For Michael-Thomas Foumai, an Indigenous composer from Hawai’i, writing works like Paniolo Credo specifically for student ensembles is a deeply personal mission that reflects his desire to create the music he saw missing from the classical landscape when he was growing up, to draw connections between people and to encourage youth to explore and create through music.
“Young musicians are the future of music; composing for them is paramount to instilling a curiosity to explore the music of their time from the start of their musical journey,” Mr. Foumai says. “Moreover, it’s the gateway that may spark a musician to become a composer, an opportunity to think of music as a way to communicate.
Foumai’s piece is one of three pieces by living composers who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color, that were commissioned by DCYOP and several partners and played this winter and spring by DCYOP students. Undiscovered Pathways, by local composer and University of Maryland student, Adrian B. Sims, was given its world premiere at our winter concert last December. Two more new works, A Retirada by Clarice Assad and Paniolo Credo by Mr. Foumai, will be given their world and East Coast premieres respectively at this month’s end of season concerts.
The commissioned works are the result of a partnership with the K-12 New Music Project and a grant from the League of American Orchestras to the University of Maryland’s National Orchestra Institute + Festival, led by our own Maestro Richard Scerbo. DCYOP has worked with Prince George’s County Public Schools, and the Hawai’i Youth Symphony to commission and perform the works, written specifically for student ensembles.
For Mr. Foumai, writing for young people started when he himself was a young person.
“I was 13, and it was a hobby just for myself. I created musical stories about the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Arabian Nights, the Aztecs, the wild west, and the Egyptian pharaohs. Once I gathered the courage to share my music with friends, they wanted to play it. So, I composed and arranged substantially for my high school and youth orchestra. I wrote what sounded cool and wasnʻt thinking if this music was playable—and much of it was beyond our technical capabilities—but it was music as a young musician that was electrifying. I wanted to perform it and share it. This kind of music wasn’t in the school music library; it had to be written.
“I hope my music will introduce and share the fascinating histories and stories of my Hawai’i home, cultivate curiosity to explore metaphors in music, and listen to how musical ideas are connected and developed over time.”
Clarice Assad also draws deeply from her roots to inspire young people to appreciate the full diversity of their own family traditions and cultures.
“I am originally from Brazil and have a deep sense of connection with its music,” she shares. “It is a huge country, with distinct regions, each with their own rich cultures, traditions, music, and dance. However, so little of it is known outside of Brazil – and even in the Brazil of more recent years, generations that grew up in the era of globalization have a tendency to mirror the dominating culture, which has been for decades, rooted in the pop culture of the US.”
In her opinion, the homogenization of different cultures can lead us to lose sight of what empowers us to flourish.
“In a cultural sense, when we only get exposed to one type of genre or music, we might become too narrow-minded, and never get past a set level of awareness,” she says.
Exploring and sharing her love for her Brazilian heritage with others has been one way that this prolific artist has continued to grow as a composer, especially when it comes to writing for students.
“I love engaging with young minds, and I learn a lot from every exchange,” she says. “Writing for young students is amazing because it makes my creative process a lot more conscious such as finding the balance between accessibility, and fun, for example. I put a lot of energy into making sure every single part has something interesting and meaningful to play.”
In addition to the works by Ms. Assad and Mr. Foumai that have come to us through K-12 New Music Project, DCYOP is also giving the long-awaited world premiere of Sulwe, an orchestral adaptation of the children’s book by actress and activist, Lupita Nyong’o, by award-winning music producer, educator and composer, Kerwin Young. The project was first conceived back in late 2019 shortly after the book was published.
“I wanted to write something that was relevant to now. Sulwe was a fresh book, maybe out only two weeks. I like to do things that no one is thinking of.”
Inspired by the message of Ms. Nyong’o’s book, it took Mr. Young less than three months to write his piece for full orchestra.
“I wanted to highlight Sulwe’s relationship with nature, and then capture the process of how she came to terms with self-acceptance in the book, going from self-doubt to self-love. I developed different motific ideas and had to work to link them up but still make it fun and playable for youth orchestra.”
While most people may know Mr. Young as an award-winning, multi-platinum, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recording producer for legendary Hip-Hop artists such as Public Enemy and Ice Cube, he notes that composing was always a part of his job. In addition to years of intensive self-study, Mr. Young returned to college later in life to formally study composition with Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Bobby Watson, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, where he earned both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. For over thirty years now, he has composed and produced a wide range of original works for film, television and the concert stage. No matter what format he is writing for, Mr. Young stays true to ideas at the core of his vision for a new piece.
“Whatever subject I choose, I like for that to be the seed that I’m going to get my ideas from. When I’m sketching and writing, it’s solely based on the subject I’m dealing with but when I go to orchestrate it, then I might bring some jazz elements into how I want to voice some chords. I like a lot of crunchy stuff so I might put some ninths in there. For the most part I take myself out of it.”
Having established an incredible, multi-faceted career through passion, hard work, and determination, Mr. Young’s advice to young musicians looking to pave their own career path in music is heartfelt but frank.
“Learn all of the music. Include all the music that you’re interested in learning and learn it. Just dive into all of it and connect it. It shouldn’t be separated. Learn the business, learn about music publishing if you want to create. And don’t give up because it’s going to be difficult, there’s going to be a lot of people who put roadblocks up in your way for no apparent reason just because they can. You gotta keep at it.”
DCYOP’s Youth Orchestra and Youth Philharmonic will be performing the world premieres of Clarice Assad’s A Retirada and Kerwin Young’s Sulwe: A Musical Adaptation, as well as the East Coast premiere of Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Paniolo Credo, on May 15th at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts. The Youth Orchestra will also be performing Sulwe on its tour of Spain and Portugal this summer.