The culmination of a yearlong collaboration, Presence featured music by ACG’s 23-24 Artist-in-Residence and Grammy-nominated composer Reena Esmail, and performances by the extraordinary Mexican guitarist Dieter Hennings Yeomans, Austin’s super-creative and genre-bending vocal ensemble VAMP, and critically acclaimed bassoonist and UT Butler School faculty member Kristin Wolfe Jensen. These internationally celebrated artists were joined by a massive guitar orchestra, conducted by ACG Artistic Director Joe Williams on stage at the gorgeous AISD Performing Arts Center. 

In the world of music, the journey to becoming a composer is often a winding path, marked by discovery and evolution. 

Reena Esmail, a prominent musician and composer and ACG’s 2023-24 Artist-in-Residence, recently shared her unique story with us, seamlessly weaving between her early encounters with the guitar to her present exploration of composition! 

Reena’s musical odyssey began unexpectedly at the age of five or six when she stumbled upon a guitar hidden in her mother’s linen closet. Intrigued by the enchanting sounds it produced, her curiosity led to guitar lessons and the realization that music would play a significant role in her life. 

Reena shares, “I was just so fascinated. I thought ‘wow this is making such a beautiful sound.’ I initially would play the guitar with its back on the floor and just press it and poke at it to play it. And eventually, my parents got me guitar lessons. I really remember the very first time I went for a guitar lesson thinking, ‘Oh this is the beginning of something big in my life,’ and even as a kid I knew this was going to go places and it did!”

However, her path took a turn when her guitar teacher moved away. Undeterred, Reena delved into other instruments, eventually becoming a pianist. It was during her exploration of composition at a fine arts high school that she found a way to express herself without the need to perform on stage herself. 

She states, “I realized that I didn’t enjoy performing on stage and I realized that there is a way to be a musician without ever needing to be on the stage by composing. By the time I went to undergrad I had already found that path for myself. But it’s funny, just because you get on that path doesn’t mean that it’s straight, sometimes it can be really circuitous and it was very circuitous for me. One of the circles I kind of took was that I realized that at that point, I was one of very few people in my culture as a South Asian who was doing western classical music and when you’re younger I think that can be really cool like you’re just different but as I grew older it started to feel a bit lonely. So I looked around a lot for students who were South Asian and there were tons of them who weren’t western classical musicians so a lot of my life has been about balancing those two worlds.”

As part of her collaborative composition for Presence, our centerpiece concert of the season, Reena endeavors to bridge the gap between Indian and Western classical music. Exploring the possibilities of incorporating Indian ragas into guitar music.

Reena shares, “It’s really interesting because my knowledge of string instruments now are more orchestral instruments. So right now I’m trying to find ways for guitars to play in raga, and it’s been fascinating because ACG sent me this amazing three quarter sized guitar to practice on and it’s been so fun trying to figure out how I can get those Indian styles on the guitar. This is my first time writing for the guitar on this big of a scale and it’s been interesting to figure out how those two things translate.”

Returning to her original instrument feels like stepping into a musical time machine for Reena. It allows her to recapture the pure love and inspiration she felt as a child. 

Reena explains, “To me, it feels like I get to go back to that time in my life where music was brand new, everything was ahead of me and there was so much inspiration. The process of getting good at music and eventually having a career at it can be a lot, and not that I don’t love every moment of it but there’s also moments that are very tough. It’s almost like I get to step inside a time machine and go back to a time where you remember it was 100% love and to get to bring that back and being able to work with people who are the age that I was when I was doing that makes me feel like I can bypass anything that felt difficult and just have a lot of fun.”

Presence, presents a new challenge for Reena and she revels in the opportunity to compose for such a diverse group, 

“This is the most unusual ensemble I’ve composed for because it’s a huge guitar choir and then there are five singers and a bassoon player along with a professional guitarist. So knowing how to write for it, how to balance, how people of ages and abilities from consummate professional musicians all the way to people who have just started playing, how can they relate to each other in a way that is beneficial to everyone. And that to me is really fun because I think a lot of times people think of my music as being between these two cultures but I think more broadly it’s between groups of people you would never find on the stage together. I’m really excited about it.

It was magical rehearsing for the first time all together because for the first half I was sitting in the back of the ensemble just kind of noodling away at my own piece and it’s fascinating when you can see the piece in that different perspective. Usually as a composer you think of all the parts at the same time but to play in an actual rehearsal where you’re only playing one part of the piece is like if someone was to make an oil painting and then they told you to just focus on the parts that are blue. That would be such a different way of looking at the painting, and so I got to figure that out and actually feel what the piece feels like and get to be surrounded by everyone and get to feel what that feels like which is abnormal. 

During the second half I was up front and I got to hear things kind of in a more objective way. I also felt like the vibe of the rehearsal changed when I was in the front versus when I was in the back. In a way, when I was in the back I thought, I got to see what it was like if I wasn’t there and you never really get that and I noticed how it changed once people felt that I was there.”

Presence has been a year long collaborative project without a preconceived plan, the project unfolds step by step. 

Reena dives into this, “The whole process was very organic, we did not plan more than one step ahead. Even now, I can’t say what this piece is going to be, I’m just getting ideas. 

We started thinking ‘Someone has to start with something.’ So basically, I sent the members of the ensemble these little seeds that were worksheet ideas-types of things and told them to make something out of the materials given to them. And people did all sorts of things like making them into little one minute pieces to just kind of noodling around and changing a few things. I think what I was looking for was a sense of what was the part of those little seeds that felt inspiring? What were the little things that people were grabbing onto and taking with them? 

By listening to these ideas I’d take whatever I thought was a cool thing to include; and this was true for the musical seeds as well as the written word seeds from poems they shared and there were certain lines that just stood out to me. I just thought I’d take whatever strikes me in the moment. It’s very much go-with-the-flow, which is rare for me in terms of the process of writing a piece but this feels like we’re going on a journey together and just seeing what comes of it.”

In this collaborative journey, Reena embraces uncertainty and allows the process to be organic. She shares more about what this means, 

“During this whole process I’ve really focused on just allowing myself to just experience things. I think that as a composer, a lot of times people think you know the answers and what you to tell them what the right thing is to do and I think normally I try to take that role seriously because people are asking for it, but in this case I’ve tried to ask more questions than I have answers and in a way that can be uncomfortable but also in a way it can be really amazing to not have to know and allow things to be organic. 

I was really looking forward to the first rehearsal to be able to interact with everyone for the first time and to also see how the guitar functions in this environment. I’ve always said guitar is both the easiest and the hardest instrument to play because anyone can just pick it up, play three chords and feel like they have enough musical materials to be able to accompany themselves singing songs so it’s a universal instrument in that way but then it’s also instrument where so few people can be classical guitarists because technically it’s so difficult and demanding and how can that be one instrument? It blows my mind. So it’s interesting to see everyone here have a different relationship with guitar.”

In essence, Reena Esmail’s musical expedition intertwined with the strings of diverse cultures, creating a harmonious blend that transcends boundaries. Through her compositions, she not only connects musical styles but also brings together individuals who, under normal circumstances, might never share a stage. 

Presence has been a journey of rediscovery, collaboration, and the perpetual exploration of the beautiful gifts that music can bring upon us.