What inspires an individual to create music? What leads someone down the path to becoming a professional musician? What is it that drives creation, transformation, and discovery? These are all questions explored in this new series, Beneath the Music; an interview series with a handful of Bowdoin’s most talented and hard-working students. This is your chance to peek behind the stage and witness the driving force behind all of the wonderful music we present each summer. For our first interview, we sit down with composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, our first Kaplan Fellow in composition.
The music of the 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 compositions as using many forms of musical language to construct a compelling 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, and 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: What are your earliest musical memories? What led you to be a composer?
Michael: The earliest musical memory I can remember was the night my parents bought a new car a very long time ago. It was a Ford Explorer and I was absolutely thrilled that the car had air conditioning and power windows. On the radio, Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees was on repeat. Something about that bass line still gets me excited about music; the beat, the groove, and the rhythm. It was visceral and made for an exciting and memorable first ride.
From a very young age I always wanted to create, to tell a story, or experience a story. I would build structures out of VHS tapes, a deck of cards, encyclopedia books and use them as props in epic sessions of make believe. Drawing was a favorite past time, and I would strive to create stories through art, Play-doh, buckets of water, anything and everything. I soon fell in love with movies and found that the music could have an overwhelming power to paint pictures, feelings, and abstract ideas that magnified the sentiments, even without the film. All of these childhood experiences have led me to where I am today, informing the way I feel, listen, and write music. I have a passion for good stories and music is the most satisfying medium to let my imagination flourish.
Casey: Is there a single piece of music that has inspired you?
Michael: Not a single piece of music, but certainly a single composer; John Williams. The music he’s composed for film has always been an inspiration to me.
Casey: If you could have a dinner party with three people, either living or dead, who would they be?
Michael: Three of my favorite storytellers of our age: John Williams, Christopher Nolan, and George R.R. Martin
Casey: What is it like to live the life of a professional composer? What does the life of a musician look like day to day?
Michael: I have had a relatively young career so far as professional composer, but each day brings with it the challenge to be motivated. It’s not terribly exciting at all. There is a long list of music to be written and the life of the composer is a solitary activity. I spend a lot of time by myself thinking about the music I am writing. When I’m not actively composing, I’m teaching theory and composition at the University of Hawaii.
Casey: Other than classical music, what do you listen to?
Michael: Film music.
Casey: Why do you feel passionately about composing chamber music?
Michael: I’m very passionate about composing all kinds of music: orchestral, solo, and chamber. I feel strongly about chamber music because of the connection that the performers have with each other. I find the most engaging performances are those where I can visually see the communication, body language, and collective sound on stage. It’s an intimate affair and it certainly influences the music I write.