In a divided world, composer Reena Esmail finds unity in music
As a child growing up in Studio City in the 1980s and 1990s, composer Reena Esmail invented her own religion. She developed rituals and composed her own prayers, piecing together a uniquely personalized belief system.
“Growing up I thought every person just had their own religion,” she said with a lighthearted laugh. “My parents were really open about the fact that they married someone from a different religion than themselves. They had to be OK with that, and they imparted that to me.
The only child of two Indian immigrants –– a Catholic mother and Muslim father –– Esmail grew up attending Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood. At home, she watched her devout Muslim grandparents pray multiple times a day.
Now 35 and still based in Los Angeles, Esmail continues to define spirituality in her own way. She practices yoga, meditates on texts that resonate with her and explores the duality of her religious upbringing and Indian American identity in the music she creates for orchestras and ensembles across the country.
That exploration is at the heart of “This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity,” a work Esmail composed two years ago against the backdrop of the divisive 2016 presidential election.
Part of me knows I don’t look like most composers. Being a woman, being brown, being a minority, I know that I’m different.
— Reena Esmail
Originally commissioned by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, “This Love Between Us” was premiered by the historical performance ensemble Juilliard415 and the Yale Schola Cantorum. (Esmail attended Juilliard as an undergraduate and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale.) The piece will receive its West Coast premiere Sunday by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Esmail sees “This Love Between Us” as pivotal in the development of her compositional voice.
“Admittedly, up until the point that I wrote this piece, I think I was trying to play things safe,” she said. “Part of me knows I don’t look like most composers. Being a woman, being brown, being a minority, I know that I’m different.”
In 2016, she said, she started to realize she was in a place where more people were listening to her voice. “I had some power, some ability to say something. I needed to use my voice to say something important.”
Her message? Unity, we are more alike than we are different. Religion can often divide people, but when Esmail looks at religions, she zeroes in on core truths that unite.
For “This Love Between Us,” the composer culled texts from the seven major religious traditions of India: Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam. At the center of each tradition she sees a call for kindness, for respect.
“The thesis statement of the piece, if there is one, is that whatever you believe, somewhere in your religious canonical text it says that you should be good to one another,” she said. “If you are not doing that, it is not your religion that is mandating it. It is you making a choice to go against your own religion.”
To illustrate this message musically, Esmail drew from her very Western, very American musical background –– piano, guitar and violin lessons as a kid, Catholic church choirs, East Coast conservatory training –– and from her experience studying Hindustani classical music in India as a Fulbright scholar in 2011.
“This Love Between Us” melds the sounds of a baroque orchestra and Western chorus with those of a sitar, tabla and classical Hindustani soloist. The texts are set in English as well as Sanskrit, Malayalam and other languages.
That combination of styles could come across as superficial or arbitrary, said Los Angeles Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon, who will conduct the piece.
“But what could be an uncomfortable pairing is just so organic in Reena’s writing,” he said. “She is so at home in the different styles. I’m more excited about Reena and her compositional voice than just about anybody that I’ve worked with in recent years.”
He continued: “She’s obviously fiercely brilliant and a gifted musician, but what makes her music special is the fact that she’s able to channel this incredible empathy and complex understanding of the human experience into music that’s crystal clear, beautiful, thought-provoking and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.”
Kindness and empathy are apparent not only in the way that Esmail skillfully fosters connections between Indian and Western traditions in her compositions, but also in the way she structures her career.
Since 2014, Esmail has worked as composer in residence at the Street Symphony on skid row in downtown L.A. In that role, she works closely with homeless and incarcerated populations, singing Hindustani classical music at the Twin Towers jail and composing pieces that are accessible to transient homeless choirs. This week she is busy rehearsing for Street Symphony’s fourth annual “Messiah Project,” which she’ll help lead on Dec. 7 at the Midnight Mission.
Through Street Symphony Esmail also met and mentored Benjamin Shirley, a former addict and skid row resident who now works for the organization as her co-composer in residence. She mentors young female composers through Luna Lab, and is the co-artistic director of Shastra, a nonprofit organization that promotes musical connections between Indian and Western traditions.
Fully embracing her background and the dualities of her identity, her music sounds different, and her career looks different too.
“I’m asking Indian and Western musicians to work together. I want them to feel really comfortable,” she said. “It is interesting to be able to show the Western musicians the light and essence of Indian music and visa versa.”
“Concentrate on the essence, concentrate on the light,” Esmail said, quoting Rumi. It’s the last line of “This Love Between Us,” and it could also be the main tenant of the imagined religion Esmail dreamed up so many years ago.
“This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity” will be performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at their “Bach’s Magnificat” concert on Sunday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall,111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. lamasterchorale.org
Nov. 18, 10:53 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
This article was originally published at Nov. 17.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
Get the Envelope newsletter for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes stories from the Envelope podcast and columnist Glenn Whipp’s must-read analysis.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.