Q&A with Michael-Thomas Foumai, composer

What inspires an individual to create music? What leads someone down the path to becoming a professional musician? What is it that drives creation, transformation, and discovery? These are all questions explored in this new interview series with a handful of Bowdoin’s most talented and hard-working students. This is your chance to peek behind the stage and witness the driving force behind all of the wonderful music we present each summer. For our first interview, we sit down with composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, our first Kaplan Fellow in composition.

The music of the Hawaii-born composer has been described as “vibrant…cinematic” (New York Times) and “full of color, drama and emotion” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). Foumai is inspired by storytelling and he describes his compositions as using many forms of musical language to construct a compelling experience and journey. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes from competitions and institutions including a Fromm Foundation Commission, Presser Foundation Award, 2013 American Prize, Sioux City Symphony Composer of the Year, 2012 Jacob Druckman Prize from the Aspen Music Festival, three BMI composer awards, 2014 Intimacy of Creativity Fellowship at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 2013-14 Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year, and was selected by Maestro Lorin Maazel as winner of the Composers Competition at the Castleton Festival. In 2015 Foumai served as the inaugural Kaplan Fellow in Composition at the Bowdoin International Music

BIMF: What are your earliest musical memories? What led you to be a composer?

Michael: The earliest musical memory I can remember was the night my parents bought a new car a very long time ago. It was a Ford Explorer and I was absolutely thrilled that the car had air conditioning and power windows. On the radio, Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees was on repeat. Something about that bass line still gets me excited about music; the beat, the groove, and the rhythm. It was visceral and made for an exciting and memorable first ride.

From a very young age I always wanted to create, to tell a story, or experience a story. I would build structures out of VHS tapes, a deck of cards, encyclopedia books and use them as props in epic sessions of make believe. Drawing was a favorite past time, and I would strive to create stories through art, Play-doh, buckets of water, anything and everything. I soon fell in love with movies and found that the music could have an overwhelming power to paint pictures, feelings, and abstract ideas that magnified the sentiments, even without the film. All of these childhood experiences have led me to where I am today, informing the way I feel, listen, and write music. I have a passion for good stories and music is the most satisfying medium to let my imagination flourish.

BIMF: Is there a single piece of music that has inspired you?

Michael: Not a single piece of music, but certainly a single composer; John Williams. The music he’s composed for film has always been an inspiration to me.

BIMF: If you could have a dinner party with three people, either living or dead, who would they be?

Michael: Three of my favorite storytellers of our age: John Williams, Christopher Nolan, and George R.R. Martin

BIMF: What is it like to live the life of a professional composer? What does the life of a musician look like day to day?

Michael: I have had a relatively young career so far as professional composer, but each day brings with it the challenge to be motivated. It’s not terribly exciting at all. There is a long list of music to be written and the life of the composer is a solitary activity. I spend a lot of time by myself thinking about the music I am writing. When I’m not actively composing, I’m teaching theory and composition at the University of Hawaii.

BIMF: Other than classical music, what do you listen to?

Michael: Film music.

BIMF: Why do you feel passionately about composing chamber music?

Michael: I’m very passionate about composing all kinds of music: orchestral, solo, and chamber. I feel strongly about chamber music because of the connection that the performers have with each other. I find the most engaging performances are those where I can visually see the communication, body language, and collective sound on stage. It’s an intimate affair and it certainly influences the music I write.

BIMF: You were BIMF’s very first Kaplan Fellow in composition. How has that experience helped shape your career since?

Michael: The experience has been profound. As a KF, I felt imbedded in the fabric of the festival, which brought the support and encouragement to compose at an elevated level. The festival created a community, a family for me, and a lifeline to have my work performed in the company of the brightest musical talents of our age.

Some would envy that I live in Hawaii, but being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can make it difficult to forge meaningful relationships, even in this digital age. The BIMF experience gives more than a simple introduction, but a platform to bond with extraordinary gifted artists, reconnect and strengthen older friendships, and chart new goals together. Since the Festival ended, I’ve had a composition premiered at Carnegie Hall, worked with many of the KF’s in putting together a concert in New York this past December, and I even have a few pieces in process for KF’s.

BIMF: How does it feel to have your compositions evolve from ideas to reality?

Michael: It’s thrilling. Having the music realized is truly satisfying. Musicians bring a wealth of greatness to any performance. Many of them have studied thousands of hours, years, and perform on exceptionally crafted instruments. Their experiences and their lives shape the way they perform their music and they bring that journey with them when performing my music.

The music conceived in the mind often behaves differently in the real world. Passages may need time to breath here or a tempo might need to be adjusted. The process of working with performers is, I dare say, much more exciting than the premiere itself! I love rehearsals and hearing the music being put together. Musicians often come with different ideas about articulation, phrasing, or meanings about the music, and I’m very much open to their interpretations since it gives me a different perspective.

BIMF: What is it like working with Festival faculty member Derek Bermel, Artistic Director of American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall?

Michael: Derek really gets music. He knows how it works, how it feels, and he is absolutely comfortable diving into a deep conversation about the state of programing in American orchestras or the oddities of feline behavior. He has a perceptive eye, sharp ear, and highly sophisticated mind, which make him fascinating to work with. Derek is always very approachable and remarkably spontaneous; I’ve never seen a person work a crowd quite like him. His many stories of travels and experiences are an education in and of themselves.

I was working on a devilishly difficult orchestral work and I reached a point where something felt wrong, but I couldn’t place a finger on what it was. He took a listen and had a simple suggestion; try fluctuating tempo. It was the perfect solution; it made the piece more dynamic with no major structural change. The result was a piece that felt more flexible, organic, and natural.

BIMF: What advice would you offer to an aspiring composer?

Michael: Keep on writing and never stop listening. Listen to all kinds of music; one new piece of music for each new day.

Check back soon for more student interviews…