa. The project needed a logo and graphic design. Another designer, Teo, who is also helping with the project had come up with the idea of merging the image of a globe with a musical note. I built on this idea and played around with it. Finally, our logo was created.

Helping the community and working as a team is not always easy. But when the work is done, it is worth it. To me this is a meaningful project because it shows that even a small group of middle and high schoolers can impact the community in a meaningful way. Once you see the impact of what you have worked so hard on, it is worth all the effort you put in. Something about working on this project and seeing it to the end makes me want to learn even more about design. I will keep working with Music Without Borders and continue to learn more about graphic design. I also plan to continue helping to contribute to the community in a variety of ways for many years to come.

— By Cale Waldheim

 See a longer version of this article that is published in Connections: A newsletter for the Cambridge Friends School Community: