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EarShot Alumni: Composer Spotlight - Michael-Thomas Foumai
Native Hawaiian violinist, violist, conductor and composer Michael-Thomas Foumai participated in the 2012 Underwood New Music Readings with his Concerto for Orchestra. ACO premiered Michael-Thomas' The Spider Thread at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall as part of the 2015 SONiC Festival, which I Care If You Listencalled "a quick and calculated piece filled with measured cacophony that never seemed to stay somewhere for too long." To help celebrate 25 years of New Music Readings organized by the ACO, Michael-Thomas answered these questions about his Underwood experience and what advice he gives currently participating composers.

American Composers Orchestra: What impact did your experience at the Underwood New Music Readings have on your career and voice as a composer?

Michael-Thomas Foumai: Having the orchestra read through my piece was just the tip of a larger learning experience. It was the first time I had a performance in New York City and it was remarkable to have a platform for introduction to the great music makers of our time. How everyone seemed to know everyone with the eagerness to meet other fellow musicians was extraordinary. Music survived and existed in these bonds of friendship and it very much oriented my perspective of music as a profession. The experience was also a proverbial turning point in thinking about and defining what I wanted to say and how I wanted say it. Three movements of my Concerto for Orchestra were read and it was piece that shared some semblance of language to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. In the discussions on aesthetics after the reading, mentor composer Steven Stucky preferred the middle movement because the outer movements were too close to Bartók. They were akin to a “space ship” flying very near a large sun, likely to be burned or be sucked into by its gravity and be burned. Suffice it to say, I took that to heart and have continued to strive for a careful pruning of the influences that comprise my voice. ACO: Since your Concerto for Orchestra was performed as part of Underwood in 2012, you have had more than a dozen other orchestral works performed across the country. What skills have become second nature as far as the process of getting a piece performed by an orchestra or symphony?

MTF: The careful preparation of score and parts for orchestral performance has become second nature that I apportion a descent amount of time for part engraving, extraction, proofing and printing. After the readings and session with Bill Holab on music engraving, I completely overhauled my formatting layouts so that the music would be clearer, legible, printed on quality paper, properly bound and proof read, re-proofed and many times again. Most orchestras do not have time to rehearse new pieces with the time they deserve, so the parts should aid the musicians with cues and other notations that eliminate the possibility of questions. It is tedious work that I admit is near drudgery, but I prefer to do my own parts since I can see what the musicians see. It might have been Bill who equated good part preparation to defensive driving or auto-insurance. Orchestras are an expensive enterprise so time really is money; errors in the parts eat up rehearsal time and lead to poor performance. ACO: What do you think is most beneficial about the Readings for up-and-coming composers?

MTF: The working experience of being a composer with a professional orchestra; there is no substitute for being in the “hot seat.” I implicitly remember being in an initial state of shock and awe at hearing the music for the first time and how difficult it was to focus on iterating any meaningful comments to the conductor. Many unthought-of questions and concerns arise from being present in a real-time situation, such as understanding how to evaluate the reading, prioritizing your feedback and navigating orchestral etiquette. The reading provides this experience and with the help of the mentor composers, one is enabled to take away answers and/or to formulate a way to work with an orchestra. ACO: What advice would you give this year's seven participants, both for the readings and beyond?

MTF: Keep an open mind. The musicians and mentor composers come with a combined experience of centuries of music making. Welcome their suggestions, criticism and praise, but especially their suggestions and criticism. I eventually find myself in total agreement down the road and reciprocating them to my students. Learn more about Michael-Thomas at

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