Learning Activity #2: Influences from India Part One

Educational Focus

Students use the elements of music as listening prompts and create their own titles for Glenn Buhr's Akasha (Sky). They learn about specific musical influences from India in this composition and find these in the music during subsequent listening experiences.


Flash asset: The Elements of Music Chart (student copies)
Stick-on notes - several for each student
Audio assets: Excerpts I-III from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr
(Optional) access to a web or audio example of Indian raga music (e.g., Ravi Shankar)

Lesson Map

I. Listen and Describe

  • Teacher note: Do not reveal the name of the piece until later.
  • Provide students with a copy of the flash asset: Elements of Music Chart, or use a similar word wall list of music elements. Write the names of the elements on the board or chart paper: duration, pitch/melody, timbre (orchestral), expression, harmony/texture, form, mood.
  • Divide students into small groups of about four, giving each a pile of stick-on notes.
  • Play Excerpt I, II and III of Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr several times.
  • Using the flash asset Elements of Music chart as a prompt, ask students to write descriptive words about the music on the notes-one word per note.
  • Stack the notes, then give the pile to the next group. Look at all of the words and use the elements of music on the board and chart to arrange the notes in categories.
  • One person from each group sticks the notes under the appropriate element of music on the board. If the word duplicates another note, put them close together. If there are words that cannot be classified as elements of music, create a separate parking lot for them.
  • With the whole class, note words that appeared most often, and identify this as a group consensus. Notice particularly any words describing the mood.
  • Ask each group to suggest a title for the work and list these titles on the board.
  • A spokesperson from each group presents the title to the class, and explains why it was chosen, using appropriate music vocabulary.

II. Learning About the Composition

  • Write the title of the piece and composer on the board. Explain that "Akasha (Sky)" is the Sanskrit word for "space", and that Sanskrit is the classical language of India. The word can also be translated more poetically as "sky". Space or the sky is considered to be a fifth basic element (along with earth, air, fire and water) by many ancient people and cultures.
  • Discuss the title, and how well it does or does not match the student-generated titles.
  • Read the following descriptions of Akasha (Sky), both written by Glenn Buhr:

…very gentle, with a steady, quiet rhythm played the strings and glockenspiel, and a floating chorale [tune] in the brass which gradually rises to a pivotal climax with the woodwinds scurrying up and around in the background.

The work is gentle and simple. A cascading pattern in the woodwinds is offset by a slowly evolving melody in the brass. The woodwind and brass texture, supported by a hovering music in the strings, swells to a climax and then a gentle return of the opening music ends this brief overture.

  • Compare to the descriptions and words lists made earlier.

III. Identifying Cultural Influences

  • Remind students that the name Akasha comes from Sanskrit, the classical language of India.
  • Buhr was fascinated with Indian music during his early university years, and there are a number of specific features of Indian music in this composition. Write on the board, providing the additional explanatory information below: bells, drones, ragas.
    • Bells: High tinkling bells, which are used with dance music in the temples from which all other Indian music derives
    • Drones: Use of drones, in Indian music the equivalent of our tonic and dominant, but here made a bit richer
    • Ragas: Ascending and descending scalar patterns that do not use the step-by-step European approach. There are hundreds of types. A raga is more than just a scale – often the descending and ascending patterns are not the same, unlike most scales in western traditions
  • Optional: Listen to a typical raga, identifying the features above. Discuss whether it sounds like Akasha (Sky). How much of a difference did it make that there are no Indian instruments in Buhr's composition-can the influence be heard or is it hidden by the change of timbre? (Expect a variety of responses.)
  • Listen again to all the audio assets: Excerpts I, II and III from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr, assigning each group one of the three features to listen for – students raise hands when they can hear that special sound in the music.

Glenn Buhr (b. 1954, Winnipeg, Manitoba) Buhr is a prolific composer, whose works have been performed by chamber ensembles, soloists and orchestras world-wide. Buhr has been a strong supporter of ‘New Music' in Canada and was co-founder of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival. Both Akasha (Sky) and Jyotir were commissioned by Canadian ensembles, and were influenced by the culture and music of India. Listen for how the compositions illustrate their names; ‘Akasha' is Sanskrit for ‘space' or ‘sky'; ‘Jyotir' is Sanskrit for ‘brilliance'.

The Elements of Music Chart

Excerpts I from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr (0:01:14)

Excerpts I from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr - Play now

Warning: Audio file is larger than 6MbDownload (1.75Mb)

In this opening section of Buhr’s orchestral piece Akasha, the woodwinds play a cascading pattern over a slowly evolving melody by the brass, the strings hover around, and bells are heard tinkling throughout.

Excerpts II from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr (0:01:21)

Excerpts II from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr - Play now

Warning: Audio file is larger than 6MbDownload (1.92Mb)

This excerpt from the middle of Akasha swells  to a shimmering climax in the strings, then the cascading patterns of the woodwinds re-introduce the material from the first section.

Excerpts III from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr (0:00:31)

Excerpts III from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr - Play now

Warning: Audio file is larger than 6MbDownload (0.72Mb)

This excerpt begins with the gentle shimmer of the strings, over which the woodwinds play a slow and detached pentatonic melody, then the strings gently fade away.

Credits and Copyright

  • Audio asset: Excerpt I from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr
    1989, Glenn Buhr
  • Audio asset: Excerpt II from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr
    1989, Glenn Buhr
  • Audio asset: Excerpt III from Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr
    1989, Glenn Buhr
Virtual Museum of Canada

To access the Virtual Museum of Canada's complete digital learning resources and lesson plans, visit the VMC Teachers' Centre.