It’s nice to have friends that think highly of you. In the case of ROCO, rather than giving material presents, sometimes friends give each other musical compositions.
Founder, artistic director and principal oboe Alecia Lawyer has been working alongside associate director Suzanne LeFevre for such a longtime, they decided to commission a duo from composer Reena Esmail, whose Teen Murti for chamber orchestra was commissioned and premiered by ROCO in 2013.
The work, titled Side by Side, nods to the season theme as well as to ROCO’s collaborative spirit. It will be premiered as part of the Unchambered Series performance, “Singing Our Song,” on Sunday, May 15, at the MATCH.
In this interview with Reena Esmail, we learn about her creative process, from beginning to end.
Q: Creative processes vary among genres and, of course, among people. When beginning to compose a new work, where do you start musically?
Reena Esmail: I usually start by singing. This work, Side by Side, is made up of phrases from a Hindustani Raag called Jog.
I love singing and improvising, and finding new turns of phrase each time I work in Jog. That was what led me to the material for the piece. For almost every piece I have written in the last five years, there are a bunch of recordings of me singing snippets of melodies on my phone!
Q: Does what you write always match with what happens on first hearing? Describe a little your process for fine tuning your compositions.
Reena Esmail: It varies greatly. For this piece, I actually had a completely different idea in mind — something serene and subtle. But the more I thought about it, the more I was drawn to the phrases that contained a certain energy and excitement. That feed spontaneously off one another’s creative energy, because that is what I envision must happen between Alecia and Suzanne as they continue to grow and build this amazing organization.
Q: Do you ever get “writer’s block”? What do you do if it happens?
Reena Esmail: When I was in my early 20s, I constantly had writer’s block. I think the expectation to come up with something brilliant is often overwhelming for a young composer.
As I’ve grown up a little, I’ve started to see that works have a life of their own.
It’s impossible to predict what will be my most popular work, or what will land the best to performers and audience. I have fallen in love with the day-to-day, the sitting at the desk and exploring. The shift of focus from results to process has pretty much eliminated my writer’s block. That’s not to say that everything I write is great, but the important thing is that I write enough to discard the things that don’t feel good.
I always start with something I know. I keep lists of things I want to work on in my writing in general, and I also try to return to older pieces and take the path that perhaps I didn’t take in a previous piece.
The more I explore, the more avenues for exploration I find.
Q: What’s interesting/challenging about writing for viola and oboe?
Reena Esmail: Viola and oboe are both in a similar range, and yet they are so timbrally different. So it’s often hard to understand how the music will actually sound.
But that’s also one of the most exciting things about writing for this combination. Because it’s a duo, and because the two musicians playing it know one another so well, I felt I could take some risks musically that are just impossible to take in works for larger ensembles.
Q: What comes first: The title or the concept?
Reena Esmail: Always the concept. I am the worst with titles.
Any title of mine that is in English and is not just the name of the ensemble (string quartet, for example) has likely been thought of by someone else. Luckily, Alecia provided this title, Side by Side, and I absolutely love it!