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BENEATH THE MUSIC: BIMF Interview with Michael-Thomas Foumai (Part 2)

Yesterday we sat down with composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, our first Kaplan Fellow in composition, and spoke about musical influences, inspirations, and memories. Today, we continue the conversation and explore how Michael’s life has changed in the time following the Festival. (Read Part 1 )

The music of this Hawaii-born composer has been described as “vibrant…cinematic” (New York Times) and “full of color, drama and emotion” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). Foumai is inspired by storytelling and he describes his music as using many forms of musical language to construct a compelling musical experience and journey. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes from competitions and institutions including a Fromm Foundation Commission, Presser Foundation Award, 2013 American Prize, Sioux City Symphony Composer of the Year, 2012 Jacob Druckman Prize from the Aspen Music Festival, three BMI composer awards, 2014 Intimacy of Creativity Fellowship at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 2013-14 Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year, was selected by Maestro Lorin Maazel as winner of the Composers Competition at the Castleton Festival. In 2015 Foumai served as the inaugural Kaplan Fellow in Composition at the Bowdoin International Music

Casey: You were BIMF’s very first Kaplan Fellow in composition. How has that experience helped shape your career since?

Michael: The experience has been profound. As a KF, I felt imbedded in the fabric of the festival, which brought the support and encouragement to compose at an elevated level. The festival created a community, a family for me, and a lifeline to have my work performed in the company of the brightest musical talents of our age.

Some would envy that I live in Hawaii, but being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can make it difficult to forge meaningful relationships, even in this digital age. The BIMF experience gives more than a simple introduction, but a platform to bond with extraordinary gifted artists, reconnect and strengthen older friendships, and chart new goals together. Since the Festival ended, I’ve had a composition premiered at Carnegie Hall, worked with many of the KF’s in putting together a concert in New York this past December, and I even have a few pieces in process for KF’s.

Casey: How does it feel to have your compositions evolve from ideas to reality?

Michael: It’s thrilling. Having the music realized is truly satisfying. Musicians bring a wealth of greatness to any performance. Many of them have studied thousands of hours, years, and perform on exceptionally crafted instruments. Their experiences and their lives shape the way they perform their music and they bring that journey with them when performing my music.

The music conceived in the mind often behaves differently in the real world. Passages may need time to breath here or a tempo might need to be adjusted. The process of working with performers is, I dare say, much more exciting than the premiere itself! I love rehearsals and hearing the music being put together. Musicians often come with different ideas about articulation, phrasing, or meanings about the music, and I’m very much open to their interpretations since it gives me a different perspective.

Casey: What is it like working with Festival faculty member Derek Bermel, Artistic Director of American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall?

Michael: Derek really gets music. He knows how it works, how it feels, and he is absolutely comfortable diving into a deep conversation about the state of programing in American orchestras or the oddities of feline behavior. He has a perceptive eye, sharp ear, and highly sophisticated mind, which make him fascinating to work with. Derek is always very approachable and remarkably spontaneous; I’ve never seen a person work a crowd quite like him. His many stories of travels and experiences are an education in and of themselves.

I was working on a devilishly difficult orchestral work and I reached a point where something felt wrong, but I couldn’t place a finger on what it was. He took a listen and had a simple suggestion; try fluctuating tempo. It was the perfect solution; it made the piece more dynamic with no major structural change. The result was a piece that felt more flexible, organic, and natural.

Casey: What advice would you offer to an aspiring composer?

Michael: Keep on writing and never stop listening. Listen to all kinds of music; one new piece of music for each new day.

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