5 Questions to Reena Esmail (composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist)

Los Angeles-based composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Reena Esmail is known for large-scale socio-political works in which she combines Indian and Western musical traditions. She is co-artistic director of Shastra, a group dedicated to promoting and advocating for cross-cultural music connections, and as a Fulbright scholar in 2011-12, she studied Hindustani classical music in India. With a focus on issues of accessibility and inclusivity, Esmail is composer-in-residence with Street Symphony, an organization that works with communities “disenfranchised by homelessness and incarceration” in Los Angeles.

On Sunday, November 18, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform the West Coast premiere of Esmail’s This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity at Walt Disney Concert Hall. We asked her five questions about the premiere, social and political implications of new music, and her mentorship work in the community.

For its West Coast premiere, This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity has been programmed alongside Bach’s Magnificat. What are the parallels between Bach’s setting of a Biblical canticle and your contemporary call for unity with its fusion of religious texts and cross-cultural musical influences?

This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity certainly has some common ideological threads with the Bach Magnificat—especially about the equalization of the classes, and challenging social hierarchy. I wrote this piece during the 2016 election, and during a very dark time in my own life—it essentially juxtaposes canonical/representative texts in seven major Indian religious traditions (Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam), and especially those portions of the teachings that speak about being good to one another, and treating each other with kindness and respect. The ‘thesis’ of this piece, if there is one, is simply this: if you are using your religion as a justification to treat others badly, regardless of what religion you follow, that is not mandated by your religious practice. That’s on you.

Reena Esmail with This Love Between Us soloists Robin Sukhadia (tabla) and Rajib Karmakar (sitar)

Reena Esmail with This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity soloists Robin Sukhadia (tabla) and Rajib Karmakar (sitar)–Photo courtesy of Robin Sukhadia

This Love Between Us is an extraordinary work on an enormous scale. If a presenter were to provide all the money and resources you could ever want, what would your dream project look and sound like?

I have always dreamed of writing a concerto for orchestra that includes Indian soloists in each movement. It’s an enormous project that would require so much logistical coordination, but I feel as if I have spent my entire career preparing to write such a work.

I’ve also been dreaming for a long time of writing an opera that centers around the life of Indian saint-poet Mirabai, but told through the lens of modern day Skid Row—which is where I am convinced Mirabai would have frequented if she were living in Los Angeles today. I’ve spent almost the past decade searching the world for the perfect individuals for this unique project—and I know it will come together when the moment is right.  

How can new music act as a conduit to express or engender in audiences concerns about social and political injustices?

I would ask an even more basic question: who are our audiences? In my case, my audiences are often other musicians and classical music lovers, but they are just as often people experiencing homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles. For me, these political causes are not faceless. I have dear friends who are battling addiction and homelessness, who are immigrants in danger of being deported, whose children have been shot and killed.

My job as a composer is to create environments where people who are experiencing these circumstances firsthand can be heard, where their personal experience can inform others directly, and where the warmth of a personal relationship can be built. Some of the most beneficial and sustainable change in our society is created by the building of these individual relationships across social divides. 

For me, the most fulfilling experience is writing music directly for and with the people who experience these issues every day. They perform my work, and they are in the audience. I am just the facilitator: their voices can and should always speak louder than mine. Because when all the stakeholders are at the table, when they are engaged in artistic creation with one another, that is a place where the dialogue can begin.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail–Photo by Rachel Garcia

You mentor young and early-career composers and have recently begun working with the wonderful Luna Composition Lab. You also work with people from Skid Row as part of LA’s Street Symphony. How does your teaching and mentoring filter through to your creative work? Who are your mentors?

I’ve been so fortunate to have some incredible mentors who saw in me what I never would have been able to see in myself, who supported me at the most nascent stages of my process, and continue to be incredible sources of support today. Some of my closest mentors have been Aaron Jay Kernis, Susan Botti, and Chris Theofanidis. In many ways they feel like my ‘composer parents.’ They have always held up mirrors to me that allow me to see myself and my work in the most bare and telling ways, and yet they have always had so much patience and compassion for me as I take the time I need to figure myself out. I’m still figuring it out, and they are still so deeply supportive.

I maintain a very small studio right now, because I want to truly give the same attention to my students that my mentors gave to me over the years. I’m honored that these incredible composers have chosen to trust me with their creative souls, and I want to help them find their own individual voices, to hold up mirrors to them, as my teachers did with me. Unsurprisingly, many of my students are ‘minorities’ in some way—I teach many women, people of color, and members of the Skid Row community who have experienced homelessness. So I try to ask them questions that help them identify their own musical values. For one person, this could be the desire for his music to not sound like symphonic metal (I had to learn what that was…!) For another person, this could be illuminating aleatoric concepts for elementary schoolers. For another, it’s about writing music that speaks directly to her teenage peers—a generation of very young people trying to find their place in the world for the first time. Each of my students comes with a unique history and community, and helping them learn how to value all of who they are in their composition process is so important to me.

Reena Esmail with Luna Lab mentees Violet Barnum and Carolina Bragg

Reena Esmail with Luna Composition Lab mentees Violet Barnum and Carolina Bragg–Photo courtesy Reena Esmail

The United States is very fractured right now, and looking more inwardly, we’re going through some painful reckonings in the new music world including long overdue acknowledgements of pervasive sexual harassment, poor mental health, and seemingly immovable barriers to entry. Where do you see things improving, and where do you look for signs of hope in our area of music?

I am so inspired by the youngest generation of musicians. They simply refuse to engage in so many agreements that people in our field haven’t questioned for generations. They stand up to things that I didn’t even know I could say no to—when I was their age, and even now. I often speak at colleges and conservatories, and my aim is simply to show students the immense power they already have within them. If enough students refuse to engage in a discriminatory or unhealthy practice, then that practice cannot continue to exist. The more that students are able to speak to each other vulnerably and candidly, the more they are able to share their deepest fears and insecurities with one another, the faster the artifices will fall away, and leave room for them to build healthier environments.

At the root of so many of these issues is the mentality of scarcity. The idea that there are only ‘X’ amount of ‘spots’ at the top, and everyone is vying for them—this notion is so completely untrue. There is no law of nature that mandates that only a certain percent of composers should be able to survive and thrive. Frankly, I don’t even know what the ‘top’ is anymore. Young composers are finding new, more direct ways to get their music into the ears and hearts of their chosen audience. They are deciding who those audiences are, and they are creating music that truly speaks to them. They aren’t waiting for approval. And they are often much more able to disengage from the archaic hierarchy and power imbalances responsible for some of the worst atrocities in our field.

For me, the hardest thing was feeling like I had to create change alone. I still often find myself in situations where I am the only woman, only person of color, etc. present. And I feel a self-imposed pressure to be absolutely perfect every single time—because if I make even one misstep, if I say or do the wrong thing, I could ruin it for everyone after me. This was incredibly tiring, and admittedly probably the worst way to lead a creative life. But in these past years, I’ve been feeling so much authentic support across generations that has truly held me up and allowed me to exhale—composers that are a little older than me have offered me so much thoughtful advice and perspective, and composers that are younger than me have been showing me that they can handle even more heat than I can, and that I simply need to hand them the mic and allow their voices to ring out.