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Music from the Castle of Heaven (2015), 15 minutes

Michael-Thomas Foumai was born in 1987 in Honolulu, Hi. Music from the Castle of Heaven was first performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, on February 3, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp and strings.

The genesis of Music from the Castle of Heaven would appear to take divine inspiration, though its title and creation are grounded in earthlier origins. The idea of a work inspired by the heavens can be traced back to 2014, to a book-store in Ann Arbor, Michigan and a chance encounter with a composer and a newly published book on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. That book was titled, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by the conductor Sir John Elliot Gardiner. The title would ignite a firestorm of creative thought. Returning to Hawaiʻi in 2015, the crisp skies and fluffy clouds of paradise, would stimulate the composer to pen the music to the title of that book, found in a store 4,000 miles away.


Inspired by the poetry of the title, born was the idea of a symphonic music illustrating sound emanating from the cloud structures that formed the soft cream-whipped castles of the stratosphere. A tone-poem, there are three main musical “clouds” at play: 1. atmospheric harmonic music that mirrors the amorphous ever-changing structure of clouds, 2. music that evokes and is inspired by the heavenly spiritual realms including liturgical music, Gregorian chant, organ music and the music of Bach’s name, and 3. the sonic world of the avian angels and messenger muses, the birds. 


The work unfolds with these three clouds of music overlapping and morphing in and out, just as clouds transform into pictorial familiarities. Large chordal sonorities of instrumental families ebb and flow, and the sound of a great cathedral organ will come through in these mass sounds that are colored with chromatic filigree, birdsong. Winds and gusts will push and pull at these floating sound islands with currents of a motive derived from a four-pitched tetragrammaton of a musical almighty, BACH: Bb,A,C and H(B-natural).


A Gregorian chant-like melody will make an appearance in the violins, then the cellos, enveloped by cascading sweeps and chirps of the woodwinds before dissipating into large orchestral gestures, waves of sonic light. The smooth gliding flight becomes turbulent as the brass speak in a vox dei.  The trades are on the move, commanded by ascending trills, a cyclone, a stairway unveiled. The vision is fleeting and gale force winds propel the flight towards a monsoon of thunder and lightning.


The storm is brief, and string chords unveil a clarity of cerulean blue. The clear sky mirrors the still crystal oceans below. Murmurations at the highest heavens mimic schools of aqua-life in the deepest of blues, colored with quick arpeggiations in the woodwinds and harp. Amid the sound of distant cathedral bells, a return to softer mysterious music provides a study in cumulus structure. Instruments enter staggered in pyramid formation creating harmony, castles, as different shades of light emanate in halos from solo wind passages and muted brass.


A brief silence will commence a great unveiling, a long crescendo, it is the flutter of butterfly wings that will turn into a vortex. Beginning with vibraphone and winds, beams of light peak through with subtly, then shimmers scatter as instruments join in as a flock. Through prisms of clouds, torrents of wind, rain and light cascade in a deluge of orchestral scale figures amidst oceanic brass swells. The clouds part and the cellos and then the strings, chant a full melody, a towering castle, a nimbus of light, a rainbow body. 


The brief glimpse of divinity at the start, returns in messianic proportions as the strings and brass chant melodies in a global cathedral, an offertorium. There is a resounding in the heavens and the visage of a portal appears, a stairway of trills on the threshold of being crossable, ever ascending into clear radiance. Yet, the doorway is open for the briefest of moments before the cyclone returns towards an earthier trajectory. The softest of string sonorities will emerge from the downward spiral, caressing harp, vibraphone and wind-like sputters, glimmers and murmurs of a stellar kingdom. There is a deep color in this concluding music that ponders in awe, the vastness of the evening sky with the darkest oceanic abyss; gateways to realms and monuments of still tranquility and natural fury, unreachable, visible yet invisible, lit by the undersea life and splendor of celestial starlight. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on June 11-13, 2021.

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