MICHAEL-THOMAS FOUMAI (b.1987)

Rat Race! (2007, rev. 2008, 2010, 2011, 2021), 7 minutes

Rat Race! was first performed by the Sioux City Symphony conducted by Ryan Haskins, on February 18, 2012 in Sioux City, Iowa. The score calls for flute and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp and strings.

Rat Race! is a homage to the Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack and the cartoons of Tom and Jerry. This high pursuit overture pulls every trick of the trade for the action summer showstopper and animated fantasy score. As the title suggests, this music is a game of cat and mouse, an orchestral chase and mouse hunt.

 

The opening gut punch, an explosion of screeching high strings and steroidal brass fanfare, lights the fuse to an orchestral fiasco, the first encounter of the animalia-kind. The sounds of pots and pans clanging and tumbling, flying saucers and broken teacups in a kitchen hijinks, will introduce the rodent prey and feline predator. The sounds of growls in the brass and hissing in the percussion will lead the music to a momentary pause. The explosive first contact leaves a wrecked landscape, an obliterated pantry, bent cutlery, overturned furniture and shattered porcelain. And so, the predator and prey begin their diabolic dance of hide and seek through a kitchen Armageddon.

 

Fragmented gestures that will build into an ostinato in the strings offer a stealthy change of pace. There will be many close calls in this music, cliffhangers and “gotcha” moments that spell a rat’s imminent doom. Sudden razor-sharp outbursts will alternate with lighter dainty and delicate woodwinds passages. This is music of animatic espionage, a mission rodentia, of watching and waiting, hunting and escaping. The orchestra navigates a maze of skewed corridors, mixed meters, with the zig-zag maneuvering of rhythmic syncopations. Repeated small gestures, motives, will build in layers as the dueling characters elevate their mayhem towards a towering inferno of countertops and bookshelves. The quick 16th notes of the marimba and xylophone, then later the violins, will illustrate an eloquent evasion of claws, the great escape of small feet sprinting and jumping from sink to floor, under tables, under the refrigerator, through cupboards, then out the window into the hustle and flow of city streets.

 

The sounds and rhythms of metropolitan traffic and construction will offer a gauntlet of sonic obstacles, expanding the hunting grounds, but leveling the playing field. A duo with tuba and solo violin, then wind pairs, will further speak to this passion of Mousekewitz and company. Horns will herald the lethal weapon, the killing claw, but the music will egress, something has survived, and the never-ending chase continues, leading to sustained brass chords and a stream of 16th notes. In 3/2 time, the tempo slows to exactly half speed, a musical bullet time, an in-camera panoramic zoom of rat and cat suspended mid-air, falling towards yet another new excursion through the busy symphonic motorways.

 

The work ends in maximum overdrive, with a breathtaking sprint towards a dairy liberty, but it is not to be for the rat. The horseplay ceases, ensnarled within paws, squeaks sputter, and one last Stravinsky-kissed scream in the strings yelp before the final blow of the claw descends, dinner is served. 

 

The life of the work has mimicked the so-called nine-lives of a cat and the Hollywood studio practice of releasing movies to the home video market with a Director’s Cut, Final Cut, Ultimate Cut, Producer’s Cut, Unrated, Uncut, Never Seen Before, Expanded, Re-mastered and Special Editions, through the format wars of VHS, Laser Disc, DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra-HD and now streaming. These versions, variations, and by extension the countless remakes, re-imaginings, spinoffs and sequel-prequels, have offered audiences, for better or worse, a more pristine look at the film property through the lens of updated technology. But above all, this revisionism is a unique opportunity for the director to improve, often without the strictures and oversight of studio magnets for the theatrical release.

 

Rat Race! was first composed in 2007 at the University of Hawaiʻi for an orchestral reading with the Honolulu Symphony conducted by Joan Landry, and titled Dance Diabolic. Further revisions were made for a second reading in 2008 conducted by Stuart Chafetz and retitled Overture Le Chat et La Souris (A Cat and Mouse Overture). Several more revisions would follow and in 2012, the Sioux City Symphony would give the official world premiere of the work retitled Rat Race!. Conductor Ryan Haskins would request that the ending finale be extended by 10 to 12 more bars and this ending has been retained. The Sheraton Starlight Series offered a near decade retrospective since the premiere, and an opportunity for remastering of the orchestration, a Lucas-like updating of the special effects, a Rat Race! in Ultra-High Definition, so to speak. And so, further revisions were made especially for this performance, Bon Appétit. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on July 9-11, 2021.