This week, we talk to Hawaii-born Michael Thomas Foumai, one of the six Composer Fellows, about their music and their lives, in the lead up to one of Hong Kong’s most exciting events.
When did you first hear about the IC?
I first heard about it from Bright when I was a student, first-year, and he had told me about it but I was too young to apply at that time. The age requirement was 25 years old and I was 22, so I had to wait a while. It was my first time applying. I’ve always wanted to go to Hong Kong. I’ve never been there. Bright had told me it was a really exciting thing where you work very intimately with performers and you’re expected to change your piece and I thought that was very compelling.
Did you have a habit of asking for other people’s opinions on your music?
Not really. I will usually go to rehearsal and have a piece ready, and performers will usually ask me if there was anything that I want changed. Usually it’s not the other way round, but if I work with a soloist, I would ask them, “Is there something that could be easier? And is there any changes that would make you sound better?” Sometimes if they sound like they’re struggling with the piece, maybe I didn’t do my job right. What can I do better? So they’ll give me a suggestion here and there, and it really helps fix things.
Are you looking forward? Nervous?
I’m actually quite nervous and scared, because I don’t know what to expect. I usually write very difficult music, so I’m expecting to get a lot of feedback on techniques. [My music has] a lot of notes, very technically difficult to play. That’s just me, I really like to write music that’s very flashy, fast, lots of notes.
Do you play any instruments?
My mom is a pianist and she also plays organ for our church. My sister played clarinet, she was in a band, also a pianist. They tried to get me to do piano lessons when I was very young but I absolutely hated it. I have a lot of stage fright and I could not get used to having two hands doing the same thing, it was like they had independent lives. So I dropped the piano, but when I entered middle school, I could either go to band or orchestra and I found myself in the orchestra playing violin.
I played the violin and viola very regularly until maybe four years ago when I started grad school and stopped. Now I’m mostly a composer, composing music so other people can perform it. I did have to perform my piece once, and I had to revise it quite a bit.
When did you want to become a composer?
I started my musical study when I was about 12 or 13 years old. That’s just around the time when I picked up the violin, and I also kind of picked up composing too. I first tried composing with a computer software that could only write piano music. I did that for a long time until I outgrew it, and wanted to find another program that would allow me to write more than just piano music. I wanted a full orchestra score. So I got my hands on one, and I basically played around with it for a very long time.
I also love film music, and I always wanted to see the music scores but I could never get my hands on them. So what I would do was to listen to the soundtracks and then I would write everything I heard, or tried to write, and that really helped to train my ears.
How different is the mentality of a composer and a player?
It’s very different. Even if as a conductor, or even as an audience member it is very different. For a performer, you experience the music differently. Time seems to go a lot quicker. You approach the music-making in terms of executing what the composer’s intent is; but at the same time, you’re also much more physical because you’re feeling the notes, you’re playing it.
For me, it was a really big divide as a composer, to separate myself from that. I myself experience my music first as a performer. I play my own music as a section by violin. As soon as I was in the audience, listening to my piece, there’s a huge disconnect because then you don’t feel that physicality of actually playing notes. And time actually goes slower. So it’s always interesting, because when I’m in the audience, I think my piece sounds less exciting, but when I’m playing it I find it more exciting.
Tell us a bit about your composition process for your piece, Scat.
Before I start composing, I do a lot of reading. I try to find something that I write to, like a story or a piece of artwork, I spend maybe a month or a couple of weeks just thinking about, or looking for something that would really grab me. Then I try to find music material that would speak to me and match that thread.
I wrote Scat two years ago and at that time I really wanted to incorporate jazz elements. Scat comes from scat singing, a kind of jazz improvised singing on nonsense syllables, and I thought, instruments really do the same thing. There are syllables to the tones that they play, but they don’t quite really mean anything to us, and I thought that connection was really compelling.
I was writing this piece in between moving, so I wrote half of it in a hotel room. And for some reason, someone’s alarm clock would always go off while I was writing it. Their alarm clock sounded like a cuckoo, a cuckoo call. And so I actually have a lot of that cuckoo motif running throughout the piece.
Are there parts of Scat that you’re already thinking about changing?
There are parts that I really am curious about. There are several sections where every time I look at it, or I hear a performer, I think I can do a better job but I don’t know what to do about it. And there are some sections where I think it’s just great, and I don’t want to change a thing about it. But who knows?
I would try, I would take the advice. I always try things because you never know what might happen. But I know it will be really difficult. The worst thing that people have told me is that you have to cut this section. And my first reaction is no, I spent hours on that, I’m not just going to take it out.
With all the advice that I’ve been given, where people have asked me to change things in my music, I don’t always want to do it, I get very attached to it. But I find that if I just tried, something comes out, something for the better, something I didn’t think about reveals itself.
What other projects do you have on your hands?
Right now I have three projects. I’m working on my dissertation, finishing up on my BMA here at Michigan, which is a piece for string orchestra and cello.
I also have two other commissions, one from the Wellesley Composers’ Conference which happens in May. That’s where I’m writing a wind quintet with a trumpet part, and it’s a really interesting challenge because the piece is basically meant for amateur players, so it’s a challenge to write music that’s not too difficult but still very interesting to play and listen to. I’ll be in residence at Wellesley coming July and August to work and conduct the musicians in two performances.
The last project is still in the works, but it’s a piece for 13 instruments that’s modeled after Copland’s Appalachian Springs and it’s meant to pay homage to that piece, but also bring to it something that’s part of my own Hawaiian culture.
Bang! – Michael-Thomas Foumai
Visions (Violin Concerto) – Michael-Thomas Foumai