Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Composer Reena Esmail

“I would say with anything, anywhere in the arts, I think it's important to find a tribe of people who truly knows enough about, or shares enough of your values to be able to really challenge you to that next level.”— Reena Esmail

Composer Reena Esmail is not willing to settle for the status quo. If she were, as a woman of color, she wouldn't be forging success after success—including a Fulbright Fellowship, two young composer awards, and commissions from nationally and internationally renowned symphony orchestras—in a field that is both very white and very male. Esmail, however, as noted in a previous interview, believes, “I’m part of a revolution to make classical music as relevant as possible.” Her music isn't status quo either. Drawing on her South Asian roots, Esmail—who has worked with the Kronos Quartet, Albany Symphony, and Chicago Sinfonietta, among others—creates choral and symphonic pieces that fuse elements of both classical Indian and classical Western music into something compelling, exhilirating, memorable, and altogether original. She's determined to add new work to the classical canon so that younger musicians can find themselves and their family traditions reflected in the music they play in a way she wasn't able to as a student musician. She's also determined to use her music to create spaces in which people who might not otherwise meet each other can find a starting point for conversation. In addition to composing, Esmail is also the co-artistic director of Shastra, a group dedicated to promoting cross-cultural music connecting Indian and Western musical traditions through festivals, symposia, workshops, and mentoring. She has been on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music Precollege and Yale College, and also works with LA's Street Symphony, which empowers homeless people through participation in music making. We spoke with the dynamo composer about the challenges of being a composer who is a woman of color, how she keeps hold of her vision despite challenges, and how stage fright played a part in her career choices.

NEA: What was your journey to becoming a composer.

REENA ESMAIL: I was not a kid who was a musical genius. I was just a very ordinary kid who loved music a lot, and was really excited by it. I'm a first-generation American; my family is from the Indian diaspora. People always ask me, "Why didn't you go into Indian music?" In the same way that Western music comes out of the Christian tradition, Indian music comes out of the Hindu tradition, and neither of my parents are Hindu. My mom is actually Catholic. She grew up studying Western music, and so when I started expressing interest [in music], she would put me in guitar, violin, piano, all those kinds of lessons. When I was a child, I really wanted to be a concert pianist, but I actually have terrible stage fright. I just knew that I couldn't sustain a career as a performer…. I went to an arts high school—Los Angeles County High School for the Arts—and my teachers there identified that I had the talent to be a professional composer. So that started a long journey that just has never stopped.

My stereotype as an Asian American is that I'm someone who is smart and good at math and stuff like that, but there's no stereotype of Indians being good at music. Music actually was the one thing that was harder for me than almost any academic subject. I'm someone who, personality wise, I'm very addicted to challenge. That was the reason why, when I was young, I decided to go into music. But then the decision to become a composer, I very much felt back-ended into it, in the sense that I applied to all these conservatories for piano, and then just at the last minute my teachers in high school said, "Why don't you just put in an application for composition everywhere that you're going to go?" I thought, "Yeah, yeah, sure. Why not? I'm already going to audition there. I'll just throw in some applications for composition." The short of it was that Juilliard offered me one of their spots as a composer, and I had barely written any music at the time. So I thought, " I think maybe composition is choosing me."

NEA: If you had to write a mission statement for your work as a composer, what would you say?

ESMAIL: The mission statement of my work in general is that I use my platform as a composer to bring people together to begin to have conversations. I bring people together who are very unlikely to interact with one another outside of a piece of music that I would create, but that music allows them to really form a bond with each other where then deeper conversations can be had and relationships can be built. As a composer I see my work in one way as writing notes on a page and trying to get harmonies and melodies to work out with each other. But in a much broader sense, I see my work as bringing people together, and that comes very much from my own background in the sense that I'm always both the insider and the outsider. I do a lot of work between Indian and Western classical music so I'm dual-trained. I know a lot about both types of music, but then whenever I'm among the musicians of one type of music, I'm always the representative of the other. That also works [when I work] with Street Symphony and we go into jails, homeless shelters, or we work on Skid Row in Los Angeles. The thing about being an artist is you can transcend those demographic boundaries. One day I could be in a jail and the next day I could be giving a concert at a home in Beverly Hills. That actually happened. I think because we have this art that allows us to relate to people right where they are, we're actually able to see society in a very full way.

NEA: Where does a piece of music start for you? Is it an idea? Is it a melody that gets stuck in your head? How do you enter in?

ESMAIL: A piece of music for me always starts with a relationship. …. I want to always feel that the music that I'm writing is holding up a mirror to the musicians who are playing it and allowing them to show themselves in their best possible light. I think the piece always begins by thinking about: Who is going to play the piece? What are they about? Who's in the audience, even? Who's listening? When I'm putting performers on stage, a lot of times I'm asking performers who do not share the same musical language to interact with each other. So I start with practical questions. If there's a person that needs to come in at a certain time, how do they know when to come in? Who's leading? Who has the stage? Who are we opening the space for? Who needs to do what at what time in order to have their authentic voice be represented in my piece? I think a lot about how the musical conversation works, and then from there I think about melodies, harmonies, ways to write certain notes on the paper. I'm just about to have a piece premiere for the Albany Symphony, and there are two singers who are soloists. One is a Western soprano, and one is an Indian classical singer. It’s a duet between these two singers who are from completely different cultures and don't speak each other's musical language at all. So how do you engineer a space where they're able to actually represent themselves and sing in this very specific musical setting with one another, and feel completely comfortable that they are able to express what they need to express? That's the place where I start for my music.

NEA: There’s a video on your website in which you say, "I'm part of a revolution to make classical music as relevant as possible." I’d like to dig a little deeper into that quote.

ESMAIL: Because I am an Indian American, I come with a very different community than most people do into Western classical music, and I take that very seriously. I really had to think clearly about who my audience was because as a Western classical composer, your audience is not in your control. [Someone] commissions you and you have to write a piece and you're not on the front end figuring out who the audience is; it's just whoever happens to be there. I really thought about that [process] carefully and thought that I don't want to just have my work stop at the double bar line. I want to be a person who is actually deciding [on] the audience and the community I want to surround my work and actively going out there and trying to activate that community. I work with many orchestras around the country and what we're starting to do is to have events that are before my main concert where we actually do events in the Indian community. I have work that is everything from string quartet arrangements of Bollywood music to my own string quartet, which is very inspired by Indian classical music. We have kind of everything along the spectrum. We try to see: Where's the community right now? Who are the people in the community who are interested in taking a step into the Western classical world, and how can we really get in there and be with people where they are?

NEA: It is rare to find women composers, and rarer still to find women of color who are composers. Can you talk about the challenges and the opportunities of that situation?

ESMAIL: Most of the composers that we see in concerts are dead, but even the ones who are alive are usually white men. And there have now been scientific studies done to show that in fields where the people at the top are thought of as geniuses, there will be a much larger proportion of white men in the top echelons. The idea that someone who looks like me could be writing music in the same kind of tradition that Beethoven and Mozart wrote, it's just a cognitive dissonance to a lot of people, still. And there aren't that many of us who do it, so in a way it's hard for them to see [an alternative]. We face discrimination from the moment we start. When you don't always feel that that creative spirit is being recognized in the world it is really hard. For me, it has been an uphill battle in a lot of ways, but I'm really grateful because I think we're finally reaching a place in the world where it's this tipping point where women are actually starting to help other women. We're starting to see much more diversity come into things, and for orchestras and choirs and big ensembles to actually really care about that. I didn't think that even in my lifetime we would be where we are right now as far as just acknowledging that need for diversity. [The field is] very big on: What do our organizations look like? Are there enough people of color? Are there enough women? But I think we also really need to think about how we're treating the people who are there already. It's not enough for an organization to say, "Oh, we have X percentage of our organization as minorities," but [they have to ask],”Are we really treating those people right? Are we really hearing their voice?” I don't have a big studio. I don't teach a lot of people, but of all the people I teach, only one of them is a man, and that man was formerly homeless on Skid Row. So I don't have a very normative composition studio as far as my students go, but yet these young women—and many of them are women of color—who come and study with me, I think very carefully about the world that I want to place them in, because I see how a lot of times their voices don't get valued. I see how hard I have to fight for every single one of them to be able to do what they do. I think we should be working on both sides, not only to get things that look right on the front end, but [to ensure that] the people who are engaging really feel that their voices are being heard and valued.

NEA: I also want to talk about your work with Street Symphony where you're the composer in residence. What role do you see the arts playing in that type of social justice work, and why is it important for artists to show up in that space?

ESMAIL: For people on Skid Row, music is often a lifeline. There is this choir that we partner with, called Urban Voices Project. These are people who are either currently or recently homeless, and they're fighting for their lives, some of them, and sometimes fighting with addiction, sometimes fighting with mental health issues. There are many reasons why someone would land on Skid Row. Yet so many of these people will find time every week to come and sing and to be in a space where their creative voice is valued. As musicians, we go onstage, we perform, there's an audience there, and that audience will clap when we're done. There are not many other fields outside of the arts where people will clap for you every day, you know? Most of the time, when people are in this choir, it's one of the first times when someone has ever clapped for them sharing their voice. I think just that very act of being encouraged to share your voice can bleed into everything else you do, because sharing your creative voice means sharing your voice in general, and having some agency to advocate for what you want using that same voice. The transformation we've seen in people who have gone through our Street Symphony fellows program, who have prepared arias from The Messiah and sang them along with musicians from the L.A. Phil and L.A. Master Chorale, just having that experience and having their voice truly valued has given them agency beyond what we could have ever expected.

NEA: As I've been listening to you talk, I've been thinking about how you have such a clear vision, and everything you do comes from that vision. How do you cultivate and protect that vision, especially at those moments when you’re facing opposition?

ESMAIL: I will say that the reason why my vision is as clear and articulate as it is, is because it's had to stand up to as much scrutiny as it has. I only know the answers to these questions because people have asked me exactly what you're saying, right? They're asking me why does this matter, and then I have to go back and think about why it matters. A lot of the things I'm saying are from years and years of trying to understand why something matters. I think as a musician, it's a really great idea, or it's a really great skill to have, to be able to articulate why what you do matters. I am the only musician anywhere in my family, and most people have regular, practical careers. It wasn't a given in any part of my life why being an artist was important. So I think I've been trying to articulate that my whole life, and I will say my parents have been super, super supportive, and I would not be able to do what I do without their support. But certainly, even in my own Indian community, people were like, "Oh, you're smart. Why would you go into music?" There are so many different barriers you have to break down on so many sides.

The other thing I would say is that it's so important to find your tribe. For most of my life and for most of my education, I was always the odd one out. I always felt very isolated and very alone. Once I finally got out of school and could live wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted, I chose very carefully the people who are my friends and colleagues, and they're people who share my vision and are able to challenge me in a way where they already understand these kind of basic things about why these things are important, and they're also fighting these same battles. So we're able to compare notes and we're able to share these experiences with one another, and that's what makes us all able to articulate our vision better together. I would say with anything, anywhere in the arts, I think it's important to find a tribe of people who truly knows enough about- or shares enough of your values to be able to really challenge you to that next level. Especially also as people of color and as women, if we're isolated, it opens us up to this vulnerability that can sometimes really crush us. The minute we start to compare notes and the minute we see what's going on and the minute you see that thing happening to someone else, maybe you're not willing to stand up for yourself, but you're willing to stand up for your colleague or for your friend and that ultimately makes the whole case stronger.


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