The word zeher means poison in Hindi. At the time I was working on this piece, I developed a pernicious case of strep throat, that three separate sets of antibiotics, over more than a month, couldn’t seem to cure. It became increasingly difficult for me to swallow, to speak and even at times, to breathe. It was through this frustration, defeat and feeling of complete and literal voicelessness that I wrote Zeher.
This piece uses two raags – Todi and Bhimpalas. Todi, at least to my Western ears, sounds dark and sinuous, as if reaching into a void, beyond what can be can comfortably seen or understood. Bhimpalas, to me, feels more centered and stable, if still melancholy. At the end of the piece, the Todi melodies in the cello are slowly washed over by the violins in Bhimpalas, lulling it slowly as it heals.
There is no way I could have known that the premiere album of this work, Brooklyn Rider’s Healing Modes, would be released in March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic — where we would be forced to confront a world where a virus would render so many people unable to breathe — and that the piece would take on a new meaning, a more urgent call for healing.
In addition, here is a brief video I recorded for the release of the album Healing Modes, on which Zeher appears.
This is the original version, for string quartet. Cello concerto version forthcoming.
If you are performing this piece, please contact us for audio guides.
This piece was commissioned by Brooklyn Rider. It was premiered on November 2, 2018, and has been toured around the world since that time. It was released on BR’s album, Healing Modes, on March 27, 2020.
“Reena Esmail composed Zeher (Poison) in the throes of a severe infection of her throat, one which hindered her ability to swallow, breathe, and even speak. Drawing on two Hindustani raags, Zeher (Poison) represents the feeling of release at that period’s conclusion. The quartet begins together with acrobatic, articulated flourishes. Ornate and elegant figurations are traded from cello to violin and back, framed and punctuated by the inner voices. With each iteration, violin and cello subtly re-shade their melodies, trading ecstatic embellishments for a resolute calm. In the final minutes, the punctuations elongate to overtake the cello’s melodies, and the piece exhales to a close” – I Care if you Listen