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Reena Esmail
Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz (My Sister’s Voice)

Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz, at its core, is a piece about sisterhood. Each movement’s short text epitomizes the one of the many facets of having and being a sister. It is also about what sisterhood looks like when expanded beyond a single family or a single culture— when two women, from two different musical cultures create space for one another’s voices to be heard.

The first movement is a modern take on Delibes’s famous Flower Duet from the opera Lakme. In the opera, Delibes depicts two Indian women singing by a river. In 1880s France, this orientalism was a point of entry into another culture far away. But today, that culture is easily accessible, and this is my attempt to show you what an ‘updated’ version of this duet might sound like with a Hindustani singer actually present to represent herself. So much of Western art music is about creating dialogue between the old and new, responding to our vast canon and musical tradition. And for the work I do, I couldn’t think of a better jumping-off point than this classic duet.

For the second movement, I wrote a classical Hindustani bandish or ‘fixed composition’ in what they call ati-vilambit— a tempo that is so slow that the western metronome doesn’t even have a setting for it. While Hindustani musicians would normally stay in one key for an entire piece (and, to be honest, for their entire professional career), this movement modulates once every avartan, or rhythmic cycle, and also allows space for improvisation within a very rigid western orchestral structure. Additionally, the singers are singing in two different raags — the Hindustani singer is in Charukeshi, while the soprano is in Vachaspati – and as the movement goes on, the switches between the raags get closer and closer.

The third movement is about mirrors and opposites. I used two different raags that are actual mirror images of one another: Bhup, a light and sweet raag, and Malkauns, a dark, heavy raag. You will hear the shifts in tonality as the phrases cross from one into the other. Also embedded in this piece is a classic Hindustani jugalbandi (a musical competition) that is done completely in mirror image, and with both Indian and Western solfege systems, and it ends with both women crossing into one another’s musical cultures: the Hindustani singer begins singing phrases in English and the soprano joins in for ataranain harmony.

This piece has been almost a decade in the making. In 2009, I wrote a piece called Aria, for Hindustani vocalist and orchestra – it was the first time I had ever attempted to put a Hindustani musician in my work, and it was the beginning of a long journey of discovery between these two musical cultures. This piece is the result of what I’ve found along that journey — an encyclopedia of sorts, of the many points of resonance I’ve discovered between these musical cultures. One of the greatest things I’ve learned is that I cannot do it alone. These ideas are as much mine as they are Saili’s. We have spent hours and hours over many summers sitting at my kitchen table, drinking chai and dreaming up the ideas that have become this piece. And as Saili is quick to point out: this is a culmination, but also a beginning of everything that is yet to come. I might be a biological only-child, but I have found my musical soul sister in Saili.

Reena Esmail