“Take What you Need” is a touching vocal piece, with a sing-along chorus that book-ends underscored interludes for spoken word storytelling. Written for communities experiencing mental illness, homelessness, and incarceration, the work is accessible to all who wish to sing it, yet it provides a deep sense of personal meaning to each individual in the room. I sat down with Reena earlier this week to learn a little more about the piece.
EL: You wrote this piece with the Skid Row community in mind, namely, a choir known as the Urban Voices Project. I know you have a special relationship with the group, can you tell me a little bit about that?
RE: I stepped into my first UVP rehearsal thinking like a musician, prepared to work with the singers as I would at any rehearsal of my music. Once we got going, they began asking questions and a lovely, multifaceted discussion emerged. And I realized, I’m not there as a ‘musician’ anymore. There is no wall separating teacher and student. The singers saw something in me that I wasn’t even consciously putting forward. I felt like they could see directly into a very vulnerable part of me. In that moment I felt very bare, but in a way that was safe and inviting. The fact that I am there and being honest, caring and vulnerable with them is the very basis of the music we make. It’s not about just giving, it’s about creating something together.
EL: When Street Symphony commissioned you, you were given a lot of freedom in deciding what kind of piece you wanted to write. How did “Take What You Need” come about?
RE: When Vijay [Gupta, Artistic Director] and I first starting discussing a new piece of music for Street Symphony, I felt, admittedly, a little out of my league. I thought about how presumptuous it would be of me, as someone who has never been homeless or incarcerated, to write a piece commenting on the experience of homelessness and incarceration. So instead of writing a piece about these circumstances, I decided to write a piece for the people experiencing them, a piece that is designed to be performed in homeless shelters and jails, for, by and with the people who reside there. After many visits to LA County jails, and to the Skid Row neighborhood, it became clear to me that Street Symphony’s audiences wanted a safe space to communicate and to be heard. And that’s what Take What You Need is: I describe it to our audiences as a ‘musical hug’, as a container to hold and protect the emotions they feel at that moment.
The text of this piece is inspired by Zabie Yamasaki, an incredible yoga teacher who works with victims of sexual trauma. She sometimes puts up a board in her classes, titled “Take What You Need”. On the board, there are post-it notes with words like ‘love’, ‘care’, ‘healing’, and survivors are invited to take a post-it note off the board and into the the class. This resonated so deeply with me, and I especially loved bringing this concept into a musical space. In performance, the room changes when people begin to sing these phrases - to give both themselves and one another the permission to take what they need at that moment.
EL: What do you find most meaningful about your work with Street Symphony?
RE: To me, the most gratifying thing is seeing how I can use my skills as a composer to create a community. Music can open a door for personal expression to every single person in a room. Music can create spaces that can blur the lines between performers and audience, until everyone is just creating it together. Music can leave everyone who is present with a feeling that they are valued and loved. Perhaps the seeds are planted in the context of a single piece, or a single performance, but the effects are lasting. This is how the conversation starts.
Reena was interviewed on the Arts Alive show on Classical KUSC 91.5 with Brian Lauritzǝn on December 3. Hear Reena speak more about Take What You Need and her work with Street Symphony on the Arts Alive archive.