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Diplomacy Through Music

Reena Esmail, an Indian American music composer and a Fulbright-Nehru scholar, reflects on her career and cross-cultural experiences.

Indian American composer Reena Esmail has been lauded for her ability to uniquely interweave Western and Hindustani classical music. After graduating from The Juilliard School in New York and the Yale School of Music in Connecticut, Esmail was named a Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship recipient for 2011-12. She spent the year in New Delhi, where she was affiliated with the Faculty of Music & Fine Arts of the University of Delhi and studied Hindustani vocal music with Gaurav Mazumdar, a renowned musician and sitar player. She plans to visit Mumbai in February 2018 to conduct workshops on "Working With Western Music—A Collaborative Approach."

Excerpts from an interview.

When did music first enter your life? When did you know it was something you wanted to pursue as a career?

Composing music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. But, it took me until I was almost 17 years old to realize I could actually make a career as a composer. I wanted to be a concert pianist, but my teachers and parents encouraged me to put in a portfolio of composition. I was accepted at Juilliard for composition when I was 18 and that changed the course of my career.


Can you please explain some of the core differences and similarities between Eastern and Western classical music?

A little over a thousand years ago, one event caused Western classical music to veer off from its Eastern counterparts, and that was the development of notation. Because Western music is meticulously notated, it allows large groups of musicians to play together and interact in very complex ways.

Hindustani classical music is able to support improvisation, and much more complex soloistic melodies and rhythmic cycles because it is purely an aural tradition. But I love the fact that these traditions are so different—it is possible to take the best of both traditions and weave them into a beautiful tapestry that values what they both do best.


What inspired your interest in Hindustani classical music?

The people drew me to the music. I am used to being a minority in the world of Western classical music. But in 2005, I began to meet Indian classical musicians who shared my love of music and also the culture of my family. Through them, I began to understand Hindustani classical music, and discover my own voice within the art form. I look back at my old work now and see how much I was searching for exactly the answers that Hindustani music provides.


What creative challenges did you face in your first attempt to interweave elements of Hindustani and Western classical compositions?

The greatest creative challenges are at the broadest level: I am essentially doing the work of cultural diplomacy through music. How do I create a space for two groups of musicians from completely different musical traditions, which not only takes into account their training, but also their musical values? And how can I help them share their values with one another? I start from these questions, and the music that emerges is my attempt to create this resonance between the musicians.


What was it like to receive the Fulbright-Nehru scholarship?

In addition to the honor of receiving such a prestigious award, the actual experience of being in India on a Fulbright scholarship allowed me to meet and work with so many incredible people who have remained close friends and collaborators. Also, it meant everything to me to have the country of my heritage honor me in this way.


What are some of the most memorable musical experiences you had while living in India?

My Fulbright year in India was, hands down, the best year of my life. I had incredible musical revelations almost every day. The world of Hindustani music cracked open for me as I studied with my teacher, Gaurav Mazumdar, and laid the framework for the music I write now.

Being in India opened my soul in so many ways. I grew up bilingual, in Gujarati and English, so I have always been aware there are at least two ways to say anything. Being in India helped me see how being bilingual translated into my music as well.


Any exciting plans for the future? What collaborations or new projects excite you?

I just finished writing a huge oratorio that toured India a few months ago. It was for Juilliard415, Juilliard’s baroque orchestra; Yale Schola Cantorum; and an incredible sitar player [Rabindra Goswami] and a tabla player [Ramu Pandit] from Varanasi. I’m so proud of this piece, and I am enjoying seeing it find its way into the world through upcoming performances and recordings.

I also co-direct an organization called Shastra, where we support and cultivate musicians who work between Indian and Western traditions. We are excited to be holding two workshops this summer to teach Western composers to work with Indian voice and tabla. We can’t wait to see what they come up with!

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.