MICHAEL-THOMAS FOUMAI (b.1987)
The Telling Rooms (2018), 12'
I. The Happiest Color
II. Dressed in Red
II. Ink Wash
The Telling Rooms was first performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eckart Preu on January 27, 2019 in Portland, Maine. The work is scored
for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp and strings.
As a noun, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary provides “color” with fifteen definitions, from its premiere entry as a phenomenon of light, to the pigmentation of skin, and to the final entry that speaks to the hypothetical property of “quarks.” Color’s role in the human experience is profound. With directness and subtly, it has the power to unearth childhood, conjure atmosphere, unite or set one group against another, satiate hunger with joy or sadness, or to starve with a monochrome of deprivation.
Commissioned in collaboration with the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the Portland writing center Telling Room, The Telling Rooms is based on selected entries from the Telling Room’s annual Writing Contest for young Maine students. Given the prompt of “color,” entrants were asked to create prose or poetry that dealt with color, to ask questions of it, to explore its associations on personal or communal levels of experience. Many of the entries captured rare shades and social perspectives, challenging the traditional meanings of color. From ten finalist, three entries were selected. These three spoke of different colors, each in their unique literary voice and experience, and would form an orchestral triptych, an expression of their poetry through music. In three movements, a movement for each poem, each is conceived as a different room with a different color, a room in which the walls would talk, a room that tells a story to the visitors holding its space.
In Aubrey Duplissie’s The Happiest Color, tender then tragic memories are triggered by a nameless color, a literary haunting, a ghost in the words. The color is never mentioned by name, but there is no mystery to what it is. The association of the objects that possess its hue, unveil’s it name, and the narrative will reveal the secret of its absence. Opening with a series of seven “color” chords first in the trombones, it will appear in different parts of the orchestra, just as the protagonist recognizes the color appearing in different objects. Accompanying these color chords are dashes of sparkling percussion and a continuous flow of eighth notes in the violins. These colors will also travel through the orchestra, undertaking the same timbral excursion. The journey begins tenderly, timeless, softly and with majestic simplicity, sparsely orchestrated, but like the prose, it mirrors a sense of loss and will roar from the whispers. The meaning of this happy color transforms from the singular into a very grounded duality. The music swells into glorious catharsis at its peak as more instruments are layered, but it will be tinged with acidity, it is bittersweet. This is music that strives to capture a glimpse of the happiest color, the color of sorrow, the color of healing, the color of life and loss.
The Happiest Color
It was the jacket
That defended the boy
From cascading rain, while
Mother observed from foggy windows
It coated the bus
He rode for the first time
While his parents watched,
Hand in hand
It was there on sweltering summer days,
Within his lemonade stand,
And staining his mother’s hands
From hours of squeezing
Then it was the fish
In the aquarium,
But he focused on a girl,
And it was her hair too
It was the diamond danger sign
His car skidded past,
The wheels screeching
As they fought to stay on course
It was the color left,
Scratched onto the guardrail
When it split in two
And his car went tumbling down
When his mother learned
She was sitting in a room
Of that color
And it filled her vision
It tortured her with memories
Of a boy she once had
As her stomach turned
And terrible words filled her ears
It was the dappled leaves,
Falling from the heavens
Exactly one year later
It was his favorite color
That now graced the earth
She didn’t know how to feel
© Aubrey Duplissie
Discordant harmonies shadow the second movement based on Husna Quinn’s Dressed in Red, framing a portrait of family secrets and a glimpse of infidelity viewed through the eyes of a child. A pair of clarinets open the movement as two characters in a forbidden intimate embrace. A recurring 5-pitch pattern that forms a skewed ostinato, will offer the perspective of the silent witness, the child. First plucked in the violins, it is playful, innocent and curious. In this “room,” the music will revolve around this pattern, and the narrative of a carnal crimson betrayal will come through in its transformation, stretching and contracting in length, removing and adding notes, and splitting the line in interlocking alternation between pairs of instruments. If there is symbolism in music, this development may hold a glimpse of processing and the making sense of a situation difficult to comprehend, it is the breaking of promises, vows, familial bonds, a loss of innocence. Much of the music is stealthy, unfolding delicately as though hiding and witnessing, observing something unspeakable. All shades of purity are smothered with the stillness of static harmony. Low bassoons gurgle and high woodwinds flourish frenetically with accented gestures, searing glimpses of unfaithful flesh colors. At the peak, the brass and the whole of the orchestra will the spin the ostinato into a dizzying kaleidoscopic nightmare of corrupting colors. The movement ends softly, but the insidious colors linger, an afterimage of sanguine dark blinding events, a silent scream for a silent witness.
Dressed in Red
The tapping of her scarlet
fills the family room.
Her radiant red
the faded gray shapes
of objects surrounding her.
from just outside the door
follows her coal black eyes.
Glimpsing at the art
attached to the wall
she halts her steps,
ambling toward a conflicting frame.
Unlike the others,
neat rows of traditional prints—
drummers, dancers, and artists—
the family portrait
scarcely hangs onto the wall.
The left side of her faint red lip
as she observes the smiling faces
trapped in the photograph.
Her aura breathes “vile stepmother”
but her attire screams “fleeting lover.”
As I watch from my post
in the black shadows,
my father saunters toward her
and embraces her pear-like body.
He pecks her red lips,
and rests his head on her neck.
It is a scene so natural and tender,
yet it has failed with my mother.
I close my eyes to them
and imagine my mother coming home
later that night.
With rehearsed countenance
she will imprison my father
in her arms.
She will hold him, and hold him,
for our validation of the embrace.
Detecting a lipstick blemish,
she will discreetly scold my father
advising him to be
in the children’s presence.
I open my eyes and see
the color drained from the room,
the portrait still crooked
on the wall.
© Husna Quinn
Where the first two rooms explored singular colors and shades, the third and final movement based on Eliza Rudalevige’s Ink Wash, serves a dish of swirls with a palette of the senses. There is a game-like ordering to the listing of pigments paired with sensory descriptors. The prose exudes a sucrose-laced liturgy that would find welcome in a box of Crayola. It begins with a series of descending triads and trumpet fanfare, the commencing of a tour de technicolor, an orchestral tournament. Think of the instrumental families as primary colors, the contestants in this vivid gauntlet and the occupants of a chromatic factory of super saturated dyes. Each are introduced in exuberant fanfare, vying to be the prized and coveted winner. A game of Twister kicks off, and much of the music will explore these families outmaneuvering each other, hopscotch-ing, jumping over and under, through hoops of syncopation and mixed meter obstacles. © MTF
She knew how every color tasted and blue was her favorite.
Blues like moistly misty mornings,
mosquitos dancing in a haze of left-over campfire and condensation.
Blue settled softly over sloped tents
then fading into husky, grass-fed violet
the same color as lavender fields at dawn
where sheep with wool like kindness roam over the stubble.
Violet, second only to blue
and orange third only to violet;
midday skies and crushed grapes and papaya curry
swirled in a cacophony of pigment,
a tinted tornado.
Thunderous green emerges with eyes like jade set in enamel.
Lily pad green,
pine trees in the morning green,
fading into lemon-scented freshness and
spraying light like fresh juice.
Then the white.
Pillowcases hanging on the line to shed their creases.
Salt crystals on her upper lip after soaks in the sea
where jellies float as soft as snow
and rest their sting on unsuspecting knees.
peach fuzz white,
every color compressed into a single prick of white:
violet, orange, yellow, green.
Yes, blue was her favorite,
but she savored every one.
© Eliza Rudalevige
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on August 13-15, 2021.