For the Love of Music

Accord Newsletter #7

A Candid Conversation with Classical Movements President Neeta Helms

Neeta Helms is the visionary mind behind the Washington-based concert tour company Classical Movements. She also serves as Artistic Advisor to the South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF). Accord set-up a virtual conversation with her to dive into what Classical Movements is all about, its collaboration with SASF and more.

Neeta Helms grew up in Mumbai in an extraordinarily musical family. She set up Classical Movements (CM) in Washington, D.C. in 1992 (then known as Blue Heart Travel). Over the decades, CM has been at the cutting edge of the concert touring industry – taking orchestras and choirs to destinations across the world. Helms makes it a point to try and include places that aren’t necessarily “popular” concert venues, and to try and have additional projects at these places (besides the concerts) that facilitate greater cultural exchange.

CM’s client list includes a number of the top orchestras in the world, some of them being the Vienna, London and New York Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestre National de France and the Staatskapelle Dresden, which is one of the oldest orchestras in the world. It also works extensively with choirs. Choral singing, according to Helms, may have been a Euro-centric domain for a long time but now people around the world are making it their own. At CM’s annual choral festival “Serenade!”, participating choirs have included the Gandharva Choir from New Delhi, the Chennai Children’s Choir, the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir and the FEBC Children’s Choir from Busan, Korea to name just a few.

The real magic for Helms lies in the genuine collaborations that are born from these tours and festivals. When CM took the Minnesota Orchestra to South Africa in 2018, it was the first time any professional American orchestra had ever been to Africa. A key moment from that tour was when young musicians from the South African National Youth Orchestra and the Cape Town Youth Philharmonic rehearsed alongside the Minnesota Orchestra musicians. Helms spoke of the importance of these types of experiences. They enrich the lives of everybody involved, and make lasting memories. She also encourages her clients to engage in philanthropic projects – whether it is collecting money or music, or donating instruments and costumes.

It is this very spirit of generosity and collaboration that brought together SASF and CM. Helms met with Ambassador Nirupama Rao in Washington D.C. back when SASF was still an idea in formation. She has worked with the Foundation on projects, such as the commissioning of SASO’s trademark piece Hamsafar, and the inclusion of SASO as a representative orchestra from South Asia for CM’s Inauguration Fanfares to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

“Ambassador Rao is one of the great examples of Indian leadership and culture. She’s just such a special person. I feel her project is so meaningful. Music, if nothing else, can bring people together, and it’s really admirable. I believe in her project, and I believe in her, and I believe in any little thing that I can do to help”, she said.

When asked what could be the reasons for a world-class orchestra not yet emerging from the region, Helms put it quite simply. “Our part of the world - and more specifically India - has very deep rich cultural traditions of its own, in music as well as dance. We also have our own popular music that we as a people enjoy very much. So perhaps we haven’t so much felt the need to delve into another musical tradition in great depth. Not to mention, it is extremely challenging to reach a high degree of proficiency on an instrument. One must invest time, effort and finances, and dedicate oneself to one’s instrument in a deep way. For many, this simply isn’t an option.”

Having said that, she noted that there is rapidly growing interest in western classical and orchestral music in India. There is also enormous talent, which will blossom in myriad ways when harnessed with good teachers, quality instruments and a supportive environment. There are already a number of talented pianists, singers and violinists. She believes that when more top-notch orchestras start to tour in this region, it will generate greater interest in taking up instruments other than the piano and violin. It would also lead to collaborations intersecting with dance, choirs and other art forms – all of which would encourage more young people to be more involved in art and music-making. The chamber music format of smaller ensembles is an intense form of musical collaboration, and quite different from performing or practising alone. It is another way in which young musicians can begin to experience the immense joy and satisfaction of making music together.

At the end of the day, it comes down to feeling a sense of familiarity and deep emotional connection with the art form. Helms used this beautiful analogy – “It’s like a person - you only fall in love with someone once you meet them and then the more you get to know them, the more you talk to them and invest in them, you get to love them deeply. And then with love, everything is possible... it shines through and spreads and grows and you will do everything to protect and nurture this love and have it last forever. "

Ustad Bismillah Khan on the Uniting Power of Music

In an impromptu speech to his audience at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 1993, the great Ustad Bismillah Khan spoke of the power of music to unite all people.

The shehnai maestro spoke of how no matter what differences exist between people, music seems to have the power to draw us together. Why so? He said it is the common language of music that makes this possible.

Khadaj, rishabh, gandhaar, madhyam, pancham, dhaivat, nikhaad - saat sur hai. Duniya ka koi kahe ki aath hai? (Sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni - there are seven notes. Can anyone in the world say there are eight?)

No matter which country we come from, what language we speak, or the religion we practise, music can unite us as one. He pointed out that when we sit down in a group and listen to music, something about the experience makes us want to stay there. We simply don’t want to leave. In his usual humorous style, Khan Saheb wondered why this could be the case. After all, music isn’t food or sustenance. Ah, but it is in a sense food for the soul. It keeps the human spirit running. “Yeh roohi riza hai. Rooh jo chalti hai insaan ki - uski riza hai”, he said.

He brought to light another interesting point - the pursuit for sur in our lives. He quoted the chhota khayal “Pratham Sur Saadhe”. The lyrics of this piece refer to the divine art and practise of music. Studying music is a difficult journey, but one that can be traversed with the guidance of a guru.

Khan Saheb especially remarked on the opening line - “pratham sur saadhe”. First comes the practise of singing in tune. Thus, sur, or being in tune, marks the beginning of our musical pursuits. However, the spiritual practice of being in tune with oneself is one that continues throughout our lives. This is what makes music so special - its meditative power to create bonds within ourselves, and with the world we live in.

Navras Records recently uploaded a video of this speech to their YouTube channel. Click on the video to listen to Khan Saheb’s full message!

An award-winning iOS application for Hindustani music

An iOS application developed by Pune-based computer scientist Sandeep Ranade has won the prestigious Apple Design Award 2021 in the Innovation category.

In 2019, Ranade set out to help his Hindustani singing students learn to tune their notes more precisely. This was the first feature provided in his iOS app, NaadSadhana - a precision tuner that indicates to a singer if their sung note is in tune or not, in the context of a particular raag or specific tuning system.

In an interview with Gadgets 360, he spoke of the need for such a practice tool. Singing in tune is a fundamental skill in Hindustani singing, and one that needs regular guidance and correction from an experienced teacher. In modern setups, students usually only spend an hour or two a week practising with their teacher. The app steps in as a crucial course corrector when students are working on their own with no immediate access to their guru.

Ranade steadily added more features that would support singers in their riyaaz. In the video below, he demonstrates how NaadSadhana spontaneously creates a backing track that allows the singer to practise and experience singing with instruments, versus singing with the tanpura alone. The app uses artificial intelligence and machine learning toolkits available on the iOS platform to analyze singing, and playback instrumental accompaniment to match the singer’s performance - it keeps the taal, raag, and even the end-of-phrase tihais intact. It is also capable of creating studio-quality multitrack recordings, complete with effects and mixing.

NaadSadhana combines the worlds of music and artificial intelligence seamlessly, and the coming years are sure to bring more exciting developments in this field.

Written by Aditi Bharatee