Repertoire for a Cause: Take What You Need

This article is part of a series highlighting new choral repertoire that can be used by a wide range of choirs to address different community issues.

When Reena Esmail was asked to compose a choral piece for the LA-based Street Symphony, it wasn’t a typical commission. Street Symphony, founded by LA Phil violinist Vijay Gupta, is an organization that creates powerful connections between professional musicians and communities disenfranchised by homelessness and incarceration (most notably in the Skid Row neighborhood). The piece needed to engage and bring together some very different people.

The result is Take What You Need, a work that has had a remarkable reception with the residents of Skid Row and beyond. The piece functions as an outlet for community members to share their stories, and for all participants to express care for each other. Take What You Need was performed by Street Symphony at the 2017 Chorus America Conference, and is available for free to anyone who wishes to download it.

Esmail shared her story of the composition process and what the piece has meant to her and the Street Symphony community.

How did this opportunity to write a piece for Street Symphony come about?

RE: From the time Vijay started Street Symphony in 2011, we've been in touch. Most of us who are drawn to Street Symphony are professional musicians working in LA who have a desire to connect more deeply to people. Often there's an agreement that you make with your audience—you ask them to sit still and clap at certain times, there will be a stage with lights shining on the performers who will purvey the music to the listeners. We want to break down those agreements. We love to perform for audiences that are just there to love the music, and not necessarily aware of what those agreements are.

How did you find the mindset to write for this subject matter and community?

RE: Who I am and what I stand for as a composer is creating these equitable spaces where people who wouldn't normally come together can do so through music. In some of my other work, Indian and Western musicians who don't speak the same musical language are the ones that come together. So much of what I care about is engineering these spaces that will allow everyone to feel safe and supported, and challenged at a level that's right for them.

When Vijay asked me to write a piece for Street Symphony, my first thought was that I was unqualified to do this. Who am I to make this overblown commentary on what it's like to be homeless or incarcerated? We talk about so much about asserting our "voice" as a composer. I realized what I needed to do was simply be with the people who are experiencing these things. The piece is not about me commenting on homelessness, it's about the people who are experiencing this having that platform to represent themselves. I'm just creating the space, and they are filling it.

The people who perform this song are all friends of mine. They're not a cause, they are not our charity work, just because they live on Skid Row. They are people who I love and are in my life regularly. That changes what the piece means to me, and what it means to everyone.

What was the process like for composing this work?

RE: The "commissioning process" for this piece was so different than that of any other piece I've written. Normally, someone will contact me and say, ‘We're interested in a piece for this season. Here's the commission fee'—and then they don't want to talk to me again until they see the piece. When we're composing a piece for someone, we're kind of baring our souls, and we don't actually get that much feedback or interaction through the process. To me, that's a troublesome thing. But in the process for Take What You Need, we were talking for up to year about what this piece would be—there was no deadline. Vijay said, ‘I know this is going to be great, whatever it is.’

The lesson there is not how to engineer these community-related pieces, but how do we support composers so that they are inspired to deeply invest in this work emotionally. I've taken that process back into my regular commissioned work. I now stipulate in the contract that I want to get to know the ensemble. I know that they want the best result, and I know that this is what is going to yield the best result. I never would have known that if I hadn't gone through this commissioning process. I want to help put those lessons out there for younger composers especially—to know that it's okay to ask for these things, and that you're not just a transaction.

How did you create this space through the music?

RE: Most music that I've seen choruses who do community work perform is just for the musicians to perform. This piece is really about the musicians supporting 

the community members. The community members are so central to the work that it literally cannot be performed without the community. When you say 'We need you' through this music, people step up.

I tried to understand how I wanted to tell people how they are valued through the composition on a nuts and bolts level. For instance, there is a series of interludes that occur where community members share their stories, but we don't force them to cut off at the end of 32 bars or whatever it is if they are still speaking. The person who has control is the person telling the story.

The choruses are call and response by design. We assume as musicians that people will show up to a certain amount of rehearsals, they'll learn their part or be able to read music, and to make those assumptions excludes so many people. There's a four-part chorus where professional musicians can be challenged, but if community members have literally just shown up and don't know the music or even the words, we'll show you exactly what to sing, and you just repeat it and you'll feel like you're a part of it. 

I tried to not only make the people who are in this situation feel safe, loved, and so on, but to make them feel that toward each other. The piece is in second person. When you're saying 'Take a moment, take time, take care,' you're saying that to the other group of people. And that's what creates that warmth.

Do you feel that Take What You Need has been successful in accomplishing what you hoped?

RE: As a composer, you just try your best and you don't know what's going to happen. The impact has been far deeper than I thought that it was going to be—and it’s affected me, too. When I'm up there, there hasn't been a single time when I haven't been crying. Every single time. I see people in the audience and I see the connection they have with one another.

I didn't want the piece to be something where people were trying to "realize my vision." I just wanted people to feel like it's theirs. Pieces like Amazing Grace have a composer, but that's not what's important—it feels like a folk song at a certain point.

What comes next in your work with Street Symphony?

RE: Our goal is that we want the community and Street Symphony to be very integrated with one another. As composer-in-residence, I have a composition fellow every year, who I mentor as they write a piece that, like Take What You Need, is designed for the community. The thing that we love is that the composer comes from the community.

The fellow this year, Ben Shirley, was homeless and has been in our audience at Skid Row years ago. He got clean, started studying music composition, and is finishing his second year at San Francisco Conservatory. Now he's working with Street Symphony and will be writing this commission. His piece, like mine, will be performed at Midnight Mission—but what's neat is that was his home. Skid Row is his family. It's very different for me coming in and learning to write this music for his community. He brings something to it that I never could. As he becomes more familiar with his relationship to music, I get to learn more about his story and what the Skid Row community really is like. It's this wonderful symbiotic relationship that I have with my fellow every year. That's a big part of what we want to do.