Composer Reena Esmail on Street Symphony

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Composer Reena Esmail on Street Symphony

In November, 2014, Five Street Symphony musicians, a string quartet and composer Reena Esmail, brought music to a group of women at Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

I clearly recall the physical sensation of fear, the tightness at the back of my throat, the tingling in my forearms, that I felt the first time I entered a county jail. We were escorted down a labyrinth of empty, asymmetrical hallways, each with the same harsh fluorescent lighting and cement floors. Doors were unlocked in front of us, and then locked immediately behind us, a glaring reminder that this was a building whose very architecture was designed to constrain.

I found myself at the Twin Towers Jail that autumn morning for the West Coast premier of my String Quartet. Along with the music of Mozart and Haydn, my quartet was being performed by violinists Vijay Gupta and Jason Uyeyama, violist Zach Dellinger and cellist Joy Song, as part of a Street Symphony chamber music program. Twin Towers, which rises high above Downtown Los Angeles also doubles as one of the largest psychiatric facilities in the United States.

The setting may have been harsh and sterile, but the moment the door to the multi-purpose room opened, a massive wave of applause inundated us. We were drawn into the space by eighty five female inmates who had eagerly anticipated sharing music with us that day. For these women, music was about much more than entertainment: it was about connection. This was a single hour, outside of their daily lives, where they were able to connect into their own emotions, and to connect to one another.

Before the quartet performed, I spoke about my piece, and sung little excerpts to demonstrate. My work draws from the North Indian classical tradition, and though I am not a professional singer, I wanted to put a little sonic sliver of India into their ear, to contextualize the music they were about to hear.

Admittedly, the night before the performance, I had been incredibly nervous. I spent hours in front of the mirror, rehearsing my lines, both spoken and sung, over and over again, trying to make them perfect. The truth is, I was afraid. I was afraid to set foot in Twin Towers – I had never been inside a jail before, and I had no idea what I would find. I was afraid that the audience wouldn’t care about anything I said, that they would hate my music or find it boring. I was afraid that the differences in our lives would separate us so much that we wouldn’t be able to find common ground, that we would have no way to understand one another.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The women I spoke to that morning were, without a doubt, the most genuinely engaged audience I have ever seen. The moment I started speaking, they were instantaneously and fully absorbed. They carefully considered what I said, and were immediately brimming with questions, finding their own points of connection with me and their own way into the music. For the first time, I didn’t feel the need to prove myself to my audience. I didn’t have to defend the value of the music I wrote, or the value of music in general. These women already understood the value of music, completely and innately. They were already with me, one hundred and ten percent.

At the end of the concert, the audience asked questions. One of the first hands that shot up belonged to a Latina woman, probably around my age, who asked me to sing some more. Before I could even muster a polite refusal, the women began cheering me on. I started singing, tentatively at first. I could hear my small voice barely filling the room, bouncing back to me as it echoed against the thick concrete walls. And then, one by one, the woman began clapping along. There were a handful at first, but the number grew with each beat, until, by the end, every woman in the audience was clapping in rhythm, supporting me as I sang. For that one moment, we were all just women, enjoying each other’s company, and reveling in the experience of making music together.

It has been exactly one year since that morning at Twin Towers Jail. When I think about the many places I’ve traveled over the past year, it saddens me to think that most of the women I sang with that day have been unable to exit that single, constraining building. But while they may be unable to leave, I can still enter. The line that divides us can be crossed one way. These interactions can still take place. And I can’t wait for the next one.

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