ListN Up: Reena Esmail (October 14, 2022)

ListN Up is a series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Composer Reena Esmail works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music to bring communities together through the creation of equitable musical spaces. A resident of Los Angeles, Esmail is the 20-23 Swan Family Artist in Residence with Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the 20-21 composer in residence of the Seattle Symphony. She currently serves as co-chair of the Board of New Music USA, and co-founder and artistic director of Shastra, a non-profit organization that promotes cross-cultural music connecting musical traditions of India and the West. She holds degrees from The Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music.

Hi, everyone, I’m Reena Esmail. I’m a composer who works in between the genres of Hindustani classical music and Western classical music. I think I’m always really aware of the fact that there’s this chasm between the music that I think I “should” be listening to, and the music that I actually do listen to. And admittedly, when I started to put together this playlist and went through some of the past playlists by these legendary artists who have recommended these amazing things, I started to get a little bit self-conscious, and my mind started to put together a playlist of music that would make me sound cool and smart, and would make you trust my musical judgment. And then I basically threw that entire playlist out and started over. So this playlist is the exact opposite of that; this is music that I truly, actually do listen to, and the only things connecting the pieces on this list are the fact that each has been in my consciousness for 10 years or more sometimes way longer than that  and that I’ve listened to each of these pieces hundreds of times, often on repeat, just over and over again. Each of them resonates with me in a really special way, and I hope some of them resonate with you too. Hope you enjoy.

“Maati Kahe Kunbhar Ko” by Lakshmi Shankar

I had the immense privilege of studying with Lakshmi Shankar in the last few years of her life. After she died, I would listen to this bhajan on repeat — you can hear her kindness, charm and warmth in her voice as she sings, accompanied by the beautiful sounds of the sarangi.

“Daaro Wari” by Ashwini Bhide Deshpande

I love this arrangement of Daaro Wari, sung by the legendary Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. There is something about the texture of the Hindustani voice, first solo and then in chorus that just mesmerizes me.

“Crossword Puzzle” (from Starting Here, Starting Now) by Maltby & Shire, performed by Jennie McGuinness

I have long loved musical theater, and this is one of the most brilliant songs I’ve ever heard. Listen to how the crossword clues are woven in with the character’s own story, and how the music supports these wild transitions in perspective — it is pure genius.

“I’ll Be On My Way” by Shawn Kirchner

This entire album is such a soulful journey — a series of soliloquies based on the structure of the characters in Brokeback Mountain — abstracted to imagine all that was left unsaid.

“O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen, performed by Simon Halsey and the WDR Radio Choir

I grew up thinking this was just a particularly beautiful Christmas carol — it took me years to realize a composer living in my hometown wrote this piece when I was 11 years old. Whenever I really need to breathe, I still turn this on, find a downward dog, and sing whichever voice part I’m hearing the most at that moment.

“A Child is Born” by Thad Jones, performed by Hank Jones

This track is a piano solo that starts intimately, and builds and builds… and then, when you think it can’t build any more, when you can’t imagine where it would possibly go… the trumpet comes in. It reminds me, especially in times of overwhelm, that we can’t always anticipate the support and sustenance that awaits us right around the next corner.

“Piano Trio in D Minor” by Felix Mendelssohn, performed by Stern, Rose, Istomin

This is my desert(ed) island piece of classical music. The piano trio has always been my favorite classical chamber ensemble: The perfect combination of textures of these three instruments is so deeply satisfying.

“Dry Spell” by The Singer and the Songwriter

I have loved ‘Dry Spell’ since the moment I heard it. Fun fact: though I had nothing to do with writing this song, the piano solo you hear at the end of the track is a tiny cameo by me, messing around on my janky childhood piano.

 “I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers

A student of mine turned me onto this song, and I can’t stop listening. I love the slow build from intimacy into chaos, and I can so identify with the dissociated images of being on tour and not quite knowing how to process all the incoming information as you move through different cities. I always listen to it when I’m in transit — on long drives between cities, or on a plane as it takes off.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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