A Songbird Speaks

Reena Esmail
Indian-American composer Reena Esmail enjoys working in both the Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical music idioms. Esmail holds a bachelors degree in composition from The Juilliard School, and a masters degree from the Yale School of Music. Her primary teachers have included Susan Botti, Aaron Jay Kernis, Christopher Theofanidis and Martin Bresnick, Christopher Rouse and Samuel Adler. She has won numerous awards, including the Walter Hinrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (and subsequent publication of a work by C.F. Peters) and two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. She is currently in the post-residential period of her doctoral degree at the Yale School of Music. Siddharth Shiva had a chance to catch up with her. Here's the interview.
How did your musical journey begin? From the moment I took my first piano lesson, I knew I wanted to be a classical musician. I was swept up in the ability to create beauty in the world, and also by the intense discipline and focus it takes to become a classical musician. As a child, I wanted to be a pianist, but as I grew older, I realized that I also enjoyed being the person behind the scenes, who created the music. I can't remember a time I wasn't composing -- but I didn't realize it was even a career option until I was in my late teens. I was certainly that kid who dreamed about going to Juilliard, and getting accepted to the school for my undergraduate studies was a very significant moment in my life.
What drove you to cross Hindustani and Western Classical music? You did your doctoral thesis on finding common ground between these seemingly disparate styles. Can you tell us a little bit about these uniting factors, and also some of the challenges in writing this kind of music? Can you tell us a little bit about how you studied so many different musical styles? Personally, I identify both with being Indian and American, and I found myself constantly navigating between these two cultures from a young age. I was raised bilingual in English and Gujarati, and the culture inside my home was very different from the culture I shared with my friends growing up in Los Angeles. As a child, I learned to keep my two cultural worlds separate -- as most children of immigrants do -- but as I grew up, I felt drawn to explore the connection between these two sides of myself through the lens of music. Hindustani and Western music are different in many ways: Hindustani music focuses deeply on melody and rhythm, and has a degree of complexity in these two areas that is not idiomatic to Western classical music (due to the structure of the Western notation system). However, because of this very notation system, harmony and counterpoint are possible in Western music in a way that is impossible in pure Hindustani music. But after years of study in both Hindustani and Western music, I see that these two traditions, because they are so different, don't step on one another's feet. They can occupy different areas of the same musical space, and coexist beautifully - they can overlap without detracting from one another. The main challenges are practical ones: namely that Hindustani musicians improvise whereas Western musicians read notated music. This creates many basic logistical issues: in rehearsal, when a western musician says "Let's start at measure 15", how will a Hindustani musician know where that is? Or how can a Hindustani musician be expected to play the same predictable phrase each time, when they are used to improvising and playing into the spontaneity that characterizes their artform? Additionally, the methods of communicating between musicians in performance are so different -- not to mention that the very information that needs to be communicated is very different. Hindustani musicians have much more independence in a performance than western musicians do - so while a western musician will take pride in being able to follow exacting instructions from a conductor with incredible precision, a Hindustani musician would be more comfortable with greater freedom and a wider berth. I've studied these two types of music separately: I now have three degrees in Western classical composition from Juilliard and Yale, and I've been studying khayal since 2010, with many teachers in India and the US. I love learning each in its pure form, and then letting everything I learn mix around in my mind, and let the result emerge organically through my music.

It also seems very niche; are there many composers out there writing this kind of music? Who are some of your inspirations and influences? Historically, there have always been Western composers who have engaged with other musical traditions. In fact, Western music started out as the musical traditions of Germany, Italy and France, and has since expanded outward to include the music of many other countries. The influence of South and East Asian music within Western classical music has been more recent, but is steadily growing as these cultures interface and overlap in many other ways. I am proud to be one of the few composers working at the seams of these two musical cultures, because this middle ground is so rich with possibilities to explore -- it allows me to constantly work at the very edge of my own creative process, and it is incredibly exciting to see musicians from these two cultures come together in a piece I created. I draw my inspiration from so many places: Among Western composers, I love the music of Bartok, who found his own unique way of combining his musical cultures, and Scarlatti, whose Sonatas for piano incorporated such a range of influences so seamlessly into that baroque form. I also have a general love of French music: from Couperin to Dutilleux, the French have always paid such great attention to the details of musical texture and color, and have often looked eastward for inspiration -- I often think of my own music as doing the opposite: starting with a firm grounding in Hindustani music and then looking to the French for ways to interface with the West. Among Hindustani musicians, I have always loved Smt. Lakshmi Shankar -- you can hear the warmth and grace of her personlity through her voice. I was so honored to have an opportunity to study with her, and I still listen to her recordings all the time. I also love Parveen Sultana, and of course Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, whose senior disciple Saili Oak is my dear friend and current teacher. As the world gets smaller, I am also influenced by a number of composers today who interface between Western music and the music of other cultures on the highest level: Derrick Spiva, who works with rhythmic elements of West African and Hindustani percussion; Juan Pablo Contreras, who works with Mexican music; Salina Fisher, who works with maori (native New Zealand) and Japanese music, and Coron Brown who works with Turkish music. Also, composers like Shirish Korde and Michael Harrison, who, like me, work between the genres of Hindustani and Western classical music. Each of these composers has studied both musical cultures deeply, and we have learned so much from one another on so many levels.

Both, Hindustani and Western Classical composers and musicians are quite notorious for being very conservative, creatively. Was this a challenge in composing the kind of music that you wanted to make? I know exactly what you mean: in the field of Western art music ("classical music"), performers are reluctant to engage with music written by living composers. A performer could go through their entire career playing only the music of composers of the past. Our fields hold onto this identity the same way they hold onto the word "classical". And while there is great merit in preserving these works, the continuation of the field depends on the creation of new work and the exploration of new ways of thinking that reflect our world it its current state. At the end of my thesis, I asked every composer I interviewed, who had worked between Hindustani and Western music, what their ideal musician would look like -- I was expecting specific answers: Someone who could sing a bara khayal, but be able to change the Sa midway through. Someone who could simultaneously keep a taal and a Western mixed meter in their head. Someone who could improvise and read notation at the same time. But each musician said the same thing to me: they simply wanted to work with musicians who were flexible and open minded. I would agree. If a musician knows their craft well enough to be flexible, if they are creative enough to be open to new ideas, and to stretch their boundaries in new ways, then the rest can be easily taught. I have been very lucky in my career: I have worked with so many musicians who are incredibly talented and very open minded. The result is so deeply gratifying, because the collaboration doesn't stop at the end of rehearsal. Often the musicians have gotten to know one another and have been able to develop working relationships that reach far beyond the scope of my compositions. This is why I do the work I do. I love sparking these connections between people I love. “This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity” received a standing ovation in Chennai, and is truly one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in a very long time. Can you tell us a little bit about the piece - it’s conception, and it’s message? This Love Between Us is a piece about unity. Its seven movements juxtapose the words of seven major religious traditions of India (Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam), and specifically how each of these traditions approaches the topic of unity, of brotherhood, of being kind to one another. The texts come either straight from canonical religious writings or from poets who write through the lens of their religion. Each text is itself a union: it is set simultaneously in English and in its original language (with the exception of the Christian text, where the Malayalam is a translation), so you can hear the beauty of the original and grasp its meaning through translation. Each movement also contains a unique combination of Indian and Western classical styles, running the continuum from the Christian movement, which is rooted firmly in a baroque style, to the Zoroastrian movement, which is a Hindustani vilambit bandish. Each of the other movements live somewhere in between these two musical cultures in their techniques, styles and forms. But even more than uniting musical practices, this piece unites people from two different musical traditions: a sitar and tabla join the choir and baroque orchestra. Each of the musicians is asked to keep one hand firmly rooted in their own tradition and training, while reaching the other hand outward to greet another musical culture. This piece is also a union for me. The time I spent studying at both Yale and Juilliard have been the foundation of my career as a Western composer. And my Fulbright year, studying Hindustani music in India opened my ears and mind to the world of Hindustani classical music. I wrote This Love Between Us through some of the darkest times in our country and in our world. But my mind always returns to the last line of this piece, the words of Rumi, which are repeated like a mantra over affirming phrases from each religion, as they wash over one another: “Concentrate on the Essence. Concentrate on the Light.”

In 2015, you had trouble getting a Visa to re-enter India. Would you like to share that story? Leaving India after my Fulbright year was one of my most difficult moments: for the first time, I became fully aware that I would spend the rest of my life trying to connect two countries that were literally on the opposite sides of the world. That chasm became even bigger a few years later. I had returned to Yale to do my doctoral coursework, and finally, three years later, I managed to clear enough time in my schedule to move back to India for six months. My bags were packed, I had an apartment in Mumbai, and many opportunities to work and study. But finally, one day in late 2015, after months of pleading with embassies, government officials and agencies, I finally lost the battle for the visa I needed to return to India because my grandfather had moved his family to Pakistan from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Most Americans can receive a 10-year multiple entry tourist visa in a week. Most Indian-Americans can obtain an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) card, so a visa is not even required for travel. I was born and raised in America, my father was born in India, and yet I am disqualified from receiving either of these entry documents into India. I was finally able to return for these performances on a 3-month, single entry Visitor Visa. I have to reapply each time I want to visit India, and each time the outcome is uncertain. The situation is far from ideal, but of course I am grateful for every moment I am able to spend in India. I am as much Indian as I am American, and my entire life and career centers around connecting these two cultures. It breaks my heart that this process has been and continues to be so difficult for me, because my main intention is to build bridges between these two cultures I love so much.
The bio on your website mentions that Susan Botti was one of your primary teachers! Why do you suppose there are there so few high profile women composers in music? Sexism is alive and well in music, as it is in most professions, especially at the top levels. Up until the last few generations, women couldn't even get the same education in composition that men could. The numbers are certainly growing, especially at conservatories, but at the top levels, it is still a huge problem. Perhaps it's history and tradition: the word 'composer' just evokes an image of a dead white European man. And in an artform that is so deeply rooted in tradition, sometimes it's difficult to change the aspects that need to be changed without making people uncomfortable. Studying with Susan Botti meant everything to me. Susan understood me on a very intuitive level - I don't know how much of it was that we were both women, and how much was just who she is as a person and musician. But I had never felt so deeply understood as a composer until I studied with her. I remember one lesson where I was trying to finish up a massive choir piece - the piece should have been done weeks before, but I was still tinkering with it. I expected her to berate me for not finishing, as my previous teachers had. But she simply said, "I know why you don't want to finish this piece. You have spent all this time creating this world, and you just want to live in it. I get it. But that world is always open to you, even after you finish the piece." Of course, she was right. The piece was about a close friend's father who had passed away ten years earlier, and I was still trying to make sense of his death. Susan saw that, and honored that - she was always so many steps ahead of me in my own mind. Also, I must say that Susan immediately understood my love for the music of my culture. Her conception of music is so broad (especially because she is also a singer whose voice regularly crosses cultural boundaries) We have spent some lovely times in her kitchen singing dancing to bollywood songs, and I have been teaching her daughter Hindustani vocal music.
Have you faced any gender based challenges as a composer? If you had asked me this even five years ago, I would have said no. I think discrimination these days is much harder to put a finger on. And we have to block so much of it out just to stay positive and directed in our career. But I certainly have been affected by it. For example, in my early 20s, I remember being invited to a swanky party after a concert in New York City. An influential person had invited both me and another composer (a white man) and neither of us knew anyone at the party. We both got into discussion with a famous established composer -- he was telling us about all the amazing residencies he had done, prizes he had won, commissions he had received. And he turned straight to the white man and said, "You'll do all of this one day." I was standing right there, and it was as if I didn't exist. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but in my 15+ years as a composer, these incidents are not uncommon. For better or for worse, I respond to these affronts as challenges. It's not a conscious choice, and I know it's not always a virtue. But it's just part of my personality to always feel the need to prove that I can do something that people think I can't do. Perhaps this is why I went into such an unlikely field, and why I'm always working at the edge of impossibility -- even though it can be terrifying, it's also deeply gratifying to feel like I'm pushing my own boundaries every single day. Do these problems extend beyond composition, and affect women performers as well? Yes, they certainly do. High numbers of women enter competitive performance fields, but the top echelons are still dominated by men. Change is slow, but it is happening. Orchestras have an audition process where musicians play behind a screen to help eliminate discrimination -- and the number of women in orchestras has been growing because of it. A far as I can tell, the greatest disparity is in orchestral conducting - I see so few women conductors on the podium - and yet the few women conductors I've worked with have been among my absolute favorites -- Mei-Ann Chen, Sun Min Lee, Lindsay Pope -- I truly treasure my working relationships with these incredible, powerful, soulful women.
Were these problems compounded by the fact that you’re a person of color? Certainly, statistics show that if there are already very few women composers, there are even fewer women of color. It's hard for me to separate the race issues from the gender ones because I don't know any different: I haven't ever been anything other than an Indian woman! It's important to note, though, that the misconceptions go both ways: if people look at me and have a hard time believing that I write for the same ensembles as Beethoven and Brahms, people also look at me and assume that I am an expert on Hindustani music, just because I look like the people who are. I also take this responsibility very seriously. Over the last years I have studied Hindustani music intensively and I have consulted with so many Hindustani musicians, because I always want to make sure that I am representing the music with the greatest authenticity and depth I can. If I am the first exposure a Western musician has to Hindustani music, I want to make sure I am representing the music from a place of deep understanding. This is also why it was so important to me that Indian audiences appreciated This Love Between Us, that they saw themselves in this music. If my work is not communicating to both Indian and Western audiences, then it's not doing its job.

Can you tell us a little about “I Rise: Women In Song”? Up until I wrote "I Rise: Women in Song", I didn't really understand what it meant to me to be a woman composer, or what it meant to express my gender identity through my music. I Rise was commissioned by Lehigh University's women's vocal ensemble, Dolce, and the performance featured almost 200 women, ages 18-90, singing along with orchestra. The texts were compiled by Sun Min Lee, Dolce's conductor, who envisioned the commission as a way to commemorate the 45th anniversary of women at Lehigh University. The texts are all from women authors: Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and contemporary local poet Arlene Geller. My weeklong residency at Lehigh was transformative. I spent time with so many incredible young women, many of whom will go on to successful careers in male-dominated fields like engineering and computer science. I saw how deeply they valued their female colleagues, how the relationships built through this choir would sustain them through the more difficult moments in their individual battles for equality in their chosen fields. I watched as they began to own the phrases they sang by these incredible women authors: "I'm a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me." Ask any woman to stand up in front of hundreds of people say that about herself: it is gut-wrenching -- and yet I watched as each woman sang that phrase and many others like it, over and over, each time with a little more ownership of the words. I should also say that the premier performances of I Rise took place on November 4th and 5th, 2016 -- the weekend before the US Presidential Election. When I finally received the recordings of these performances, months later, I listened to them and cried the whole way through. There was so much hope in many of those voices, when so many thought we were on the edge of a new era for women. But the text means something different now. The biting, searing couplet by Maya Angelou that begins the final movement: "You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies / You may tread me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I'll rise" -- it means something different now, but the message is as current and relevant as ever.

What’s next for you? Is there a message that you would like to share with aspiring artists? There are so many exciting new works on the burner: I'm just finishing up a Clarinet Concerto for Shankar Tucker, the amazing Hindustani/Western crossover clarinetist, and Albany Symphony. I have a few new works for orchestra coming up in the next seasons, including one with the Chicago Sinfonietta, and as well as some chamber music: a piano trio and a flute sonata. I spend a substantial amount of time traveling both in the US and internationally -- and it is my fervent hope to make it back to India as soon as possible. Saili Oak and I have been teaching Western composers to work with Hindustani musicians, and we also want to do the opposite: to teach young Hindustani musicians how to work with Western musicians. We are approaching Indian/Western musical collaboration from every angle we can imagine! There is so much I want to say to aspiring young artists, but I will say this: Your presence in this world changes it. If you feel that a situation, a culture, a way of doing things should be different, your simple presence in that situation will begin to move the dial. Find your allies -- find the people who help you be the best version of yourself, who allow you to make mistakes and try ideas and be totally wrong without judgement, and then use the strength you gain from those relationships to go out into the world and be who you are, proudly and unabashedly. Also: Be prepared for success. So much of conditioning in the arts is teaching students how to prepare for rejection. If you become a professional musician, you will eventually figure out how to deal with rejection, because it's just a part of the job. But be prepared to succeed, because it often happens swiftly -- after many years of work in a silent oblivion, one performance, one review, one commission can change everything -- and if you have all your materials in order, if you've put in the hard work of being prepared for all the good things coming your way, you won't be wiped out in the deluge.

To engage with Reena's work head over to:

Reena's Website: http://www.reenaesmail.com
Her work can be purchased here: http://www.reenaesmail.com/shop/
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