Friday, March 25, 2016

Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind Composer Spotlight - Reena Esmail

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail has strong roots in both Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical music idioms. She holds a bachelor’s degree in composition from The Juilliard School, a master’s degree from the Yale School of Music, and her doctoral thesis explores the methods and challenges of the collaborative process between Hindustani musicians and Western composers. Avartan, her new commission for ACO, takes its name the "avartan" rhythmic cycle featured in Hindustani music, which it explores in the context of cultural perception. The piece receives its world premiere at Eastern Wind, April 1 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, and features a video by Neeraj Jain.

Reena was kind enough to talk with SoundAdvice about her musical background and compositional process for Avartan.

Composer Reena Esmail surrounded by her Western and Indian instruments

American Composers Orchestra: Tell us how you approached integrating the music of your heritage into a contemporary orchestra setting.
Reena Esmail: I have been a Western musician for my entire life, but for the last six years, I have also delved deeply into the Hindustani (North Indian) Classical tradition. Hindustani and Western classical music can appear to be polar opposites in so many fundamental ways: one is improvised and the other is written, one is primarily a solo art while the other can support massive ensembles. But I've found that, because of these differences, the two traditions don't step on each other's toes. For example, it is possible to explore intricate Indian melodies in the context of a large western ensemble. Most of the music I write is about finding points of connection between these two traditions, and about allowing one tradition to exist in the context of the other.

ACO: You are one of the artistic directors at Shastra, an organization which cultivates the work of musicians who work between Indian and Western musical traditions. Is strengthening the relationship between Indian and Western music something you are also trying to accomplish with Avartan?
RE: Absolutely. There are so many incredible musicians who work between Indian and Western traditions in innovative and unique ways - because the traditions are so different, both in methodology and resultant sound, there are so many pathways to approach connection and collaboration between these musical worlds. Payton MacDonald (percussionist/Dhrupad singer) and I co-founded Shastra because we wanted to showcase the diversity of Indian/Western crossover that exists today.

Strengthening the relationship between Indian and Western music, and through it, Indian and Western culture, is one of the most important aspects of my career. For me, it is deeply personal - I am from two cultures that are literally on opposite sides of the world. Wherever I am, there is always a part of me that longs for the other place. If it is physically impossible for me to be in both places at once, I'm able to create that world through my music.

Watch Reena's TEDx presentation about differences in how Western and Indian cultures share our musical experiences:

ACO: What can ACO's musicians of primarily Western classical background learn from Avartan? Are there any aspects of the piece, such as the 'avartan' rhythmic cycle, that are difficult to approach from a Western perspective?
RE: The term "avartan" is used metaphorically here. An avartan is simply a rhythmic cycle - just as a measure of 4/4 would be in Western music. But the concept of cycles is so ingrained into so many elements of Indian music and culture (even up to the cyclical concept of reincarnation in Hinduism). In this case, I titled the piece Avartan because I saw it as one, single cycle. It makes a slow transition from music that feels characteristically Indian to music that feels characteristically Western, but yet it still slips right back into the beginning music at the very end, illustrating how connected even the most disparate musical worlds can be.

ACO: Avartan features an accompanying film by Neeraj Jain and explores first impressions. Have any of your personal experiences influenced the nature of these first impressions in Avartan?
RE: When I first returned from a year in India in 2012, I noticed this odd thing that would happen. For months, everything I owned was in storage, so I only had my Indian clothes. I love wearing Indian clothes - in India, they made me feel instantly beautiful and elegant. And yet I noticed that as I moved through my American life, the same clothes signaled to people that I was a foreigner. I noticed that people I met for the first time would speak a little more slowly and choose their words more carefully. They were a little more hesitant to interact with me, perhaps for fear of offending me in some way. And I found that people's perceptions of me actually shaped the way I behaved, from the physical gestures to my very thoughts about myself and my relationship to the world around me. In a way, I almost became the foreigner they thought I was.

I've spent years thinking about these interactions, I wanted to try to describe the experience through my music. When the piece begins, it seems to be completely Indian, perhaps even going so far as to feel like a transcription of a classical Indian melody. The accompanying film also shows a montage of Indian people, dressed traditionally. And as the music and the film continue, they veer further and further towards Western music and Western fashion. The beginning and ending shots of the film are the same woman - the first time you see her, she looks very traditionally Indian, and at the end, she looks completely American. The piece is definitely meant to reflect my experience and my fluid sense of identity as I navigate between these cultures.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Avartan at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra?
RE: It's my first performance ever at Carnegie Hall! I'm so excited to have Avartan premiered by ACO in this venue that I've dreamed about since I was a kid.

Hear the world premiere of Reena's Avartan at Orchestra Underground: Eastern Wind - April 1, 2016 at 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall's Zankel. More details and tickets here.

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