MICHAEL-THOMAS FOUMAI (b.1987)
Fullmetal (2015), 12 minutes
Fullmetal was commissioned and first performed by the Iowa State University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jacob Harrison on February 19, 2016 in Ames, Iowa. The score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, piano, harp and strings.
Fullmetal is a homage to the genre of Japanese Anime. The title is derived from the manga series Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa, which weaves an epic tale of Edward and Alphonse Elric, young gifted brothers skilled in the art of alchemy. The catalyst of the drama stems from their botched attempt to resurrect a loved one, opening a Pandora’s Box and unleashing a septet of colossal evil, the homunculi (the seven deadly sins incarnate).
The music is a tone-poem, expressing the story in programatic detail, channeling the high energy that accompanies the saturation of hyper visuals so characteristic of anime. As the story begins, so does the music, with an enormous surge of energy, a crescendo of a minor harmony percolating in the strings. The brass are slowly mixed in as ingredients churning the harmony into a fleeting moment of major, a conjuring of a sonic spell. The crescendo explodes into a swirl of spellbinding music, woodwinds and glockenspiel spew forth shimmering needles and shards of chromatic notes. The trombones, tuba, cellos and bass growl in monstrous roars and the violins saw away in rapid-fire 16th notes as piston-firing metallic machinery.
Something is growing in this music, something wicked and unhinged. A steroidal fanfare in the trombones and tuba proclaim the main motivic theme, repeated punctuations followed by a minor third leap up and down. The music is cyclonic, kaleidoscopic, in a tailspin spiraling light and portents of doom asunder. The super-sonic speed, funnels a pyrotechnic sorcery bordering on a tight-rope, the spell is becoming too powerful to control, it is on the brink of meltdown.
A violent silence brings the spell to an end, but it is just the beginning, what hath it wrought? Starting in the basses and working through the cellos, violas, violins and then the rest of the orchestra body, an infection spreads, a musical virus. The theme slithers into a fugato swimming in dissonance and decaying with glissandi. This section of music is grotesque, with all shades of shadow crawling and distorting the musical image. Of the many profound and disturbing images the series presents, none so is the transformation of a loved one into an unspeakable sight of tangled gore and later, pure evil. Much of the music of Fullmetal is about transformation, from heroism to wickedness, evil to good, from agony to peace, and recklessness to responsibility. The attempt at resurrection fails and it comes at the steep cost of losing limbs and physical body. Restatements of the main theme build with intensity leading to battle-like music, a preview of the chaos to come as the brothers themselves transform, bonding to steel and metal. The percussion and the brass are on full display giving credence to the title, a full-court press of metallurgy.
The aftermath of the conjuring leaves one brother without a leg and arm (later to be replaced by robotic metal appendages), and the body of the other incinerated, his spirit incased into knight’s armor. These are graphic images, and the music mirrors this decimation. The theme once powerful and blazing, is distorted into screaming cries of shrieks, ripped into pieces, groaning, grasping between strings, winds and brass, a crawling orchestral creature. The carnage ultimately recedes into happier pastoral memories, lush with cascading scales recalling purer angelic times, innocence. This builds to the work’s catharsis and turning point, a new found purpose for the heroes they are to become.
The fleeting memory collapses and the final section bursts to the forefront with bass thumping in hyper techno music. In the dramatic narrative of the superhero story, this final stretch of music is when the heroes make their debut, in full regalia, where good and evil meet head on. Fury fuels the return of the theme first in the woodwinds, then in the strings and with abandonment, everything is thrown into the orchestral blender. A bombastic musical showdown ensues, knocking out with a power up and one final uppercut. © MTF
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on June 4-6, 2021.