An Exchange with Reena Esmail

I had not heard of Reena Esmail before, not being a regular follower of the work of contemporary composers of music other than for the guitar, in the Western tradition. When I was approached to consider a Q&A with Ms Esmail, I proceeded to hear some of her music on YouTube.

It was quickly apparent to me that Reena Esmail is a highly original composer, with a free sense of eclecticism that spans global music in the best profound manner. There is nothing superficial about her approach, and her music can be listened to in many ways – from acknowledging her command of varied vocabularies to appreciating it at a visceral and emotional level.

I have phrased these questions based on my own reactions after hearing Ms Esmail’s music, and her reactions have been very detailed, thought-provoking and engrossing. I look forward for more to emerge from her fascinating oeuvre in time to come.

Jayant Sankrityayana: Darshan – Charukeshi: the note choices are based on the Charukeshi raga, which here could approximately be a mode of the melodic minor in C, right? How do you conceptualise ideas in such non-diatonic cases, in which you are composing within a Western setting, but incorporating principles of (in this case) Hindustani music? Is it through motif creation, or an improvisational approach to generate ideas, or something else? Your process would be of interest.

Reena Esmail: I love playing with ways that Hindustani and Western listeners hear things differently. In the case of Charukeshi, it is a particularly incredible scale when heard through Western-classically-trained ears — because, based on where you are in the scale, it actually can evoke four different Western scales. S-R-G-M-P evokes major, P-d-n-S evokes natural minor, d-n-S-R-G evokes the whole tone scale, and R-G-M-P-d-n evokes an octatonic scale. I think we make such different associations with different modalities based on how they are used in our respective cultures. In this case, I think Western musicians essentially hear Charukeshi as a play between dark and light colors — where there is polarity between these colors in Western classical music, they are often seamlessly intertwined in many raags.

My composition process touches both traditions. I have almost three decades of training in the Western classical tradition, and one decade in the Hindustani khayal tradition. So when I sit down to write, both of those methodolgies combine: I will often do vocal improv in raags I know, and record the parts I like, and then transcribe it into Western notation for Western musicians to play. At other times I will go the other way — I will find harmonic and cadencial patterns that work in specific raags, and that allow me to navigate each raag in a way that still preserves the essence of that raag. And other times I will improvise freely without raag, simply using a combination of my Hindustani and Western lenses to find a unique way through the music.

JS: How do you approach contrapuntal and arpeggiated phrases in the same composition, while integrating them with scalar passages that are more traditionally Indian? This has been done seamlessly and effectively in the writing.

RE: I think this piece might be very similar to the way many Indian classical dance forms tell stories: there is only one human on the stage, but at various times, this person might be portraying a variety of characters — people, animals, landscapes. The goal is to make every idea so distinct that it stays in the observer’s memory even after the moment of portrayal passes — so that when it returns, the thread can be easily picked up.

In temporal artforms like music, we are faced with the paradoxical task of trying to create form out of something as ephemeral as sound. Could you imagine appreciating a massive oil painting if you were only allowed to view one square inch at a time? That is sometimes what I feel we are doing as composers. Musicians can only play a few notes a time, and yet somehow we can build these individual sounds into memorable edifices. It still amazes me that we have that conceptual ability as humans.

I have such respect for Hindustani musicians, because they must create these temporal edifices in real time. I have months to think about how I want to structure something, and they are creating that structure right in front of the audience. And yet, having that time allows me to do different things, and make different connections. Both traditions have so much to offer in this respect.

JS: Your Piano Trio is more traditionally Western, and employs largely diatonic phrases with some really interesting key modulations, though there is also a hint of more “oriental” pentatonic treatment from time to time, and a clear touch of what appears to be Raga Desh as well (that, too, modulating over key centres). Do you deliberately choose to compose in a specific “sphere of culture” when you start writing a piece of music? Or is it a more fluid process?

RE: It is a more fluid process. I think I can only control my inputs — I can’t really control how my mind puts things together. In the case of the piano trio, there are moments in each movement that are squarely within a raag (mmt 1 has a middle chorale in raag Megh, with a touch of Malhaar, movement 2 is a combination of Desh and Bhimpalas, and then another combination of Bhup and Vachaspati mmt 3 is mostly in Bhairavi and mmt 4 has moments of Charukeshi). Sometimes these are set up in an overtly Hindustani way, with an entry point through melody. But other times, I am looking at the raags in a more Western way. For example, in some of the most ethereal sections of movement 2, there is a ‘cloud’ of string harmonic arpeggiando which combine to form the notes of Bhup (S-R-G-P-D), and then slowly the M’ and n get filled in so that Bhup slowly morphs into the notes of Vachaspati. In this case the melody is less important than the harmonic relationship between these two raags.

JS: What is on your listening list? I would assume Indian music, yes, and Western classical music. What else do you listen to and how much of it might be percolating into your own writing process?

RE: Sometimes I listen wide, and other times I listen deep. When I’m searching for new ideas, I will listen to music of many different genres (as well as read books from many different genres, which I also find inspiring). But then sometimes I find something I love and go deep. I love listening to one piece over and over again, especially when it helps me unlock something in my own creative process. At various times in the last few months I’ve been obsessed with Thomas Ades’s incredible ballet Inferno, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, an old Linda Eder recording of Man of La Mancha, and Horace Silver’s Cape Verdean Blues. There’s something in each of these pieces that keeps me guessing, and totally entranced. I never know what will grab me and pull me in, but I always try to stay open to the possibility that the pull could come from any direction.

JS: What I have heard of your music so far stays firmly within a “tonal” Western tradition even while being globally eclectic. What are your thoughts on atonal music? Do you think it is possible to “abstract” the scalar landscape of Indian music into compositional constructs that also include atonal elements?

RE: While you’re right that I haven’t focused on that myself, I can imagine that it would definitely be possible. Imagine abstracting Hindustani ornamentation into an atonal space. A gamak that moves chromatically instead of diatonically, a meend that just never has a clear starting or ending point. Even electronic sounds that mimic the unique textures of the tanpura, the sarangi, the santoor — just focusing in on the abstract texture of the sound. Those things are definitely possible, and I would be so interested to hear them.

As composers, we are always trying to find what delights us and build on that. If there is a composer who is delighted by the elements of Indian classical music that are not bound strictly to sur (and there are many), it is imperative that they explore those elements — and we can follow them down their path of curiosity.

For me, specifically, I found Hindustani music to be my own pathway back into sur. At the time I was starting as a composer, Western compositional practices were not as accepting of tonal music as they are now — the music I wrote during my time at Juilliard betrays my own fight with my teachers to remain tonal and melodic. While I couldn’t find that resonance with my own musical voice in Western composition education at the time, I found both that tonal grounding, as well as a fresh and vibrant way to address that tonality through the Hindustani practice of raag.

JS: There exists a perception that Hindustani classical music and jazz should be able to fuse effectively in performance, considering that both feature improvisation as an integral part of their traditions – albeit with very different mindsets and conceptions. East-West improvisational fusion has been attempted countless times, though with varying results. Do you feel there is any space to include extensive improvisational elements in your music?

RE: It’s absolutely true that Hindustani music and jazz do have a much easier overlap, as musicians have many complementary building blocks. However, even though this is not the case between Hindustani and Western classical music, I do think that with enough knowledge of both traditions, the overlap can be not only possible, but beautiful and fresh.

I have written large swaths of improvisation for Hindustani musicians into my music on many occasions. I’ve had the most success when I know my musicians (both Hindustani and Western) really well — both personally and musically. When I have the sound of a Hindustani musician, and their particular style, in my ear as I write, I can imagine at least one possible way they might move through a section of improv, and that helps me build an environment that allows them the combination of support and freedom they need to navigate through. I have found so many ways to do this, and I always tailor it to the musicians premiering the piece. Once a recording exists, it’s much easier for people to understand how the music goes — it’s getting that first audio blueprint of the work that requires so much trust and experimentation.

This process takes time and engagement on both sides. There are no easy answers. And yet, I’ve found that the most creative people (in any field, not just in the arts) are bored by easy answers. They are looking for new experiences, new ways to relate to one another, and new voices within themselves. My highest hope for my music is that I can facilitate that experience for the people around me.