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Connecting Hearts – The Joy of Making Music Together

In preparation for Made Fragile, Tom Morgan caught up with our viola soloist, Matt Dane, for a quick chat about his connection with Reena Esmail and what her music means to him personally.

TOM I understand that you’ve had quite a connection to this gifted young composer. Can you tell us about how you met her, and what pieces you’ve played/commissioned?

MATT I first got to know Reena Esmail. through the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, the group I play with in Houston. In September 2013, she was commissioned by ROCO for a string orchestra version of her piece Teen Murti. It was stylistically different from anything I’d played before and included some short viola solos I could sink into. From that experience I decided to ask Reena if she would write me a solo work for my other instrument, the viola d’amore. She agreed! The piece, Nishani, was finished the following summer and I have performed it more than any other solo piece, including two recordings for CPR: in the performance studio and for a podcast about the creation of the work. You can listen to the podcast here: Matt Dane on CPR

Since then I’ve played other pieces of hers, including another ROCO-commissioned large work titled The History of Red and the duo that Christina and I will perform on this program, Nadiya. I’ve also commissioned her to arrange another version of Teen Murti for string quartet.

TOM Her work is so refreshing in its authenticity, and she incorporates her background and personality. What do you find in it?

MATT There are many reasons I love playing Reena’s music! I do enjoy her musical language, which so artfully combines Hindustani and Western musical traditions in a way I can connect with, and I think the audience connects with it, too. The flexibility of phrasing, sound color, and ensemble (how the various parts fit together) inspires me to think constantly about how I can be the most expressive in communicating with the audience. Ultimately, her style encourages the player to be completely “in the moment”- not to be concerned with the past and not worried about the future – but to focus on the possibilities of the present time. That also happens to be the subject of the Hafiz poem she chose to set for the piece we’ll be playing, When the Violin.

TOM She’s adapted several of her works to some of the ensembles performing them. When the Violin started as a violin solo; She Will Transform You began its life as a piece for chorus with full orchestra…we’ll be performing it in a new version with solo flute. Transformation, and practicality, seem to be a theme for her.

MATT Agreed! Reena has always been up for adapting/retooling previous works to fit new situations. Her piece Teen Murti exists in multiple versions, including even different versions for the same ensemble (string quartet). It is a testament to her openness, imagination, and kindness towards others.

Ars Nova will be performing four works by Reena Esmail on the Made Fragile program. Take a moment to read what Reena has to say about each of these pieces, and what inspired her to compose them.

When the Violin – viola solo

As a companion piece to Victoria’s O Vos Omnes, Esmail uses the beautiful text from The Gift by the 14C Persian poet Hafiz. Reena says, “The text is asking, simply, to be seen in a moment of sorrow — to be beheld through suffering and darkness. And Hafiz’s text responds in such a beautiful way — it moves through that darkness and begins to let those very first slivers of light in. This piece is about that first moment of trust, of softening. About the most inward moments of the human experience, of realizing that ‘breakthroughs’ often don’t have the hard edge, the burst of energy that the word implies, but that they can be about finding tender, warm, deeply resonant spaces within ourselves as well.”

The violin
Can forgive the past

It starts singing.

When the violin can stop worrying
About the future

You will become
Such a drunk laughing nuisance

That God
Will then lean down
And start combing you into

When the violin can forgive
Every wound caused by

The heart starts

— Hafiz, The Gift (tr. Daniel Ladinsky)

She Will Transform You – flute solo

“She Will Transform You is centered around a beautiful poem by Indian-American author Neelanjana Banerjee. She speaks about the beautiful relationship of an immigrant and her child to their country of origin, and the significant role a child from both cultures has in bridging the divide between them. The piece moves in and out of a Hindustani raga called Rageshree — which has such a lush resonance about it, and is also harmonically grounded in an unusual way (with the 4th instead of the more common 5th, which makes our ear feel like it’s never quite ‘home’) – so it has both a sense of belonging and distance. It’s those two feelings – of belonging and distance – and the journey between them, that I wanted to explore in this work.”

Nadiya – flute and viola

“Nadiya means ‘rivers’ in Hindi. In this work, I imagine two different streams intersecting — pushing and pulling against one another, tripping over each other, flowing into each other to create mellifluous, cascading melodies. The piece is a composite of two Hindustani raags: Jog and Vachaspati — both have a light and a dark side, and they intermingle to create a luminous surface texture that twists and turns as it finds new points of resonance.

In my experience, Hindustani melody has a much more horizontal feel about it than Western melody does. Hindustani musicians are almost always playing off an explicit percussion instrument, so their job is not to purvey the beat, but rather to provide a counterpoint to it. In this case, the two instruments play off one another. The phrases should feel like they interrupt one another, and that they overlap and intersect with the intuition of a deeply engaged conversation, rather than aligning specifically as they are written.

This piece requires a great deal of trust. It’s about how far you can push and pull the phrases with your partner. Often, different interpretations vary in length by 2-3 minutes — as they should. The piece is designed to be flexible and malleable as you explore a relationship that is constantly in flux.”


Esmail says, “I wrote TaReKiTa as a gift for a choir called Urban Voices Project. They are a choir of people who are currently or have recently experienced homelessness on Skid Row in Los Angeles. They are so dear to me, and one day I just decided to teach them about Indian rhythm. They enjoyed the lesson so much that I wanted to write them a piece that would use what I had taught them. The result was TaReKiTa – I literally wrote it in an hour, just in a single moment of inspiration, and recorded myself singing all the parts for them to learn. It has since become a staple of their repertoire, but it’s also been sung by so many choirs around the world. There is just something about the piece, perhaps borne out of my love for this choir, that just seems to resonate with people.

Practically speaking, this piece is based on sounds the Indian drum, the tabla, makes, called “bols” — they are onomatopoeic sounds that imitate the sound of the drum. The result is something like a scat would be in jazz – ecstatic, energetic, rhythmic music that feels good on the tongue.”

Esmail is pictured below working with members of Urban Voices Project.

Reena Esmail working with members of Urban Voices Project