On the retitling of the work:
As I wrote this piece, in the fall of 2017, the #metoo movement was raging around me. At that time, I decided to directly title this work #metoo as a challenge — which orchestras would agree to program a work that asked them and their audiences to engage with the fact that women composers (myself included) are often sexually abused by the same system that teaches them to compose? I made this video:
As it turned out… very few did. The moment passed, and the piece had to be retitled. It guts me to my core to feel that years of trauma for so many women can be so easily deemed passé as soon as a hashtag stops trending. But I hope that the message is not lost.
The piece was retitled Black Iris after the famous Georgia O’Keefe painting. The light petals on the top, and the dark petals beneath — the image was so resonant with the experience about which this work was written.
Here are the liner notes from Chicago Sinfonietta’s album:
Esmail was already in the process of writing her new piece when #MeToo entered the national consciousness in October 2017. Moved by both her own rage and solidarity with the bravery of the women who were telling their stories, she took her responsibilities as an artist and composer to their necessary conclusion: To use that platform to start real, honest discussions about how each one of us can contribute to a better future for everyone. Thus, what was already underway with a working title of Avaaz (transliteration of the Hindi term for “voice”) was given new purpose and became #metoo. As the work took on new meaning, its shape was altered. There is a point where the forward motion stops entirely. After an uncomfortable silence, the women musicians of the Sinfonietta reenter singing, one by one, in the order of the year they entered the orchestra, their individual voices joining together to bring the work back to life. The listener is left to contemplate what was lost when their voices were silenced and how much humanity is enhanced when they are heard and honored. About the events that inspired the piece, Esmail writes:
The harm itself happened when I was in high school and college, but I only began to admit it — even to myself — in 2015, when I first wrote honestly about it in words. And one of the first things I put in this writing was that I was hoping at some point that I could express those emotions, which were still so raw at that point, in an orchestral work. This piece, #metoo, written almost three years later, is that work.
As at its concert premiere, on this album Esmail’s own singing serves as an introduction to #metoo. The composer writes:
I wrote a melody for this piece in a traditional Hindustani form, called a “bandish” — a short melodic composition upon which a musician would then improvise. It is in Raag Charukeshi, one of my favorite raags, because of its constant shifting between what Westerners hear as major and
minor. It turns on a dime between darkness and light. The first track presents the Charukeshi bandish in its purest form. In #metoo, the bandish serves as the “protagonist” of the piece — a woman who is trying to navigate through a world filled with pitfalls, dead ends, dark turns —
each time finding the way back to her own, individual, powerful voice.”
About her performance of Charukeshi Bandish, Esmail states: “While I am certainly not a professional Hindustani singer, I have studied the artform for a number of years, and I truly enjoyed recording the bandish for this album.”
Here is the original program note, from March 2018.
#metoo bears the title of the social movement that has been exploding across our country during the time I was writing this piece. The movement, created ten years ago by Tarana Burke as a way to create safe spaces for young women of color, has grown into a movement that has allowed so many women to speak out, contextualize one another’s experiences, and begin to heal.
I always get asked why there aren’t more women composers. This piece is one response — of many hundreds of responses — to that question. So many of us decide to become composers when we are young women because we fall deeply in love with individual pieces of music. We listen to them incessantly, we memorize every note of them, we live our lives through the lens of that music. And then at some point, for some of us, as we engage with that music, something devastating happens to us — often by the very person who has introduced us to that music. We hate ourselves, we blame ourselves, we bury it deep within our psyche — until we hear that piece of music again. It could be at a concert, it could be in a theory class, it could be on the radio. We are powerless to fend off that tidal wave of sensory memory. The very music we once loved becomes a trigger that slowly destroys our love for our art. Of course I’m speaking about myself, but I’m also speaking about so many other women I know. That experience is what this piece is about.
I was so filled with rage while I was writing this work. The rage of seeing the injustices that plagued even the strongest, most powerful women among us, the rage of having to relive the worst moments of my own life over and over again, every time I checked facebook or turned on the news. The rage that as women, some of the strongest bonds we share are forged from the most devastating and corrosive experiences.
Lest this seem like a war cry, I want to say this: I have yet to meet a truly happy, fulfilled man that has sexually abused a woman. The outcries of #metoo are a symptom of issues that are affecting men. Women are the bystanders who get caught in the crossfire. Every day, even as my rage simmers, I have to ask: what is the endgame here? What does a healthy society look like? And how can we put systems in place that truly allow men to address these underlying issues, so that we can create stronger bonds with one another, and build stronger communities with higher standards of accountability to each other? I look forward to imagining and creating that world together.
2Fl (+picc), 2Ob (+EH), 2Cl, 2Bsn
Timp +3Perc (Perc1: Bass Drum, Triangle, Snare Drum, Cymbals; Perc 2: Glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Orchestral Chimes; Perc 3: Marimba, Orchestral Chimes)
Harp, Piano, Celesta
A note on the ‘Charukeshi Bandish’
I have noted that people often refer to the Charukeshi Bandish from this album as if it is an original work of mine. In the western sense, it is not.
A bandish is simply a ‘tune’ that contains all the elements of a Hindustani raag, providing a framework for improvisation (like a tune in jazz). This bandish is in Raag Charukeshi – it’s just a short song that encapsulates the main ideas of the raag. Though the word bandish is often translated as ‘fixed composition’, it is not a ‘composition’ in the western sense.
This track is simply a recording of me singing the main melody of the piece, for your reference — to contextualize the work you are about to hear.
This piece was commissioned by Chicago Sinfonetta. It was premiered on March 11, 2018 at Wentz Auditorium in Naperville, Illinois, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen.
A revised orchestration of the work was premiered on June 29, 2023 by San Francisco Symphony; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor.
The San Francisco’s Symphony’s musically polyglot, politically inflected June 30 program at Davies Hall opened with striking pre-performance remarks by composer Reena Esmail. By way of introduction to her Black Iris, which was on the bill for its first SFS performances, the composer recalled the 2017 work’s roots in her “sensory memories” of sexual abuse. Originally titled #metoo, subsequently renamed for the eponymous Georgia O’Keeffe painting and revised and re-orchestrated for the San Francisco premiere, Black Iris is threaded through with an entrancing Hindustani melody, which Esmail, the American-born daughter of Indian parents, sang (beautifully) before leaving the stage. The piece, under Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s direction, made an immediate, arresting impact, as a percussive jolt gave way to restlessly oscillating string figures, soon taken up by a colorful percussion section (including a vibraphone, marimba, and celesta).
Esmail’s Iris emerges in rising and falling, semi-Minimalist waves that gather up recurring melodic and rhythmic fragments and set them whirling together. The linear motif surfaces and retreats, as if struggling to be heard. The effect is both seductive and alarming, with poignant lyrical touches from the solo cello and violin, a passage of subdued but sweetly empowering singing by the female members of the orchestra, and combustive exclamations from the brass. The performance surged with energy, offset by delicate contributions from around the ensemble, and ended, with a single timpani thunderclap, as abruptly as it started.Steven Winn, An Audience Wowed: Julia Bullock, Reena Esmail, and the SF Symphony; Musical America
…the evening’s splendid opener, a brisk and evocative orchestral essay by the Indian American composer Reena Esmail. The 10-minute piece began life in 2017 as an impassioned protest on sexual politics titled “#metoo,” but has since been reorchestrated and retitled “Black Iris.”
Aside from one coup de theatre in which Esmail has the women of the orchestra sing a wordless chant — which must land as a revelatory hiring expose for different orchestras — the gender subtext seemed largely subdued in this performance. What struck a listener instead were the sheer energy of Esmail’s writing — a churning hive of thematic activity based on solid harmonic footing — and the vibrancy of her orchestral palette. A late-arriving cello solo, skillfully delivered by principal Rainer Eudeikis, put the seal on an exciting performance.
Salonen captured the kinetic qualities of “Black Iris,” then carried them over after intermission to a swingy, sonically robust account of Ravel’s ballet score “Daphnis et Chloé.– Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle
And give another [set] to Reena Esmail. Black Iris may be another in a string of 10-minute contemporary works ghettoized to the overture slot, but it’s an unusually ambitious and often fine piece. […] Much bolder, in fact, is Black Iris’s central motif, a roiling whole-tone line unmoored from tonality, and the way the smeary lines climb up the strings. The newly congenial title nods to the a striking oil painting by Georgia O’Keefe, but Esmail’s strong recursive gestures remind me more of O’Keefe’s nude self-portraits, whose student-grade watercolors bleed expressively. Delightful contrasts! […] such clean passagework and precise explosions…-Rebecca Wishnia, Season Finale Packs a Punch at SF Symphony San Francisco Classical Voice
Like [O’Keefe’s eponymous painting, Black Iris], the work was basically divided into two, a propulsive—and yes, masculine even—section using the orchestra’s full-force that stopped in the middle, almost as if it entered a black hole, followed by a dark and striving second part that gradually rose to climax at the end, with—the piece’s coup de théâtre—a wordless chorus by the female members of the orchestra as a kind of the divider in between.
Salonen excelled in bringing the highly emotional composition to life, detailing Esmail’s vast orchestration (the percussion section was pretty varied) and leading the score with great dignity. Although the blink-and-you-miss-it wordless chorus might not be exactly obvious (especially for audience in the back of the hall), nevertheless he demonstrated the “struggle” from the second part and the final “triumph” vividly, fully conveying Esmail’s message loud and clear.— Michael Antonio, Parterre Box
Esmail captures the rage, frustration, and solidarity of the #MeToo movement and injects it into her sound. Just like emotions behind the movement, Esmail’s music has a lot of complexity. There are moments of agitated, fast gestures that suddenly turn on a dime, transforming into soft and elegant lines.– I Care if You Listen
When she was writing this piece, she has to come to grapple with her own experience…– capradio.org
…with its thrashing riffs and glowering chords, provides the album with a defiantly emotional anchor.– artfuse.org
‘We have to ensure that we support women composers over time, not just for one piece’ – Reena Esmail, composer– The Strad
(and if you’re curious – here’s a totally scathing review of the piece!)